November 2003 - VOLUME 24 - NUMBER 11
T h e F a t e o f t h e F o r e s t s
By Jeff Shaw
The paper in the printer at your office or school might once have been part of a rare 500-year-old tree. So might the door into your house, or its shingles, or the boards that make up its bones.
It doesn't have to be that way -- and a just-concluded activist campaign took a step toward a world where it isn't that way. A new environmental policy announced by the Boise Cascade Corporation, the result of a three-year effort by Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and its allies, offers significant safeguards for forests previously threatened by the company.
This September, the timber giant announced that it would no longer log old growth forests in the United States and would take steps to ensure its suppliers protect endangered trees as well. The announcement makes Boise the first major timber company to commit to a complete phase-out of old-growth logging as well as the first to extend such a policy to the suppliers from which it buys wood.
"It's impossible to overstate the significance of Boise's announcement," says Michael Brune, RAN's executive director, because it "sends out a challenge to the rest of the logging industry: Get out of old growth logging or go out of business."
Boise owns or manages 2.4 million acres of land, no small hunk of forest, but this win matters for other reasons as well. Old growth trees are essential to biodiversity, and most remaining ancient trees in America are on federal or state-owned land. When the RAN campaign began, Boise was the largest logger of public lands in the United States, and thus the gravest threat to these trees.
"They were the worst of the worst," says Jennifer Krill, old growth campaign director for RAN.
The Boise Reversal
But the new statement, "Boise and the Environment," departs from past policy in two significant ways.
First, the company pledges that, effective in 2004, "Boise will no longer harvest timber from old-growth forests in the United States."
Ancient trees are absolutely crucial to ecosystem health, nurturing a complex web of life and providing homes for endangered animals that thrive nowhere else.
"Anything that likes to live in younger forests has a lot of neighborhoods to choose from," explains Mitch Friedman, executive director of the Northwest Ecosystems Alliance. "Species that only live in old growth are running out of choices."
That's because numerous threatened creatures -- the marbled murrelet, the red tree vole, and the famous northern spotted owl -- are only found in mature forests. Imperiled animals like the pine marten, woodland caribou and certain woodpecker species unique to old growth live in Boise Cascade's primarily inland Northwest territory.
These wild areas are all the more valuable, says Josh Laughlin of the Cascadia Wildlands Project, since just 10 percent of original native forests on the west side of the Cascade Mountains remain standing.
"We've got a globally significant forest structure out here that is endangered," says Laughlin, campaign coordinator with the non-profit wilderness defense organization. "It offers recreational opportunities and it offers habitat for a host of species teetering on the brink of extinction."
Giant trees also provide shade for streams, regulating temperature for the Northwest's signature salmon runs; naturally filter water, providing a clean supply for cities and municipalities; and prevent wildfires, acting as the best shield against today's high-profile blazes. Dry underbrush that grows (or tree plantations that are developed) after clearcutting burns quickly and easily -- but huge, ancient trees are resistant to catastrophic forest fires.
The second key feature of Boise's announcement was a commitment that the company's international procurement operations will identify endangered forestlands, paying "special attention to key species" so that "those species are properly sourced," counteracting theft and illegal logging in parks, reserves and sensitive areas. The company will give preference to wood suppliers independently certified as responsible managers.
The latter is important because, besides cutting down trees themselves, Boise is a wholesale distributor that purchases logs from around the world -- one way wood from threatened tropical forests often comes to the United States. The corporation's overseas activities in Latin America and elsewhere were factors in RAN's choosing Boise as a focal point for its campaign.
The Dirty Dozen
"It's clear that companies such as Weyerhaeuser or Georgia Pacific have to live up to this challenge -- or face an even more potent campaign than Boise faced," Brune vows. "With the smell of victory close, we're finding that we have a more dedicated and enthusiastic network than we've ever had."
Forest activists have been inspired by a string of wins: home improvement moguls like Home Depot and Lowe's have promised not to buy old growth lumber; home builders like Centex Homes and Kaufman & Broad have agreed not to build with it. Now, Boise won't turn old growth trees into lumber in the first place. These advances build momentum and energy that, Brune says, will only help in future campaigns.
"I would strongly encourage [other forest products companies] to look at Boise's policy and beat it," he says. "The era of old growth logging is over. The public won't buy it. It's time for this industry to stop being a dinosaur," he says. "We're hopeful that in the next few months, some of those companies will develop pledges that meet or beat Boise's commitment -- and we'll direct our campaigns accordingly."
By 2000, RAN felt that it had received enough commitments from the domestic wood products industry (over 400 companies pledged to go "old growth free") to turn its attention to wholesale operators. A series of meetings with Boise proved fruitless, though, and the group and its allies launched a full-scale public campaign demanding the company disavow old-growth logging.
Not only did Boise initially reject RAN's demands, it launched a sophisticated counter-campaign to weaken or destroy the group.
The company and its allies in the so-called "Wise Use" movement tarred RAN with the "terrorist" brush, smearing the activist group on Capitol Hill and in the media.
Boise also went after RAN's financial base, writing letters to all of RAN's major funders, urging them to cut off support.
