The Deceit of Yes/No Conservation

August 17, 2015

Redwood trees in Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Photo: © Harold E. Malde

Not long ago, the questions and answers conservation and environmentalism faced seemed straightforward:

Should we save the whales? Yes.

Should we be ok with frogs having three legs? No.

Should rivers run free? Yes.

Should rain have acid in it? No.

Should rivers burn? No.

But today, the flattening of the earth has made being a thoughtful earth steward a lot harder. Seemingly obvious yes/no questions can end up a lot more entangled than many well-meaning people assume.

Say ‘No’ to Logging Santa Cruz’s Redwoods? Not So Fast

Take forestry in Santa Cruz, California. Although most of the hills for miles around Santa Cruz were cut bare at the turn of the 20th century, redwoods have done fairly well in coming back. They tower along a swath of coast, fueled by ocean fog.

Redwoods are an icon of nature to the communities that live here, and many people are quick to want to protect them. I’m one of them. I live in Santa Cruz and am one of thousands of people that flock to hike, bike and camp in these forests.

On an intermittent basis, the community is faced with a choice, framed in a familiar way: should we allow logging in the redwoods?

This seems like one of those simple yes/no questions with a seemingly obvious answer. I like redwoods, I want to be able to enjoy them, I want my son to be able to enjoy them, so “no.”

But this is not the only choice that is being made. A “no” to logging in Santa Cruz does not reduce timber demand. It just shifts it.

Put more bluntly, a no to logging in Santa Cruz is a “yes” to logging somewhere else, whether or not we want it to be. So the real question is, where do you want your wood to come from?

Things look a lot different when you consider the question this way.

A redwood canopy Northern California.  Photo ©Douglas Steakley
A redwood canopy Northern California. Photo ©Douglas Steakley

How Well-Managed Forests Could Change Your Response

Another complicating factor: Santa Cruz County has arguably the best-regulated timber harvest practices in the world.

I recently got a tour of an actively harvested, commercially viable forest run by the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County; the Byrne Milliron Forest. This property is run like most other timber property in the Southern Sub-district of the Coast Forest Management District. Common practice here follows strict forest regulations, and even most private companies, like Big Creek Lumber and others, go the regulations one further with a long view on managing forests.

I walked the land with one of the foresters that works in Santa Cruz County and writes harvest plans. I had never walked a forest with a forester before. I imagine this is true for most people. It was fascinating and mind-changing. I learned what forestry really looks like in Santa Cruz.

Forests harvested in this sub-district are largely full of native species, a mix of redwoods, Douglas fir, madrone, California bay laurel, and tan oak with understories of blackberry, sword ferns, redwood sorrel and other species. No eucalyptus or pine plantations anywhere in the district. All timber harvest in the sub-district is single-tree harvest, which means trees are cut one at a time, leaving many trees in place. It is common for a commercial harvest to leave 70 percent of the trees standing. For this to work, every tree’s fall path is planned out for minimal damage to surrounding trees.

This regime puts even the “sustainable forestry practices” in other regions to shame. It can take a year in Santa Cruz to write a plan to harvest a single property. Each property is walked over and over, individual trees marked for cutting, and the fall path of every tree mapped out.

A Timber Harvest Plan identifies existing and potential areas for specific sensitive species. Properties are monitored for these species at every stage of harvest, and activity is halted if any are found. Roads built before the tough regulations were in place are re-graded, and all roads are monitored and maintained by the harvesters for years after the harvest.

When the harvest happens, individual trees are felled and moved out on cables strung high above the forest floor wherever possible, so no other parts of the forest are impacted. When cables can’t be used, skidder paths are covered up with slash (basically, mulched branches taken off harvested trees), protecting the soil from erosion and starting the regeneration process for the understory community.

I walked through an area harvested just over seven years ago and strained to see any trace of logging.

I walked through an area harvested just over seven years ago and strained to see any trace of logging.

Heather Tallis

Sustainability is Not the Way of the World

Obviously, this result is not the global norm. We have all seen pictures of commercially cleared tropical hills—scorched earth, horizon-to-horizon. This is legal logging, and I’ve seen it first hand in Borneo, Sumatra, mainland Malaysia, China, and Myanmar. And in Oregon, Washington and Canada.

