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Claiming the higher ground.

"How are you going to keep this from being just a puff piece?" Neil Sampson asked. I knew what he meant. My assignment was to do a story on the American Forestry Association from Earth Day'70 to E.D. '90. As a staff writer, I can't pretend to an outsider's objectivity. On the other hand, I have 15 years of experience in journalism, so I figured I'd find the warts.

But would I write them?

I started with Henry Clepper's fine centennial history published in 1975. AFA's track record during its first 100 years is so impressive that it's no wonder we were eventually accused of resting on our laurels.

Sure, AFA led the charge for creating our National Forests and provided the first and longest forum for conservation's leading lights-names like Dr. Rend Dubos, joseph Wood Krutch, Frederick Law Olmsted, Sigurd Olson, and no less a guru than Aldo Leopold. Sure, AFA spearheaded progressive legislation and battled to reforest America. But AFA, what have you done for me lately?

Clepper's history leaves off about where this one is to begin. So I turned to reviewing back issues of AMERICAN FORESTS starting with 1970, the year that kicked off what the editor labeled the "environmental 70s." In the April issue, the magazine's "Washington Lookout" column reported that President Nixon had sent Congress a special message on the environment and that the Alaskan oil pipeline had received the go-ahead. Articles in that issue included a feature on smog in the San Bernardino National Forest and another on the Earth Day teach ins at universities across the nation. A membership in AFA cost $6.

During the decade to come, AFA rode the wave of environmental interest to boost its membership from 20,000 to an all-time peak of more than 80,000. The man in charge from 1967 through 1978 was William E. Towell, so my next step was a phone call to the retired executive vice president.

"Most of us conservation heads had speaking assignments on Earth Day, " Bill Towell recalls, adding that he gave a talk at a high school in a Washington suburb on air and water pollution.

"The message AFA has been spouting all these years is balanced management," Towell points out, "and the middle ground doesn't sell well-unlike preservation." You can set out to save a river or create a new park and generate all kinds of public attention, but what AFA peddles is in-depth knowledge of natural resources. And that's a hard sell.

Another man who was around from the late'60s through the'70s was Richard Pardo, long-time director of programs and the "Washington Lookout" columnist for 12 years. Dick Pardo is an oral historian's gold mine. Like others I interviewed, he credits Bill Towell and AFA with achieving behind-the-scenes progress during the 70s by pursuing "areas of agreement" between the timber industry and the conservation community.

AFA's role of mediator took shape during the push for a Forest Service budget that would provide greater funding for wildlife and recreation, long the poor stepsisters of timber management. Well respected on the Hill, AFA's Bill Towell was the natural choice to chair a series of discussions between spokespersons for the National Forest Products Association (industry's lobby) and a dozen groups including Audubon, the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Wilderness Society, and the Society of American Foresters. The goal was to find areas where industry and environmentalists could reach a consensus.

Calling the committee a first of its kind, Pardo says, "Almost weekly the AFA conference room was in use for meetings of one kind or another. Since AFA had the reputation of being neutral ground, people could meet under our roof without being accused of consorting with the enemy. "

When the committee testified, a number of Congressmen commented on the unprecedented cooperation. "Instead of going up on the Hill and taking non-negotiable, entrenched positions and fighting things out in public," Pardo recalls, "the areas of agreement committee concentrated quietly on the real issues. It helped sort out the valid points of disagreement from the strawmen."

No press releases or press conferences blew AFA's horn, but the association's contribution continued as Towell hosted additional off-the-record meetings for the adversaries in the decade's MOST Emotionally charged controversy: clearcutting. The Monongahela Decisiort in which the courts branded the practice illegal set off a chain of events that led directly to the National Forest Management Act-the landmark forestry legislation of the Earth Day era.

AFA had little in the way of mechanisms for generating active grassroots response on issues like clearcutting, other than letters to the editor of AMERICAN FOREST'S. In terms of reader response, however, more sparks flew over a relatively minor brouhaha. "It was kind of a bloody time in AFA's history," says Pardo, "when we fired Mike Frome.

The noted environmental writer had penned a monthly column for the magazine. "He was pretty shrill in his attacks on the Forest Service," recalls Pardo, "and he aggravated a number of our board members with his tone. " (In his October 1970 column, for example, Frome asked whether the Forest Service's old guard suffered from a case of hardening of the arteries.)

