Commentary: As clear(cut) as daylight

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A coalition of four conservation organizations launched an ad campaign a few weeks in Oregon ago that aims to demonize the logging practice known as clearcutting.

The billboards, airport ads and a new website they created show graphic images of forest areas in the Northwest where the timber has been harvested in clearcuts, essentially “units” of up to a couple hundred acres where most (or all) of the trees are felled, cut into lengths, hauled up the hillsides and trucked off to a sawmill or pulp paper plant.

The now-barren area is then replanted with two- to three-year-old seedlings that in five to 10 years have regenerated the beginnings of a healthy new timber stand, but that part of the reforestation cycle is never mentioned, of course.

There are two vital reasons to care about an activist campaign only tangentially related to livestock production: For one, the strategy of condemning policies and practices in place on publicly owned forestland is eerily similar to the vitriol directed against the leasing of grazing permits to ranchers raising cattle on federally owned rangelands. In both cases, a policies based on sound science that have been in place for decades are attacked on the grounds that they runs counter to acceptable environmental best practices.

Historically, clearcutting was done fairly extensively on both on private timber stands and on public lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management—up until the 1980s, that is, when stricter “multiple use” federal regulations were put into place that effectively curtailed widespread logging on public lands and sank the Northwest lumber industry into a tailspin from which it’s never recovered.

Even way back when, however, to keep timber harvesting on a 40- to 50-year cycle, nearly all of the public and private acreage that was clearcut was quickly and thoroughly replanted.

I know—I personally planted more than 200,000 trees myself, back in a previous lifetime when I spent nearly a decade working year-round in forestry.

Painting a grim picture

You have to give eco-activists, in this case the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading the coalition in Oregon, credit for a well-chosen target. By focusing on the “horrors” of logging, specifically the imagery of clearcut hillsides devoid of trees, they can deploy imagery that is disturbing to large numbers of the public, since most people know nothing about timber harvesting.

Kind of how most consumers are ignorant of production practices at a feedlot or in a hog barn and thus are also easy prey for overly graphic, emotionally charged photos of piglets behind bars or cattle jammed up at a feed bunk.

Logging, in fact, is an ideal symbol of the “industrial destruction” template that activists use to attack animal agriculture and, in this case, the timber industry. In the case of livestock production, we all know that slaughtering—even at the best of plants—carries a visual “ick factor” that turns off consumers to the entire industry.

That’s basically the same reason that eco-activists have nurtured a love-hate relationship with logging: They love the fact that it’s visually arresting and easy to depict as brutally destructive to the environment, even as they hate on the companies that are the key players in the industry.

In case you disagree, let me share just a brief snapshot of what it’s like in the pit of a logging unit.

First of all, the noise is relentless. The roar of diesel engines at the top of the hill as the logs are yarded up to the landing, the constant crashing that echoes across the ridgetops as the cables and chokers that carry the logs smash into tree stumps rocks and piles of slash. The air horns blasting as a signal that a load of logs is about to be yanked skyward—a frightening sight the first time you see a tangle of huge, 20-foot logs suddenly dangling above your head as you and the other choker setters scramble madly through the brush to put some distance between you and what would be a truly nasty demise.

Then there’s the mud. No matter what the weather, every shift’s a battle with grimy, gritty mud—at the end of the day, a losing effort. Mud gets on your clothing, in your boots, all over your face, inside your gloves and so help me—as you realize later that evening—inside your shorts, as well. How that happens, I never knew, but it was beyond annoying.

When operations on a unit are finally completed, even the most meticulously, eco-consciously managed logging site looks like it was carpet-bombed. Not only has the once-lush, verdant timber stand vanished, but the torn–up tree stumps, rutted mud slides and mounds of slash paint a picture of utter devastation that is perfect for stomach-churning photography.

Although they both involve the harvesting of a renewable resource, unlike farming, where romantic vistas of combines moving across geometrically precise acres of corn or wheat as the sun sets in the background, the process of felling, trimming, bucking, yarding and hauling off 100-foot fir, hemlock and cedar trees is messy, ugly and disturbing.

But go back to former clearcuts, as I have, 10, 15, or 20 years later. Where once was a scene that served a poster (literally) for environmental destruction, now looks green and serene, a virtual sea of healthy young trees growing so thick that in the near future a thinning crew like the ones I once worked on will have to go through the timber stand and cull out thousands of trees so that the ones left behind will have room to properly mature.

To combat the traction that activists manage to gain when they condemn clearcutting, or confinement feeding, as an example, takes a two-fold commitment.

First, industry has to constantly embrace technologies and best practices that mitigate the core of what its opponents are denouncing. With logging, that means switching to systems that allow so-called “leave trees” to remain standing and re-seed the acreage that’s been logged off, as well as putting in place tighter rules on erosion control, streambed and watershed protection and the preservation of mixed species of trees in harvested areas.

For livestock production that might means implementing ways to allow livestock the option of outdoor access, developing “hybrid” housing systems and incorporating other ways to balance production efficiency with the provision of welfare standards that a majority of consumers believe should be mandatory.

It’s the equivalent of ancient history in public relations to suggest that an industry best insulates itself from outside attacks when it responds proactively to neutralize obvious activist pressure points.

It’s also as relevant as the latest campaign that geared up just a couple weeks ago.  

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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September, 19, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Most places where we have stopped logging or managing forests -- you know, those ubiquitously mythical "endangered and protected" places -- tend to blaze up in the most spectacular forest fires. Of course when property and lives are lost that is deemed an unavoidable tragedy. If zealots succeed in dismantling modern agriculture substituting whimsical old-fashioned hobby farming we will see outbreaks of food insecurity among the poor and middle class more brutal and damaging than usual. The affluent back-to-nature zealots don't have a clue what their unexpected catastrophes their pet policies will wreak.

Kansas  |  September, 19, 2013 at 04:09 PM

Good & informative column, mr. Murphy. But I have a question regarding your "two-fold commitment". Does this mean we are simply giving up the fight and capitulating to a pack of lying, cheating zealots, ultimately committed to the total destruction of modern ag and society, in hopes that our partial surrender will mollify them and improve our "image" among their willfully ignorant acolytes? I do agree that we need to continue to all do our best to innovate & improve our practices... As we always have. But quietly rolling- over to enviro-radicals will only re-enforce their, and their ignorant mobs' resolve that they can continue to lie, cheat and bully their way to regulating and legislating ag & forestry out of the US, and the world.

Dan Murphy    
Everett, Washington  |  September, 30, 2013 at 06:36 PM

No, not at all. Nobody's suggesting "rolling over" for eco-radicals. But the constituency that producers and growers need to leverage isn't activists; they're beyond redemption, so to speak. Industry needs to reach out to consumers, who, as I noted, are convinced that animal agriculture needs to be "upgraded," shall we say. If that can be done with either minor or cosmetic "fixes," why not do it? Confinement production has been adopted for the sake of efficiency, but consumes -- the end customers -- don't care about efficiency. They want to feel as if welfare is at the top of the list. If that can be done w/o reinventing production, there are benefits to be reaped in the marketplace and in the media.

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