Seeing such devastation is one of the main things that drove me to work in conservation. In most countries — even developed ones — timber harvest rules are incredibly lenient, and clear cutting is the norm.

Under these practices, cut areas are usually replanted with non-native, fast growing trees that can provide less native habitat and may need more water than the native forest that’s been cleared. Or environmentally worse, cut areas are converted to even higher environmental impact activities like commercial agriculture or developed as buildings, parking lots and/or roads. Even usually progressive Canada is in the regulatory Ice Ages on timber: streams are not protected with no-cut buffers, clear cutting is common, rotation times are short.

Timber production done this way is on the rise, and China is leading the pack. When you say “no” to logging in a place like Santa Cruz, you say “yes” to these practices.

‘Complicated’ Doesn’t Have to Mean ‘Hard’

The next time someone asks me if we should allow logging in the Santa Cruz redwoods, my answer will be yes, in some areas, because it’s the best timber harvesting on the planet and we have enough forests here to balance it with protection. Try fitting that in a headline! It’s a complicated answer because it’s a complicated question, and we should stop pretending otherwise.

But complicated doesn’t have to mean hard. We have the science to know how much area needs protection and where and when forests and sensitive species are most vulnerable to impacts. And we have the regulations and pretty conscientious corporate practice in place to show the world what environmentally sound and profitable timber harvest looks like.

Do we want to shut that down? I don’t.

So many of the environmental questions people face today seem simple the way they are asked, masking the real decisions at hand and misleading people in their choices.

Isn’t local food better for the planet?

Aren’t GMOs bad?

Isn’t population growth the real problem?

None of these have a simple answer, if you care about a healthy planet. Conservation and environmental groups should stop selling these choices as simple, and concerned citizens should expand their understanding of global markets and dynamics to understand what’s truly at stake.

Join the Discussion

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  1. What a brilliant explanation of a problem that spans many issues: How do we look at usage of our natural resources, and use solutions that truly sustain? The heart of the article is in the statement, “Complicated doesn’t have to mean hard.” When the developed world understands that the quick fix often creates more problems than solutions, we will be well on the way to salvaging much of the Earth’s natural resources.

    As a member of the Nature Conservancy’s Legacy Club I especially appreciate Heather’s long range view of dealing with difficult but necessary choices in such a rational way.

  2. cool Heather, moving away from a black and white point of view is the way.

  3. Very much enjoyed reading the story about your visit to the Byrne-Milliron Forest, The time is finally right for these kinds of discussions. The public wants to know where their resources are coming from more than ever and we are lucky to be around some top management/stewardship practices in this area for forestry, rangeland, and crops. I think local, responsible resource production is one of the most environmentally sound things we can do. Glad and honored to be here and thanks again for your article.

  4. All of our natural resources were meant to be used.
    ONLY with moderation so they can be used forever!
    No to killing all the fish in the oceans, or sharks, elephants,
    blue whales and all the others, WE are supposed to be intelligent
    species. Don’t think so. So how about controlled harvesting of
    all things on the planet and control our population too.
    Now 8 billion real soon . This scares me. How do we take care in quality all these soul?????

  5. It’s wonderful to read about an example of sustainable forestry, but to then go on and say that allowing sustainable logging in some places is going to affect global demand for forest products is simplistic. The fundamental economic systems and market incentives driving the misallocation of resources have to change. You mentioned China as a leader in deforestation. Richard Smith’s excellent analysis, China’s Communist-Capitalist Ecological Apocalypse, first published in Real-World Economics Review No.71 and reprinted here: , will shed light on why that is.

  6. I very much agree with your analogy of wisely and responsibly using a local resource, in this case timber, verses just saying NO and pushing impacts someplace else that likely will not have the same high standards. I live in Alaska and I’ve used this same concept in discussions about where and how we should acquire our resources. There is a secondary aspect to this approach that I believe is almost more important than responsible resource utilization, itself. This being the engagement of individuals and companies that are in business utilizing any natural resource. Too often conservationists/environmentalists do say NO when there may be a YES opportunity. Subsequently we lose this opportunity to engage and build a broader constituency for sound environmental protections as well as reasonable utilization guidelines and practices. When conservationists say ‘no’ too often we look elitist, uncaring and narrow minded and are really setting back the interests of conservation.

