APHIS Public Comment Period Open for Deregulating Transgenic American Chestnut

A birds-eye view of the American chestnut forest restoration site. (from Cornell Alliance For Science site).


And now for something completely different…

For the last 30 or so years, the Chestnut People (people who want to restore American Chestnut) have been engaged in such a horse race. There were backcrosses to Chinese chestnut, which is resistant to Chestnut Blight.  There were folks trying to breed apparently resistant American Chestnuts to each other.  Finally, there were folks trying genetic engineering. At some point, they all got together to form what The American Chestnut Foundation calls 3BUR  :Breeding, Biotechnology and Biocontrol United for Restoration.

So here we are.. there is a specific tree called Darling 58  which is in a public comment period to be deregulated by APHIS, so that it can be planted like any other tree.  The idea is then to cross the GE trees with local chestnuts to develop regionally adapted and diverse populations.  Meanwhile another horse has entered the field called CRISPR , who might ultimately beat them all. If the last 30 years have taught us anything, it is that intervention is required to restore the Chestnut and the transgenic horse is the only one likely to finish (not just win) the race.

There’s a lengthy and interesting NY Times Magazine article by Gabriel Potkin on the history and development here:.  I thought it might be interesting to look at the arguments against deregulation.

But Brenda Jo McManama, an organizer with a group called the Indigenous Environmental Network, points to a 2010 agreement in which Monsanto licensed two gene-modifying patents to the New York chapter of the chestnut foundation and its collaborating institutions. (Powell says that industry contributions, including from Monsanto, have amounted to less than 4 percent of his work’s total funding.) McManama suspects Monsanto (acquired by Bayer in 2018) surreptitiously seeks to patent future iterations of the tree by supporting what appears to be an altruistic project. “Monsanto is evil,” she says flatly.

Powell says the patents in the 2010 agreement have since expired, and by publishing the details of his tree in the scientific literature, he has ensured it can’t be patented. But he realizes that will not allay all concerns. “I know some people are going to say, You’re just a Monsanto shill,” he says. “What can you do? You can’t help that.”

About five years ago, leaders at the American Chestnut Foundation concluded that they couldn’t achieve their goals through crossbreeding alone and embraced Powell’s genetic-engineering program. That decision has caused some rifts. In March 2019, Lois Breault-Melican, the president of the Massachusetts-Rhode Island chapter of the foundation, resigned, citing arguments made by the Global Justice Ecology Project, an anti-genetic-engineering organization based in Buffalo; her husband, Denis Melican, also left the board. The couple is particularly concerned that Powell’s chestnut could prove to be a “Trojan horse” that clears the way for other commercially grown trees supercharged by genetic engineering, Denis told me.

Susan Offutt, an agricultural economist who served as chair of a National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine committee that produced a 2018 study of biotechnology in forests, noted that the government’s regulatory process focuses on narrow questions of biological risk and almost never accounts for broader societal concerns like those raised by anti-G.M.O. activists. “What about the intrinsic value of the forest?” she asks, as an example of a question the process does not address. “Do forests have their own merit? Do we have a moral obligation to take that into account when we make decisions about intervening?”

Most scientists I spoke with see little reason to fear Powell’s tree, given the profound disruptions forests have already endured: logging, mining, development and a relentless influx of tree-destroying insects and diseases, among which chestnut blight has proved to be a kind of opening act. “We’re introducing new whole organisms all the time,” says Gary Lovett, a forest ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y. The transgenic chestnut “would have less of an impact than that.”

Donald Waller, a forest ecologist recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, goes further. “I sketched out a little balance with risks on one side and rewards on the other, and I just kept scratching my head over the risks” that this transgenic tree could pose to the forest, he told me. By contrast, “the side of the page under the rewards is just spilling over with ink.” A blight-resistant chestnut would finally notch a victory for the embattled forest, he says. “People need hope. People need symbols.”

So there are two forest ecologists who are OK with it.