Internal memos on persuading Frome to moderate his attacks ended up being leaked to one of the more militant environmental groups, which published the memos and resulted in Frome's accusing AFA of censorship. "I think it damaged AFA with the public but not with other environmental groups," Pardo reflects. "Most of them who knew Bill Towell and AFA realized that it wasn't as bad as it had been made out to be. " AFA's reputation for holding the high ground by providing a moderate voice of reason remained unchallenged.

At the time it was well known that AFA was a close friend of the Forest Service. "At one time," Pardo adds, we were also pretty close to industry. But Towell tried consciously to make AFA as independent as possible, so we would be freer to speak out." Pardo believes that even the industry people agreed that this divorce was best because AFA could be more useful as a neutral, objective observer of the forestry scene.

As the environmental'70s drew to a close, AFA took the lead on some conservation issues but left other controversies such as the wilderness battle to groups like the Wilderness Society that being the way the conservation community works in Washington. One organization with special expertise in a given arena claims an issue, and then the others act as backups through coalitions.

"We took the purist approach to wilderness-that most of the East is not true wilderness because it has been logged over," says Pardo, "and our position was in favor of less wilderness than what was eventually achieved." On herbicides, too, Pardo feels that AFA's voice was "a bit muted." AFA took the middle ground of trying to reduce use but not ban herbicides totally.

When it came to acid rain, however, AFA positioned itself as early as 1982 with a strong call that the time had come to act. And in the exciting new arena of urban forestry, the association was already taking the lead under the prodding of AFA board member John Gray and others.

And in 1983, when Reagan's Sagebrush Rebellion conservatives and Interior Secretary james Watt proposed selling off the National Forests-privatization-AFA came out swinging.

For about a year, privatization was the main topic in town at any forestry or conservation meeting," recalls Pardo. AMERICAN FoRESTS's new "At Issue" column pitted Watt against the head of the Wildlife Management Institute in a debate on privatization.

By then, Bill Towell had retired and Rex Resler had taken over. Formerly in the Forest Service's No. 2 spot, Resler knew where all the skeletons were buried and what buttons to push," Pardo says. Developing a perhaps unjustified reputation as the Forest Service's surrogate spokesman, Resler orchestrated a strong campaign stressing the benefits of public ownership and the wrong-headedness of selling off the public heritage. Washington took a hard look, and privatization was shelved.

Pardo believes that the Forest Service's image has been kind of up and down" over the past two decades. "It has not always shown the leadership that conservation groups would like to see, but most would give the agency pretty high marks except for its emphasis on timber management.

Translate that to mean below-cost timber sales and old growth, which dwarfed other issues as the 80s gained steam. AFA's voice on this hot potato remained remarkably consistent, as the new exec, R. Neil Sampson, took over in 1984. He quickly positioned us on this issue once more solidly on the middle ground.

As for the Forest Service, Chief Dale Robertson told AMERICAN FORESTS that the agency exists almost in a different world today from the world of 1970 in terms of environmental sensitivity. He points to the agency's interdisciplinary approach. "Whereas maybe a forester would make a decision 20 years ago," he says, now the decision may be made by a fisheries

gist, and a landscape architect. "

Greater public involvement is another change noted by Robertson. Still, he says, "the public's perception of professional foresters is getting worse. "

just as Bill Towell consciously freed AFA from its close association with industry Neil Sampson has intentionally severed us from our reputation for automatically applauding the Forest Service. AFA cannot be credible in its commentary on the agency, " Sampson says, "if we are seen as its surrogate voice."

This divorce took place in a difficult climate, he adds, "when fed bashing was almost a knee-jerk reaction. A lot of our sister organizations were blaming everything that went wrong on the federal government. My definition of credibility is that when you think they're doing something wrong, you say so; but when you think they're doing something right, you also say so. " just as the divorce with industry was amicable, the one with the Forest Service did not lead to a falling out.

So AFA has finally achieved a truly independent voice, but judging by our membership, that voice may be reaching too many of the already converted -the three percent of Americans who are environmental activists-and not enough of the remaining 97 percent. Most people have become more environmentally sophisticated over the past two decades-but not, it would seem, about forestry.

In 1988, AFA launched a two-prong attack on this long-standing dilemma, and the omens, as they say, are good.

The first part of the attack began on an airplane in the skies above Colorado. Neil Sampson was on his way to lead an environmental education seminar. At the time, the news media were hitting on global warming, an issue that struck a chord with Sampson, whose interest in climate change dates back more than a decade as a result of his work in soil conservation.