  7. Thank you for pointing out how complex some of these decisions can be. I would caution, though, from using simplistic measures for impacts such as forestry. Although a lightly harvested forest may look indistinguishable to you from an unharvested one, that doesn’t mean it maintains the same biodiversity or functionality. We need to be clear on the goals and metrics for any impacts.

  8. I’m old school TNC. I see “sustainable everything” insinuating itself into the TNC I once trusted. Pretty soon “Natural area” will be a thing of the past, so “yesterday.” When I hear headquarters TNC spokespeople talk like foresters, I cringe.

  9. A great article. It is easy to say no to timber harvests, but such simplistic answers can be devastating to the environment. We need to use resources and we can use them wisely. The idea that we should just say no helps ensure resources will be used poorly from both the human and the environmental point of view.

    When I tell people that I own forest land, the first reactions is usually very positive. People say something like, “It is really great that you are preserving forests.” They often become less enthusiastic when I explain that we cut timber, sometimes clear cut timber, and that I encourage hunters on my land. I consider conservation and wise use a higher moral calling than mere preservation. To use something and still have as much – or more of it – is the magic of conservation and wise use.

    Wood is 100% renewable. In fact, you could argue that wood – at least figuratively – is 110% of 150% renewable, since you can get the wood and the sustainable production of the wood yields positive environmental and cultural benefits, such as helping to restore soils, protect clean water and create recreational opportunities that gets people out into the woods and learning about nature.

  10. I believe this is very true.we should al rise to protect forests at the same time know when to harvest the trees and how..

  11. Very excited to hear the bright and motivated people at TNC thinking this way. A place is not necessarily “saved” because a fence was put around it. A place is not necessarily “saved” because there once was hunting, and now there is not. Almost every ecosystem on earth has been meaningfully impacted by human use. Almost every ecosystem is in decline. The “best of what’s left” must be protected from destruction (note: cutting a tree is not necessarily destruction), that’s for sure. But many places that are “saved,” are already damaged by past human use, and thinking they will “repair themselves” (in 10 or 50 or even 100 years) is among the most simplistic faux ecological concepts that exists. Visit a forest that grew out of an abandoned farm field. Will you find beautiful healthy oaks and teeming wildlife? No, mostly invasive weeds and vines and aggressive trees that are killing each other to get enough sunlight. Why? There’s no natural fire, flooding, or native predators to create the balance that once existed.

    Do we want to create dioramas of these wondrous places (as they once were) for a museum, or should we work to make them healthy and functioning, which sometimes requires inconvenient things like bulldozers, chainsaws, and hunters? Sometimes one or the other. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. As the article says, let’s open ourselves up to more than one activity (putting land in a land trust – a vital step) and stop pretending that it’s the ONLY thing necessary to be competent stewards of the land. Bravo, Dr. Tallis.

  12. Thank you Heather for this balanced post. It highlights the need to look at the complex nature of these questions, and as another commenter points out – the world is not black and white, and the answers to these questions certainly aren’t either. Great to hear about the Santa Cruz practices! I hope others take note – I was devastated to find out about the reality of most ‘sustainable’ forestry practices when preparing for a conference last year.

  13. Just read your article in NC magazine while I was starting the woodstove with it. lol. That lead me to this blog. You have hit on a major issue of our times. I call it singularity. Picking one element of a issue and focusing on it because it is simple. In Buddhism single point focus is the crux to relaxation.Which opens up the mind to find more complex answers. I believe this is a important part of dealing with the yes/no mentality. How to lead this thought process towards a larger understanding of the world system. There are a lot of intelligent people out there that know about this or are receptive to learning about it. If I look at the politics going on today for too long I have my doubts. A conservative pundit, Ben Shapiro, hit the nail on the head. He said that empathy is OK for the individual but not for policy. If you use empathy for policy you leave out all the other people who are different. You are doing beautiful work here in encompassing the complexity of the world.