An ag economist who was the Chair of an NAS panel (on Forest Health and Biotechnology? Well, OK)  raises questions about the APHIS regulatory system which fall into the realm of  moral philosophy.

Folks who think the  (possibly bad) “commercial forest industry” is using this as a Trojan Horse.  For the last twenty years, I’ve been saying transgenic  trees just aren’t practical for forest industry and perhaps I’m right -as none have shown up.

and “Monsanto is evil”? It’s hard to think of TACF-chestnut restoration enthusiasts- or professors at SUNY ESF for that matter, as evil.

It’s really hard for me to see any bad guys here.  If you don’t want them, fine. But there seems to be some needless enemizing going on.

I’m with the forest ecologists here, and will be submitting my comments. Here’s a link to further information on how to comment via TACF.


Working Together for Decarbonization: Interview with Michael Webber

Decarbonization can be framed as fundamentally an engineering problem. If you frame the problem that way, the solution clearly lies with .. engineers. This is an interview that Tisha Shuller (an Environment Without Enemies heroine) conducted with Dr. Michael Webber of University of Texas, who is currently on assignment working for ENGIE in Paris, France. It’s part of the Energy Thinks podcast series.

If you’re a techy at heart you’ll enjoy his review of current technologies, and what they can do, can’t do, and may be able in the future to do. He also dives into the international scene from the small-scale (there’s not enough organic material in Saudi Arabia to do biogas) to health impacts (4 million people die due to indoor air pollution from solid fuels in Africa) to really big changes in carbon that would result from substituting natural gas for coal in India and China.

As in Webber’s essay in Mechanical Engineering, he talks about how this is an “all hands on deck” moment for climate, and we are “better rowing together in the same boat in the same direction.” We need everybody, but it’s hard to take leadership towards a future vision that does not include you.

This might remind you of the timber or grazing workers/industry (“Oil consumption is as much about demand as supply”), or the “vision that does not include you” might resonate with OHV or MB folks. Anyway, I recommend the entire podcast, but if you don’t have much time (or aren’t interested in technology) try his essay in Mechanical Engineering linked above. The excerpt below is from that essay.

Humans are hard-wired for fairness. We feel satisfied when everyone gets their just reward and are outraged when we discover cheating. But that innate desire for justice can get in the way of solving our biggest challenges.

Take climate change: When scientists and environmental activists take stock of the mess we are in, the oil and gas sector is a handy villain. For people tapping into their instinct for retribution, the petroleum industry ought to be punished for the damage it has caused and cut out from any opportunity to participate in the upcoming transition to a clean energy economy. To activists who have made climate change a top priority, anything less feels like inviting an arsonist to help put out the fire.

As with everything, however, the truth is more nuanced.

If tackling climate change is something we want to do quickly and with as little social disruption as possible, then the oil and gas industry is, in fact, a critical partner. Petroleum companies have some of the deepest pockets and most technically capable workforces around.

Is there a way to work with them, rather than against them, to promote a low-carbon future?

Unquestionably, many oil and gas companies have been bad actors. At best, the petroleum industry has ignored the problem while making a profit off the products that worsened the situation. At worst, it actively worked to delay action by funding misinformation campaigns or lobbying to delay policy action.

But blaming the industry leaves out our own culpability for our consumptive, impactful lifestyles. Oil consumption is as much about demand as supply.

Rather than finding someone to blame, let’s look for who can help.

Sound familiar?

The Bipartisan REPLANT Act- Does Everyone Agree?

Forest Service crew plants trees. Michael Giagio, Colorado Springs Gazette

Thanks to NAFSR for their post about this. Does everyone think this proposed legislation is a good thing?
Off the top of my head, I can only think that the folks who are currently collecting the monies (if there are any such people) might not like it. Or perhaps that the difference currently goes into the Treasury which does need the funds. Still, it doesn’t seem like a lot of money, relatively speaking (a billion here and a billion there..).

