Many organizations claim to be public interest groups – that is to say, groups that advocate or lobby for a perceived public interest or concern.
Virtually all these groups are 501(c)(3) non-profits – as are we. Some of them do a nice job monitoring and advocating for issues that are of genuine public interest or concern, but others exist only to promote their own self-interests.
Hey, it’s a free country. Let the buyer beware, especially with so many social media platforms promoting their version of today’s news on the worldwide web.
We’ve never claimed to be a public interest group, but we do monitor and advocate for issues we believe to be of intense public interest, like the West’s wildfire crisis, and revisionist attempts to misconstrue the long social and cultural history that shaped federal wildfire policy.
We’ve also worked to promote the idea that there is such a thing as a “social license” to practice forestry, not just on public land, but also on privately-owned land. Some private landowners bristle at the suggestion that the are beholding to the public for its approval of their forest practices.
Skeptics and disbelievers need only look at the three attempts by clearcutting critics to persuade Oregon voters to outlaw the practice. The claim is made that clearcutting harms water quality and fish and wildlife habitat – natural assets that are undeniably publicly-owned.
Oregon’s private timberland owners have spent millions of dollars defending their right to clearcut their own timber, based on the scientifically-established fact that Douglas-fir regenerates best in the full-sunlight that clearcut openings deliver.
I don’t have a problem with clearcuts because I know that Douglas-fir grows quickly, so the eyesores many dislike don’t last long. This said, I also believe that landowners who clearcut their Douglas-fir at 30-years of age are pushing several biological envelopes, and certainly testing the public’s patience.
I understand the time cost of money that drives timberland investors to insist on a 30-year-rotations, but I defer to my friend, Mike Newton, who is a PhD botanist and silviculturist, and probably knows more about Douglas-fir than anyone alive. Mike believes that the increased value of 60-year-old Douglas-fir logs more than compensates investors for their perceived 30-year loss.
I agree with Mike, not just because I’ve seen the numbers from his Tree Farm, but also because my wildlife biologist friends tell me that, by the time it is harvested, at age 60, a Douglas-fir forest will have provided many more habitat niches for birds, mammals and reptiles than its 30-year-old counterpart.
Again, these birds, mammals and reptiles are publicly-owned assets.
Although it will seem counter-intuitive, our advocacy for science-based forestry has led us to the conclusion that a publicly-granted license to practice forestry is the best defense against criticism that a forest landowner – public or private – can ever hope to attain; and “attain” is the best word here because it takes years of constant effort to earn the public’s trust; and minus transparency and wide open doors, trust can be lost in a heartbeat.
I also believe publicly-granted “social” licenses are the bedrock on which the entire federal forest collaborative movement rests. These ethereal licenses are the embodiment of the public’s vote of confidence in the group’s deliberations and decision-making. They are the ultimate vote of confidence.
Every successful collaborative group we’ve visited over the last four years has gone out of its way to be publicly inclusive, and to leave no special interest stakeholder out of its dialogue or decision-making processes.
The trust the public vests in these groups is the reason why the Forest Service has embraced collaboration, and it is the reason why federal judges are increasingly ruling in favor of the forest restoration decisions that collaborative groups are making in concert with the Forest Service.
Some may disagree, but I think these citizen-driven forest collaboratives are splendid replicas of the old New England Town Hall meetings that played central roles in sometimes difficult decision-making in early America. The “public interest” has never been better served.