Far-right, anti-ecology kindred spirits followed suit. Wise use organizations such as Ron Arnold's Center for Defense of Free Enterprise and Frontiers of Freedom, a group run by former Wyoming Senator Malcolm Wallop, petitioned the Internal Revenue Service to withdraw RAN's non-profit status. The IRS eventually declined to revoke the group's non-profit tax status.
Boise's aggressive strategy may have backfired. "If anything, I think we got more funding as a result [of Boise's letter-writing campaign]," says Krill. Activists saw the backlash as a "validation that our efforts were being successful," says Brune.
Labeling the group "eco-terrorists" because RAN activists use non-violent civil disobedience just seemed to steel the groups resolve, and that of its supporters. To drive home their view of peaceful, illegal protest as vital free speech, RAN organized a massive event at Boise's corporate headquarters. Twenty people, including celebrities like Bonnie Raitt and former Doors drummer John Densmore, were arrested at the July 2001 demonstration.
"That action, in my view, is what turned the tide," says Krill, noting an Oregonian opinion poll published around that time that showed widespread opposition to old growth logging. "Boise realized they couldn't make RAN go away, they couldn't make us run and hide -- and that the public was on our side."
Hitting Their Pocketbook
But that weakly worded 2002 statement did not go far enough in RAN's eyes, or in the eyes of many other forest advocacy groups. There were serious questions about policy loopholes that might allow continued logging of mature trees, and no provisions were made for international operations. RAN's concerns about Boise's activities in sensitive areas such as Chile, Indonesia and the boreal forests of Canada remained unsatisfied. RAN wanted Boise to refrain from purchasing and distributing old growth at all, applying the policy internationally and to their suppliers. Boise refused.
Pressure on Boise's customers, says Krill, was key to breaking the deadlock.
Boise wasn't reacting to attacks on its public image, so activists turned to demand-side tactics, turning organizing energy toward the companies that purchase massive quantities of wood products from the Idaho-based multinational.
"When you're up against a very recalcitrant target, you don't have a whole lot of choice but to hit them in the pocketbook," says Krill. "It wasn't until we showed Boise's largest customers who they were buying from that we could make that change."
When customers like the copy giant Kinko's, Levi Strauss, Patagonia and LL Bean started canceling contracts, the bargaining table suddenly looked more appealing.
Universities, too, were pivotal in the fight: students at more than 100 colleges and universities actively campaigned to urge their schools to cancel purchasing contracts with Boise, or otherwise get the timber company off campus. Many, like Notre Dame University, did.
"Universities were an important piece of Boise's customer base," says Krill. While negotiations between RAN and Boise were going on in earnest over the course of 2003, additional colleges jumped on board, adding to the pressure. That spring, Boise lost a contract with University of Texas in Austin -- the largest campus in the country.
Even where colleges and universities did not entirely refuse to do business with Boise, important strides were made -- and extended to broader environmental efforts. Lesley Adams, who worked on the campaign for two years before graduating from Southern Oregon University in 2002, says her school's student-run environmental resource center used informational events, slideshows and spontaneous theater to raise awareness about threats posed by Boise and other timber companies. Ultimately, several departments at the university and the school's computer lab made the transition to 100 percent post-consumer, chlorine-free recycled paper.
"It feels great to have a campaign be effective," says Adams, now outreach coordinator with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, Oregon, though she is skeptical about the company's sincerity. "I'm excited to continue to watchdog Boise."
The university campaigns featured a host of creative demonstrations. One school marked trees on campus as if they were slated for logging. Another did a "run-around" in protest of the university president giving them the run-around on contracting with Boise. Others showed up at athletic events with signs; some even recruited the school mascot to the cause.
To Brune, this shows the power of public protest. "In its entirety, I think the campaign was a victory for grassroots activism," he says.
The potential difference in revenue from colleges might have made a big difference. Since the new environmental statement, Brown University, whose contract with Boise was set to expire, renewed a lucrative deal to purchase half of its office supplies from the company.
"If I were Boise," Krill notes, "I would have been knocking on [universities'] doors right away [after the environmental statement]."
The Buzz of Victory
"Boise's statement last year was underwhelming," he says. "This one has a buzz in the environmental community of having substance, of being meaningful."
An air of skepticism still exists, though. Adams acknowledges that "the language of the policy sounds great" but says she is "hesitant to assume Boise will implement this with the same integrity that the words they've written suggest." Monitoring, she suggests, will be essential to "making sure Boise walks their talk."
Friedman says Boise's history is that of a "difficult player" and a "behind the scenes impediment," leading him to wonder whether "they've really waved the white flag here, or if there's some other shoe that's going to drop." The Cascadia Wildlands Project's Laughlin also worries about how Boise will define what constitutes an "old growth" forest.
RAN's Krill understands these concerns. The progress Boise's statement represents, though -- and the lessons it offers -- are no less valid.
"When it comes to environmental issues, Capitol Hill is in gridlock and the Bush administration is in reverse," she says. "When you look at the commitment that Boise, which was once the worst logging company in America, was willing to make, it shows you that campaigns focused on corporations are where we have the best opportunities to save old growth forests." n