Friday, June 29, 2012

Opening Remarks to the Canada/U.S. Forest Health Summit - Carlton N. Owen - June 28, 2012

I am humbled to be opening this first-ever Canada/U.S. Forest Health Summit and to be a part of this important event with each of you.
In terms of notoriety this event may not garner the attention that the 1st American Forestry Congress did when convened in 1882 in Cincinnati and later that same year in Montreal.  Historians report that it helped galvanize the fledgling forestry community.  That shouldn’t have been too difficult on the U.S. sides as there was only one professional forester in the entire country at the time.

Neither does it rise to the level of interest nor attendance as did last week’s RIO +20 Earth Summit.  Yet, we have high expectations given the people engaged and the stakes at hand.

I know this will be a disappointment to those of you who are used to sessions of this import being conducted bilingually.  My first trip to Canada – Quebec City in the mid-70s -- was my first times to have the privilege of hearing an international leader speak in person.  Prime Minister Brian Mulroney provided the keynote.  For a young forester from rural Mississippi, it was awe inspiring to hear him speak first in sparkling English then to switch flawlessly to flowing French.  As I was moved by the spirit of his second language it dawned on me that he really wasn’t that much ahead of me.   I too am bilingual -- my first language is fluent “southern;” and I speak broken English.

Canada and the U.S. have much in common.  We know the oft-repeated facts about the longest undefended border between any two countries and that 400,000 people and nearly $1.5 billion in trade crosses daily. 

I will not go into the history of my own organization, the first-ever charitable foundation resulting from a trade dispute between our two governments and our respective industries.

Instead I want to focus on a few lesser known facts.  Such as the facts that while our land areas are nearly equal in size, Canada hosts a quarter more forest acres (or hectares).  In honor of the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede (also being celebrated at the Embassy today), I note that while our population is nearly ten fold that of our neighbor to the north, we are home to nearly 25 times as many horses, mules and asses – something that probably isn’t a surprise to some, but recall, I’m speaking about livestock here.

When taken together our combined area in tree cover represents a swath of rich forests exceeded only by one other country on earth.

In Eric Rutkow’s book American Canopy, from which I’ve borrowed liberally for these remarks, we are reminded that our shared lands are home to:
          The world’s biggest trees – giant sequoias
          The world’s tallest trees – coastal redwoods;
          The world’s oldest trees – bristlecone pines; and
          The biggest single organism on earth – a stand of quaking aspens

He also notes that historian Brooke Hindle observed, we are a “society pervasively conditioned by wood.” 

President Obama in issuing a challenge that rolled out his America’s Great Outdoors Initiative just a few months ago noted the importance of forest and open space conservation.  It is so important that even in the midst of a great war that literally pitted brother against brother, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation known as “The Yosemite and Big Tree Grant” led to what is today Yosemite National Park.  Ken Burns noted that this morphed into America’s “grand experiment” with National Parks and, I would add, National Forests.

Wood built our respective cities while the advent of cheap pulp from wood in the late 1800’s drove the price of paper down to the point that books, newspapers, and other printed media fired literacy across the populace.

Sterling Morton, the Secretary of the Nebraska Territory a tireless advocate for the first Arbor Day in the then state of Nebraska, noted that “Arbor Day is like no other holiday.  Each of those reposes upon the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future.  It contemplates, not the good and the beautiful of past generations, but it sketches, outlines, establishes the beautiful for the ages yet to come.”

A statement in a 1914 report of the Pennsylvania Chestnut Blight Commission noted that, “It seems necessary to call sharp attention to the real lesson to be learned form the chestnut blight epidemic –
the necessity of more scientific research upon problems of this character; to be undertaken early enough to be of some value in comprehending, if not controlling, the situation.”

America’s past is replete with Presidents who loved trees and forests.  Note this comment.  “By all accounts, a tree lover of the highest order, a man who spent his free time, in his own words, ‘driving around planting lots of trees’.”  You’ve probably already guessed that it was Roosevelt … the man who for many years listed his profession as “tree-grower” rather than lawyer.  What you might not have guessed is that it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, not his cousin Teddy for whom we owe so much for his foresight to protect wide swaths of American forests.

In an Earth Day talk, future Illinois Senator Adlai Stevenson II after seeing a photo of Earth taken by Apollo 8, noted, “We have reached for the moon and beyond, and looking back through space we have been confronted by the insignificance of the planet that sustains us.”  Political lines disappear in space.

We have made much progress in the Century past that saw forests go from things to be cleared to precious resources to be protected.  Yet, climate change threatens to undermine in a few short years what it took a Century of human progress to advance.  Wildfire is reaching levels not seen in a hundred years and tree mortality rates have doubled.

In the survey of collaborative works on forests and forestry going on between our two countries done in prep for this summit perhaps the most telling aspect is just how much cooperation and collaboration is going on without a formal strategy or top down direction.  In fact the results of that review suggested that our respective scientists do it because they can, rather than because they need to.

I’d offer that it is only at your respective levels of leadership when considering all of the information, all of the challenges, and all of the opportunities, that we can come to the conclusion that we can’t afford to wait any longer to look for ways to build on that strong foundation for even grander achievements.  Clearly the “we need to” is there.

The closing sentences from American Canopy are as follows: “The nation” -- and I would posit, the continent – “tends to rediscover its tree resources only in periods of catastrophe.  The rest of the time many of us motor along with indifference, leaving the issue to the government, corporations, and the permanent environmental movement.  But this is a risky approach.  America’s forests and trees” – and the continent’s – “are more necessary now than ever.”

We’ve purposely chosen to take a modest step with this convening by intentionally limiting the discussion to forest health – a challenge that we share.  That’s not to say that we can’t do even more, rather, we must make a good start.  The forest health crisis that is, in and of itself, big enough.

We are a continent that is indeed blessed with rich and diverse forests.  They are the source of the greenest of building products, life-giving water, abundant wildlife, the source of recreation that leads to spiritual re-creation, and so much more.  If we cannot sustain those forests in healthy and productive condition, what we will have lost is irreplaceable.

Those of us who are forest scientists or scientist of any ilk, are usually very good at telling others what we do and how we do it.  Studies tell us this helps us connect with people’s rational side.  Yet, Simon Sinek in his book, Start with Why, notes that the deepest connections come not as a result of the rational brain; rather, the emotional one.  That’s something that we a scientist don’t want to hear.  He notes that people don’t buy what we do or how we do it until they understand why we do what we do.  Among our many challenges over the day ahead will be to ensure that we don’t fall prey to spending all of our time on the “what and how” and rush past the “why”!

As we begin our day together it will help if we have a few – but very few -- ground rules.

First, this is your time.  We ask you to be present and engage deeply for the future of North America’s forests.

Second, let’s make few assumptions.  It will do us little good to spend our time thinking of the world the way the economist did when he was shipwrecked on a deserted island with only a case of canned beans.  The economist first assumed that he had a can opener.  My admonition to us all is to operate within the realm as we currently know it – with current policy and financial realities – and not to assume a better political climate or unlimited sources of new funds. 

-Carlton Owen

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