On the plane, Sampson was wondering how you deal with a global issue like climate change in a way that doesn't paralyze people, as the threat of nuclear war does. The logical reaction to a global problem is simply to walk away in

the conviction that it is too huge for the individual to do anything. Thinking of this, Sampson suddenly scrapped the speech he'd prepared and drafted a new one.

The result was so well received by the environmental teachers that Sampson returned to Washington and tore into the issue with the AFA board and staff members. In a lightning six weeks during late summer, they put together AFA's Global ReLeafe campaign. An artist designed a logo that conveys an instantly recognizable message-a rarity for environmental issues, which are notoriously complicated and hard to communicate.

The name was fortunate and prophetic. Just over a year later, as revolution in eastern Europe turned the world upside down, the word global became the catchword of 1990.

By then AFA already had a winner. Local groups across the country were signing up for ReLeaf campaigns, recognizing the relevance of Global ReLeaf.15 And so were people in other nations. And so was the environmental community, which acknowledged AFA's increasing clout by presenting us with the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award for 1989.

Sampson holds that the strength of AFA's new initiative is not the global warming theory, which after all is just a theory. The power of Global ReLeaf is, in his words, that "it challenges the individual to look at the environment and start to fix it."

It was beginning to look like AFA was finding its grassroots organization at long last, the broad base of support that has been so elusive.

It was no time to sit on our laurels. Sampson sprung his second surprise. "We went to corporate America and said, We're a little organization, and we need help in reaching people with this message about how they can improve their environment.' " Instead of going to foundations or corporate philanthropists, AFA went to the marketing and advertising divisions. he'd learned in soil conservation when he watched agricultural equipment companies being persuaded to scrap advertising campaigns that unintentionally contained subliminal anticonservation messages. In less than three years, the farm industry switched from having 90 percent of their ads depict bad tillage methods to 80 percent portraying sound practices. just as many-mavbe more -tractors sold.

Sampson and his staff adopted the same strategy for Global ReLeaf. They told CEOS, "You can sell your product and promote environmental action at the same time." Because Americans are starting to evaluate companies in light of their environmental awareness and responsibility, company after company said, "You're right."

Interviewed for this article, Sampson pointed out that Amway, Gallo, McDonald's, Davey Tree, and The Nature Company-"and the list goes on"-have discovered that this is good marketing. "And we're convinced that it is also good conservation education," he adds. "We're not fussy whether people get the idea from one of our brochures or an advertisement in a magazine or a poster in a store as long as the light bulb turns on. "

At the end of the interview, Sampson wanted me to know one other thing: "This is one world. Air pollution floats across national boundaries; climate change affects everyone. We can't fix the planet by planting trees in the U.S. alone. The fact that multinational corporations are pressing this conservation agenda is helping internationalize it.

"My suspicion is that this will result in a significantly different AFA by the turn of the century. If that happens, it will be consistent with another vision I see, which is a world of nations much more cooperatively involved in environmental affairs than they have been in the past.

"With the threat of the Cold War subsiding, we can turn our attention to what does threaten our future which is that we have no idea how seven to 10 billion people can live on this planet. If we have seven billion destroyers, it's a cinch they'll get the job done. The only way we have a prayer is by cooperating to make their impact on the planet manageable. I hope that AFA can be instrumental in weaving together the requisite political agreement."

Wondering how the environmental community views AFA, I interviewed Lynn Greenwalt, vice president of the mammoth National Wildlife Federation. "AFA has emerged as a credible organization with a dispassionate approach that's based on good science, Greenwalt says. "It's not burdened with rhetoric or excessive zeal. The organization and its leader exude earnestness and an understanding of the issues that's unassailable."

I mentioned Sampson's concern about this article. "Puff piece?" Greenwalt snorted. "Those who know Neil and AFA will know it's the truth."

But AFA director and past president Carl H. Reidel doesn't want AFA to rest on its new laurels. We have to go beyond Global ReLeaf, he says, "and get at the root causes of what's destroying the forests of this planet-the indiscriminate use of fossil fuels."

Reidel wants to see the American Forestry Association take the "higher ground" by pushing for new policies and programs that are more inclusive and innovative than the old. "We have to be willing to put ourselves on the line for forests."

That sounds like a big agenda for the next two decades. I can hardly, wait to read the puff piece in AMERICAN FORESTS on Earth Day 2010. AF
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Title Annotation:American Forestry Association
Author:Davis, Norah Deakin
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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