Everybody’s heard about the importance of protecting the Amazon rainforest. But when it comes to protecting forests here in the United States, a lot of people in business, government and the environmental movement seem to have a willful ignorance. That needs to change.
U.S. forests need protection, now. We must end government policies shaped by the logging and wood products industries that sound sensible but are actually meant to expand logging, rather than contain it. We are calling out big, influential environmental organizations whose efforts end up furthering the interests of industry. Forests — and people and the planet — are paying too high a price for the wood product sector’s profits.
Forests are the only proven, large-scale system we have for soaking up carbon and locking it away for centuries. But logging is slashing U.S. forests’ ability to accumulate carbon by over one-third. And because felled trees immediately release most of the carbon they store, logging in the United States releases about 723 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.
It doesn’t make sense to keep using taxpayer money and taxpayer-owned land to expand logging, but that’s exactly what’s happening. For example, last year’s giant infrastructure bill called for 30 million acres of additional logging on public land — an area bigger than the state of Pennsylvania. It also featured $400 million to expand markets for wood, while easing environmental standards for logging in national forests.
President Biden’s Earth Day executive order protects old-growth forests, which is essential. But it also calls for advancing “forest-related economic opportunities” — the kind of wording that often serves as a euphemism for allowing industrial-scale logging in national forests and on other publicly owned land.
And now comes the Save Our Sequoias Act, which the wood-pellet giant Enviva has tweeted that it’s proud to “co-sponsor,” and which the nation’s richest and largest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, supports. In a letter to Congress, dozens of environmental justice and forest protection groups — including Indigenous-led, Latino-led and Asian-led community organizations whose communities depend on healthy forests — point out that the bill would “weaken existing environmental law to expedite potentially harmful logging projects that undermine the ecological integrity of sequoia groves and will do nothing to protect these trees.” The letter’s signers warn that, “Some provisions in the bill could actually exacerbate the threat to the Giant Sequoias and our forests.”
In the South, we’ve seen policies encourage a particularly noxious form of wood-market expansion: the fast-growing wood-pellet industry, which turns U.S. trees into tiny pellets and ships them overseas to be burned to generate electricity. This process emits more carbon pollution than burning coal. Highly polluting and noisy wood pellet mills keep cropping up in rural low-income communities — most often, communities of color. Neighbors report trouble breathing, and serious problems with noise and dust.
This is an example of the environmental injustices caused by dirty energy and the climate change it perpetuates. Across the South, low-income communities and communities of color are bearing a disproportionate burden, as hurricanes, floods and other severe weather events are getting stronger, more frequent and more devastating, and sea levels continue to rise. Dangerous mold and unsafe drinking water are left behind long after floodwaters recede. Families are forced to move away from communities where their ancestors have lived for hundreds of years. And the trees that have sheltered these communities continue to be felled by equipment that pollutes the air, and hauled away by trucks spewing emissions from diesel-powered engines.
Our communities are responding to climate injustice by developing homegrown solutions, from installing solar-powered panels that produce clean water from thin air, to developing rural business opportunities that don’t depend on cutting down trees. But too often, our voices are drowned out by organizations that soak up money and media attention while pushing false climate solutions that damage our forests. Sometimes the culprits are logging and wood-product companies. And sometimes they get help from giant environmental organizations that claim they are doing the right thing, but that are far away from frontline climate communities, and don’t seem to hear our voices.
We’ve engaged with these organizations, but with mixed success. For example, we lead two of the 158 faith, forest protection and climate justice groups — representing 3.5 million members in all — that have asked the U.S.’s biggest environmental nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), to engage with us on logging and forest-protection issues. TNC’s billion-dollar-a-year income and million-dollar lobbying budget tend to get it a seat at tables in the halls of power, where we are not invited to sit. And TNC’s track record suggests too cozy a relationship with big corporations with an interest in expanding logging rather than protecting U.S. forests.
Still, we tried to engage TNC. In 2020, about 50 organizations wrote a letter asking for a meeting with TNC’s CEO, raising concerns that the giant green group was “prioritizing the financial interests of the industrial logging and wood products industry at the expense of solving the climate crisis, protecting nature and advancing environmental justice.” We had two meetings with senior staff, including a five-hour meeting with scientists and environmental justice and forest-protection leaders. TNC thanked us for the conversation, but turned down our offer to issue a joint public statement about the importance of protecting forests from industrial-scale logging, and made no offer to continue the discussion.
Enough is enough. We call on The Nature Conservancy, other large conservation organizations and the philanthropic community — including the many leaders who’ve pledged support for the concept that frontline communities should speak for themselves — to hear the voice of people living with environmental injustice, and protect the forests we value and the Earth that we share. And we call on the Biden/Harris administration and members of Congress to listen to communities advancing forest protection and real climate solutions that put people first, not profit first.
Martin Luther King Jr. talked about moving from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. That’s what our communities are talking about when we talk about forests: caring for creation in a way that promotes healthy, safe communities and a sustainable planet for all God’s people.