Wilderness Society's Peterman looks at timber industry trends in southeastern U.S.

As timber companies divest themselves of million acres of land in the southeastern United States, conservation groups fear that lands now providing habitat and watershed protection will soon fall victim to urban sprawl. Frank Peterman, director of public and political awareness with the Wilderness Society's Eastern Forest program, talks about environmental groups' efforts to protect some of these lands, and explains why federal land conservation programs need more funding. Also, Peterman details his efforts to get more minority groups involved with the environmental movement.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is Frank Peterman of the Wilderness Society. He's the director of Public and Political Awareness with the Eastern Forest Program. Frank thanks a lot for being here today.

Frank Peterman: Thank you for inviting me.

Brian Stempeck: Now you just traveled up from Georgia to be with us. In your state, and throughout the Southeast, we've seen kind of a growing trend in the past few years where a lot of the timber companies are starting to sell off a lot of lands they have. Talk about that issue and why that's such a problem in the Southeast right now.

Frank Peterman: Well the number one reason that is such a problem in the Southeast is because very little of the land is owned by the federal government or local governments. In fact, less than 11 percent in the state of Georgia, which means that most of the forest and private lands that need to be conserved are in the hands of private interests. The Weyerhaeuser Corporation just sold 330,000 acres right in the middle of Georgia and has an upcoming sale from International Paper Company of another half-million acres. Unfortunately most of that land is being bought by speculators and developers. And that is not to cast them in a bad light, but their business and the way they make money is inconsistent with conservation and that is what is creating the tremendous problem in the Southeast now.

Brian Stempeck: Why is it such a problem? To somebody from the outside it looks like the lesser of two evils. I mean you're talking about the timber company owning the land versus a real estate developer opening the land. I mean from an environmental group's perspective, aren't those equally evil?

Frank Peterman: No. If the timber company is engaged in a sustainable harvesting then we would applaud that. We are not a "no cut" organization. We are about proper management and sustainability. When you take the land out of timber production for development and you pave it over you change the whole character of the land. And it loses its value as a habitat for animals, for recreation and for watershed protection, which is a very important feature that most citizens value.

Brian Stempeck: Now you mentioned this is happening in Georgia with the Weyerhaeuser Corporation and other companies, International Paper. Where else is it occurring throughout the Southeast? Can you give us more examples of that?

Frank Peterman: I can't give you exact examples of specific companies, but it is happening in every state in the Southeast. The International Paper Company's sale, I believe, is also taking in land in South Carolina and North Carolina. But it is a trend. And not to cast the timber companies as bad guys. They're in the business of making money. Let's understand why this is happening, is that they find it more profitable to move their operations overseas and other places. And you can do the numbers. Let's say it takes a tree 40 years to come to timber production in Maine. You see this started as the timber companies became, moved south. It takes it 20 years let us say in Georgia, it may take it 10 years in Central or South America. And now they actually have trees that can come to fiber production in less than 10 years. Do the math. This is all about numbers, about the business of making money from providing wood fiber. That's what the timber companies are in. So that is the reason that we have the crisis, is that they can make more money producing the timber in other places.

Brian Stempeck: What's the role for environmental groups here? I mean obviously these timberlands can become major habitat. They've become a place where you can work with the companies themselves in ways, as you said, to manage the woods in a sustainable way. What's the role looking forward as these companies start to sell off these lands? Is the Wilderness Society, or other groups, starting to work and try to buy these lands? What's the outcome here?

Frank Peterman: The outcome is certainly to, one, prioritize what lands are most important. We have to be realistic. The companies are selling, as I said, to speculators and developers, so some of this land is actually going to go into development. So what the first thing we have to do is determine which of these lands are most important. And especially those that are near the boundaries, our wildlife refuges, our national parks and national forests. Those are lands we want to take a hard look at and come up with ways to acquire them. The second thing is for us to beef up the federal funding for purchasing of land. If you look at the conservation trust fund of the federal government, for the last 22 years it has steadily been going down. Now the important thing about the trust fund is that these are monies that do not come directly from the taxpayer, but they come from the royalties that we get off of the leases that we give to oil companies, timber companies, etc. So what Congress has done, despite having said that it was going to give up to $900 million per year, they've steadily reduced that. And they've never reached the $900 million goal. I said all that to say one of the roles for conservation organizations is to begin to have a push to have Congress to increase their bonds and their trusts, the conservation trust, so that we'll have available funds to purchase many of these lands.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that that push though needs to come from the White House as well? I mean the Interior Department, or the Agricultural Department I guess, the Forest Service has said that about 20 million acres have been sold off by the timber company since the early '90s. And they have said this is a major problem, urban sprawl coming in, losing a lot of these plains that you had in the past. Should we see the forest service and the Interior Department and the Agricultural Department stepping forward and making a greater push for these kinds of things?