Here are the introducers of the bill: Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-CA), Congressman Mike Simpson (R-ID), Congresswoman Kim Schrier, M.D. (D-WA), and Congressman Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) introduced the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees Act or the REPLANT Act, legislation to expand funding for the U.S. I don’t know if it’s going anywhere but…

Repairing Existing Public Lands by Adding Necessary Trees
The REPLANT Act would:
• Remove the cap on the reforestation trust fund, so that the Forest Service would receive all the monies generated from imported wood products and lumber tariffs.
o The Forest Service currently receives $30 million/year for the Reforestation Trust Fund. The yearly authorization for the Reforestation Trust Fund has not increased since it was established 40 years ago.
o Monies are generated from imported wood products and lumber tariffs. The 10-year annual average amount of tariffs collected on those products is nearly $124 million per year ($309 million in 2019).
o The Reforestation Trust fund provides most of the funding for post-disturbance reforestation on national forests. Reforestation needs caused by wildfire, insects and disease, and weather events have increased and collectively account for 85% of reforestation needs on national forests.
o To address our current and anticipated reforestation needs over the next 10 years, it is estimated to cost approximately 1.8 billion, or $183 million annually.
o Raising or eliminating the cap on the reforestation trust fund would help to close the funding gap and enable the Agency to more fully address reforestation and stand improvement needs across the national forests.
• Require the Chief to work with the Regional Foresters to create a list of priority reforestation projects to promote effective reforestation following unplanned events;
• Emphasize using Stewardship contracting and Good Neighbor Agreement authorities to conduct reforestation activities and directs the Forest Service to quantify the backlog of
replanting needs; and
• Require an annual report to Congress on progress and number of acres in need of reforestation.

To read the full version of the Bill, click on this link

Unifying the Country: What Would That Look Like on Federal Lands?

This map has more than federal lands on it but you can click to size.

We’re heading into election season, so the verbiage weather report is for lots of hype, blame, castigation and name-calling. Assuming the worst of the Other and smoky shading of the truth. Not my favorite time, however…

We have an opportunity to develop ideas and proposals that we think would be uniting.. because, after all, one candidate said that that uniting the country is a goal. We can see plenty of unity around federal lands, even on this site, although media coverage and we tend to focus on the controversial.

I’d like to go back to Dave Freudenthal’s 2010 letter to then Interior Secretary Salazar.

Unfortunately, Washington, D.C. seems to go from pillar to post to placate what is perceived as a key constituency. I only half-heartedly joke with those in industry that, during the prior administration, their names were chiseled above the chairs outside the office of the Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals. With the changes announced yesterday, I fear that we are merely swapping the names above those same chairs to environmental interests, giving them a stranglehold on an already cumbersome process.

Can you think of mechanisms that might avoid the “pillar to post-iness” of swapping out Administrations? They have the difficult task of representing everyone, while favoring their friends.

Ted Zukoski brought up the concept of accountability via legal means earlier this week. We could broaden the discussion to “accountability to whom” and “for what”? What mechanisms have been tried (e.g. multi-party monitoring) and have they been successful?

There’s also building trust. One way that was thought about was to develop third-party certification procedures or some milder and less expensive form of that. Or perhaps how to spend GAOA windfalls, an advisory committee for that?

Fortunately here you can be in the weeds if that’s your preferred habitat. So ideas like the People’s Data- making it more easily available, public access to PALs and so on, would also fit.

For those of you into metrics, it’s interesting to think about how you would measure unifying efforts in a way that could be applied to any Administration. Not that we would think of something, but it might show the different ways we think about it.

So I’m encouraging posts which you can send to me which contain:

1. Proposals, ideas, processes, or structures that you think would be unifying.
2. Examples of something unifying that has worked in practice and you would like to see more of.
3. Possible metrics

There are plenty of folks and organizations here and in other countries who do great work so feel free to steal ideas, proposals or examples from someone else. The only requirement is that you explain why you think it makes sense and why you think it’s unifying. I’m encouraging folks to write guest posts with the links and your thinking, and less preferred would be a comment below.

