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Making an Impact

A forester's disenchantment with his discipline sparks an award-winning (but controversial) book

By Jon Reidel Article published June 23, 2004

Thom McEvoy
"It's time to pay the piper:" Thom McEvoy's new book on forests drives a blunt message home with forceful arguments. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

Thom McEvoy had reached a point in his career where he felt the need to reflect on what he’d accomplished during his more than two decades as an associate professor and extension forester in The Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources.

But this would be no self-gratifying walk down memory lane. Instead, McEvoy decided to take a brutally honest look at his professional past, and he didn’t like what he saw.

“I was increasingly feeling like a tool of industry,” McEvoy says. “I was sitting in meetings with forestry peers hearing things that I totally disagreed with and discovered that I was the only one in the room who felt that way. I felt like my whole career had been a farce. I realized that I’d advocated a lot of things that were wrong. It’s the professional equivalent of a dentist pulling teeth they shouldn’t have pulled.”

The end result of this midlife reflection is a cutting-edge book on forest management based on what McEvoy calls a “series of epiphanies.” He cautions, however, that his second book, Positive Impact Forestry (Island Press), is not an attempt to bare his soul in over 268 pages, but rather is an attempt to set the record straight on forestry practices, and more importantly, to offer a new approach to managing forests that meets the needs of landowners while maintaining the integrity of forest ecosystems.

‘Positive’ instead of ‘low’ impact forestry
Named “Best Forestry Book of the Year” for 2004 by the National Forestry Association, Positive Impact Forestry proposes an entirely new way of managing and enhancing forest ecosystems that is at odds with much of the discipline’s conventional thinking. McEvoy says he knew when writing the book that its provocative content was “capable of ending someone’s career.”

From the outset, McEvoy makes clear his intentions to expose certain commonly held truths within the industry that he now sees as wrong. He admits to remaining in denial even after having these “mini-epiphanies,” which he lists in his book. He describes current timber management, for example, as “simply the act of juggling trade-offs between volumes and values that involve periodic reductions in tree densities.”

Some of his long-held beliefs, which he later disavowed with age and more experience, were ingrained early in his career.

“I realized that the forest management planning concept I learned as a student is ridiculously out of sync with ‘forest time’ and that true stewardship is meaningless unless planning crosses generations,” he writes.

“The reason I don’t fear writing about these things is that I’m comfortable enough in my career and life to be able to say provocative things,” McEvoy says. “If we all sit cowering in the back of the room change would never happen. It doesn’t have to be a dirty secret.”

Investing in ‘forest time’
A review in Northern Woodlands magazine describes the book as an approach to management that combines state-of-the-art science with some of the old-world tenets of sustainable forestry practice. “For McEvoy,” writes reviewer Alan Calfee, “the difference between ‘low impact’ and ‘positive impact’ is ‘the difference between activities that merely avoid impacts and those that craft impacts to optimize ecosystem values while also providing benefits.’”

This may not sound like a particularly contentious or revolutionary suggestion to the uninitiated, but it comes with serious costs — ones that McEvoy says most private landowners trying to make a living couldn’t sustain under the current economic system. He offers ways to change certain economic obstacles, such as eliminating the traditional property tax system based on the value of land for development or changing to one based on the land's appraised value in its "current use" -- a system used in Vermont for farm and forest lands.

McEvoy says he knows many people will perceive his ideas as too radical and not economically feasible. Although he’s yet to hear any negative feedback, he expects to get his first taste in August at a New Jersey Society of Foresters conference that will also be attended by loggers and land owners.

“I’m surprised no one has said ‘this guy is crazy.’ I realize that if someone owns a forest and they have a sick kid who needs money for medical attention, they’re not going to change their practices. And I don’t blame them. Neither would I. They’ll say ‘how can anyone pay the costs of these changes?’. The problem is in the very nature of taxation. It’s set up so that people have to extract cash from the forest. Regulation is the only way to change that.”

Part of the problem is that forests are viewed in the same context as corporate America, McEvoy says. With company executives having a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, proper forest management is often the last thing to be considered. “There’s an unreasonable emphasis on profitability.”

McEvoy says people expect returns on their investments sooner than forests can provide them on what he calls ‘forest time.’ “If you have a good investment, the last thing you want to do is sell. You leave it alone and let it grow. The time frame we think about for a return period isn’t close to being compatible with forest time. We should be thinking in terms of 300, 400 and 500 years.

“We’ve been blessed with great natural resources and we’ve squandered it. And now it’s time to pay the piper and make it right.”