Frank Peterman: Oh, I certainly wish we would see that. Of course the leadership could do us a tremendous job in pushing for this. So far as I can tell the present administration is not disposed to do that. I think that we have certainly made it clear that this is a very important tool to saving these places. But no one seems to have picked up the ball in the administration and helped prepare the public and to push Congress to do this. What they're doing is, I don't know, you've seen in some other states where they'll have the Lotto, saying it going for education. But then as the years go by they take a piece for something else and a piece for, and you end up with what the people approved, the funds not being used for what it was approved for. In '64 the Congress passed the conservation trust pact and said if you're taking the resources, then put some money back to protect and buy other resources, which to me is very simple. But Congress has not picked up the mantle to do that. And one of the reasons, I'm not so certain that the public understands how this works, because it's not like new taxation, at all. It is money that we are already getting from another source that Congress will, that diverts from its intended purpose to other purposes.

Brian Stempeck: It's kind of switching gears, but talking about what you just mentioned, working with the public. That's something you've done a great deal in the past. Specifically you and your wife started a group to work with minorities, trying to involve more African-Americans and people of color in getting into the environmental movement. Historically that's been a major weakness for the movement. Talk about the work you've done there in terms of trying to involve more people.

Frank Peterman: Well we sort of fell into this. In 1995 we went around the country, we went about 12,500 miles, 40 states, 15 national parks. I don't know how many states. And we went from Everglades in Florida to Arcadia National Park in Maine, across the Olympic, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, etc. We were astounded that once we left Arcadia National Park in Maine that we saw two black people in the national parks for that whole two-and-a-half months or 12,500 mile journey. On our way back we got to thinking that this is abnormal. Something is wrong with this, and it could not have been a coincidence that we just happened to hit all the parks where there were no black folk. And we decided we should do something about that. And so we started publishing a newsletter specifically targeting African-Americans, telling them about this wonderful land that's theirs and part of their heritage. Many of the national parks, particularly out West, were protected by the Buffalo soldiers. That's the reason they exist. Colonel Young and the Buffalo soldiers protected many of the old-growth trees out West. There is a very rich history among African-Americans and these places. So we decided we had to make more of an appeal. Now what we found is that often times the conservation and environmental organizations, as well as the national park, people in the National Park Service I should say, personnel, this is certainly not universal, but then we sort of felt like we should go farther. We need to make a special invitation. It's there for everyone. And this thinking still persists and it's hard to get through to people that when you have had a different cultural history in this country, particularly as it pertains in the South to the woods, there is an element of fear. And we have to overcome this by explaining what the parks are for and that they are open to everyone. If you don't have a history, here I am, I had not, other than the Everglades, I had never been to another national park until we took the tour that we took. I was aware of the national park system, but it just was not, my mother and father tried to expose us to everything. But they did not know about national parks so they didn't carry us to national parks. So one of the things that we have to do is try to get the word out to African-Americans because in a white home, if you grow up with Sierra Club magazine, Audubon magazine, Wilderness magazine, that this is part of what's in your house lying around, then you immediately gravitate towards wanting to know more about it. If your home is absent of these things then it is a whole new area for you and someone has to introduce you to it and explain what it is all about. This hit home with me when I first went to Yellowstone. While I was standing there I looked at the lodge and I said out loud, "Is that where the fire was?" I think it was, what? Was it '84 or '87?

Brian Stempeck: '88 I think it was.

Frank Peterman: And the gentleman standing, a white gentleman from Chicago standing next to me said, "Yes, because when my father brought me they were building this section. When I brought my son they were building this section." And for the first time it hit me I had missed something with my children because I had not brought them. It was not part of our tradition for us, for me to bring them to the national park. And you can repeat that with several African-American families in this country.

Brian Stempeck: Now you and your wife have also worked, I read a story where you're working on the New River in Florida, talking about involving a local black community trying to clean up the river. It seems like that kind of thing also needs to happen more in terms of getting African-Americans involved in the environmental movement. Talk a little bit about the work you did in Florida.

Frank Peterman: Well what we did in Florida, in trying to help the restoration effort of the Everglades, was to let people know that it had a direct effect on their lives. The New River was an exciting project because it runs through the heart of the black community in Fort Lauderdale, one of the largest black communities in South Florida. The great thing about it was because it had been left 'undeveloped' right in the heart of the city was this very wild place, wild birds, animals there. And it was part of the community. The community was not clamoring for it to be changed or moved or anything else. And the interesting thing about it, it was one of the last tributaries that was part of the old Everglades River and system. So we were able to generate public interest in saving the New River and thereby connect it to what we were doing for Everglades restoration.

Brian Stempeck: All right Frank, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being on the show. We appreciate you stopping by.

Frank Peterman: Thank you. I appreciate it very much.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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