I’d like to stick to “things to do” and not “things not to do” which tends to descend into a spiral of negativity. I think there’s enough of that out there right now.

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee: Fifty Year Later

The Sierra Club seem to really not like Colorado Senator Gardner-e.g. billboards, TV ads, newspaper ads and so on.. link here Perhaps ironically, Gardner was responsible for shepherding the Great American Outdoors Act, including fully and permanently funding LWCF, through Congress.

I’m taking a break from posting Forest Service Folktales, as I am trying to locate authors who sent only paper copies. I’ve been thinking that It might be good to look back at the last 50 years or so and see how things have or have not changed. What did the federal lands landscape look like prior to OHV’s? prior to climate change (as an issue)? Perhaps the past will lead us to new insights about today.

Let’s begin with John McPhee’s book, “Encounters with the Archdruid” . It was originally run in The New Yorker in March of 1971. Remember, the original Earth Day was 1970. There was no CAA, no CWA, no ESA, no NFMA. NEPA had been signed into law on January 1, 1970. In this book, McPhee organizes hikes/camping trips with David Brower, founder of the Sierra Club, and Charles Park, a mining engineer, Charles Fraser, a resource developer, and Floyd Dominy, a builder of dams. According to reviewer Steward Udall, “McPhee reveals more nuances of the values revolution that dominates the new age of ecology than most writers could pack into a volume twice as long. I marvel at his capacity to listen intently and extract the essence of a man and his philosophy in the fewest possible works.” Why this is a fun read for me is that people discuss their philosophies about specific things- dams, mines, housing, and the trade-offs between peoples’ needs and leaving Nature alone.

What was interesting to me is that the worldview of Brower is still around today, as in “don’t mess with the earth- at least not “special places”” but the rationale for this view has become more complex. Biodiversity, climate change, tourist and recreation economies are all reasons supporting this philosophy today. Look in any press release about a Wilderness bill. So it made me wonder if the “let things alone” is an underlying value, with only the expressions and arguments of today carefully included or excluded. For example, Brower was not fond of dams. Yet now hydroelectric power is seen to be good for climate change, so we don’t notice that so much. Climate change is obviously unnatural- so leaving land alone doesn’t make the vegetation conditions or wildlife “natural,” due to climate change, but the idea is still that leaving it alone is best.

I didn’t expect that 50 years ago McPhee would have noticed some of the things we observe today.

When Brower was the executive director of the Sierra Club, the organization became famous for bold full-page newspaper ads designed to arouse the populace and written in a style that might be called Early Paul Revere. One such ad called attention to the Kennecot Copper Corporation’s ambitions in the Glacier Peak Wilderness under the headline “AN OPEN PIT, BIG ENOUGH TO BE SEEN FROM THE MOON.” The fact that this was not true did not slow up Brower or the Sierra Club. In the war strategy of the conservation movement, exaggeration is a standard weapon and is used consciously on broad fronts.” (p. 37)

What’s interesting is thinking about how the conflict was deemed to be a “war” and so “anything’s fair” would naturally follow. The ends justify the means.
At around the same time, the Civil Rights movement had just lost Dr. Martin Luther King, who saw that struggle as anything but warlike. This was more than likely based on his beliefs and role as a Christian minister. What was it about the Sierra Club that led to the “warfare” thinking? Was it a cultural accident- the impact of certain leaders early on?

Fifty years later, there are still remnants of the “warfare” orientation in some people in some environmental groups. We still see the Early Paul Revere style of communication and the casualness with regard to the accuracy of statements. If I had to guess, I think it’s become a habit. But to many, it’s kind of an annoying habit. Maybe after 50 years, it’s time to change?

If you’d like to read Encounters with the Archdruid” please feel free to come back and tell us your own observations. What has changed over the last 50 years? What hasn’t? What surprised you?

Empathizing With Everyone: Patty Limerick and Violence in Western History

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874, one of several clashes between Southern Plains Indians and the U.S. Army during the Red River War. Image from TARL Collections (TMM-1988-21 Reverse).


Folktales will return next week.  The recent discussion about Oregon counties reminded me that we can feel compassion for everyone.  There’s no need to ration compassion, as the human heart can be infinitely elastic. In Patty Limerick’s words:

Refusing restraint, empathy defied and transgressed the most clearly marked lines of antagonism and opposition,

So I thought I’d post this piece by University of Colorado history professor Patty Limerick that talks about her journey toward CTA (compassion or empathy toward all) in terms of Western American history.  Which is not unrelated to #EnvironmentWithoutEnemies.  Somehow many environmental (including forest) issues have folks involved who tend to see “good guys” and “bad guys’.  Or black-and-white issues (e.g., salvage logging must always be bad).  Or perhaps they don’t really think that way, but choose to communicate in those ways because they think good guy-bad guy narratives get more clicks, or portraying something as black-and-white is more persuasive.  Hard to tell. There are also many people who don’t see the world this way, but perhaps it is more difficult to find them on social media.

Anyway, Here’s the link to Patty’s entire piece and an excerpt below.

In the early 1990s, I called a halt to this awkward effort at self-protection and wrote an essay called “Haunted America” on violent conflicts between whites and Indians. This essay appeared in a book of photographs taken at places where calamities and tragedies had occurred. With rare exceptions, most of these sites had become places of forgetfulness, without any visible indication of the brutal events of the past.

For three months, I read nothing but stories of violent encounters between Indian people and Euro-American soldiers and settlers. When I woke in the middle of the night and when I got up in the morning, my mind found no refuge from bullets, knives, arrows, sabers, ropes for hanging, and torches for burning.

Soon, there was nothing left of the emotional distance I had tried to keep between me and the violence of the Western past.

There is no question of who provoked these wars and who invaded whom. Euro-American people were the invaders, and Indian people were the inhabitants of the lands the invaders wanted.

And yet, immersed in wrenching stories of violence, I lost the ability to choose sides.

I empathized with Indian people, who had been besieged, pursued, and attacked in episodes beyond counting.

I empathized with settlers, who were often genuinely oblivious to their status as disruptive invaders, but who became, for reasons that would be hard to miss, targets of attack.

When people suffered devastating attacks on their homes, I responded with equal anguish to the miseries inflicted on families of Indian people, families of white people, and, maybe most vulnerable of all, families of people of mixed heritage.

Refusing restraint, empathy defied and transgressed the most clearly marked lines of antagonism and opposition, and I found myself unable to discount the ordeals of the soldiers who had been placed squarely in the middle of situations where resentment, retaliation, and rage ruled.

Many of these soldiers were immigrants who arrived in the United States with little money and who saw signing up as soldiers as one of their few routes to opportunity. Others were African American men who were emancipated slaves, or refugees from the injustices of Southern tenant farming and sharecropping. Meanwhile, even if Army officers may have come from origins in what we would now call “white privilege,” there was nothing that could pass for comfort or ease in the life of soldiers from the white working class.

Indisputably an army of invasion, this was also an army of unreliable equipment and inadequate clothing, especially in seasons of heat and cold; meager and often inedible rations; and constant risk of accidents, exposure, illness, exhaustion, and injury and death in battle. Perhaps most important, the soldiers faced these risks because they were following the orders and executing the policies decreed by distant presidents, senators, congressmen, and appointed officials who had only a sketchy knowledge of the conditions in the West.

Yes, these soldiers participated in devastating military campaigns against Indian people. But nothing in their stories could convince me to lead the campaign for their demonization.

By the time I sat down to write the essay, I had empathized with nearly everyone. But a few individuals, who had moved through life with a savage and intentional cruelty, gave empathy a chance to take a break. In truth, it was a relief to come upon dreadful people who I could simply find contemptible.

I’m not sure that we have any of those in our (forest) world.