It is possible for the environment and business to get what they want – A memorial to Dr. Thomas Lovejoy

By Carlton Owen, retired CEO, US Endowment for Forestry and Communities
Tree Frog Editorial
January 25, 2022
Category: Opinion / EdiTOADial
Region: Canada, United States

Thomas Lovejoy

Edward Wilson

Just as 2021 was ending, America and the world lost two of its best known and most influential conservation scientists – Dr. Thomas Lovejoy (12.25.21) and Dr. Edward Wilson (12.26.21).  Deep thinkers like these two who have the ability to popularize science in ways that appeal to the masses come along all-too-rarely.

I did not know Dr. Wilson personally, but I have read many of his publications.  On the other hand, Tom Lovejoy was a colleague and friend.  Of the many stories I could share about Tom, I want to focus on just one – the legacy of a noted conservation scientist willing to risk his reputation by working closely with corporate America

Here’s the tale.  For the decade of the 90s I worked with the forest products giant, Champion International Corporation (Champion).  The company was among the largest private forest owners in the U.S., managed large forest tenures in Canada, and for nearly a half-century had pulp and paper mills and short-rotation forest plantation in southern Brazil. 

In the mid-90s the company chartered a team to do a global search for a new area capable of producing millions of tons of high-grade pulpwood fiber positioned strategically to meet the growing needs of our pulp and paper mills.  After scouring the forested regions of the planet, the team settled on Amapa the newest state in Brazil which lies in Brazil’s northeast corner and abuts the Amazon River to its mouth.  Unlike our decades-long marketing campaign emphasizing that Champion’s Brazilian forests were “1500 miles from the Amazon,” the soon-to-be one-million-acre acquisition would undisputedly be in the midst of the Amazon.

When I began to question our wisdom and plan for defending this decision, I was told that these were old farmlands – actually mostly cerrado (savannah-like grass lands) more so than rainforest.  “Wastelands” as one of our Brazilian leaders termed them.  Not willing to sit quietly by, I began searching every scientific article I could find about the status of cerrado and its biological diversity as well as the interspersed patches of rainforest.  As someone who is bilingual – fluent in southern with passible English – I had great difficulty reading more than a few scientific words in the abstracts written in Portuguese.  I finally found a Brazilian studying in South Carolina who helped me with translations.  In short, cerrado was and is more endangered than rainforests and harbors a diversity of rare plants and animals.  Too, when you have cerrado AND rainforests, the diversity is greater still.

With my newfound scientific understanding, I made the pitch to senior management that we were about to step on a proverbial landmine unless we took the time to fully understand what our new lands held.  I urged that we enlist the help of my colleague Tom Lovejoy whom I’d gotten to know well when then Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was advocating creation of the U.S. Biological Survey – a new science-based agency that would combine the research arms of several federal agencies to collect data on all things natural.

Treading tentatively Champion’s leadership agreed to at least meet with Tom and me to discuss the idea.  Once Tom was convinced that we were serious about wanting to be guided by science and our leadership felt that Tom didn’t have an agenda other than helping provide information for sound decision making, we were off.  Our next step was to determine the vehicle to guide our work.  We opted to use the Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) survey protocols developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – the world’s largest non-profit land conservancy.  TNC with my and Tom’s oversight empaneled a team of conservation scientists – ichthyologists, ornithologist, mammologists, plant ecologists and more. 

To say that the science team was more than skeptical about Champion’s motives would be a gross understatement.  Questions included, “What can we not consider?” “Where are we restricted from going?”  My answers gave them pause but didn’t fully allay their fears: “You can consider anything, and you can go anywhere and everywhere on the properties in question.  We simply want your best science-based recommendations.”  I continued, “That said, at this point we can’t promise that we will be able to do everything you want.  But we need your best thinking, findings and recommendations to ensure that we have a sound foundation upon which to finalize our plans.”

The company’s plan was to establish perhaps as much as 500,000 acres of short-rotation eucalyptus plantations across the property and then ship wood chips out the mouth of the Amazon River to our facilities across Canada and the U.S.  As a result of the great work of our team and under the guidance of Tom Lovejoy, the results exceeded everyone’s expectations – the science team’s and Champion’s leadership. The team found amazing plant and animal populations including a couple of species new to science and even the presence of a fish-eating mouse never-before reported in the region. 

Under Brazilian law at the time, landowners in the Amazon were required to maintain fifty percent of each parcel in natural condition — either rainforest or cerrado.  This law, while well-intentioned, threatened to place hurdles in front of the most desirable conservation outcomes.  Fortunately, Tom had a close personal relationship with Brazil’s President.  He was able to persuade the President to adopt the equivalent of a Presidential Executive Order that allowed the lands to be looked at in total rather than by parcel when based on a detailed study such as that conducted by Champion via the REA.

With this newfound flexibility, our science team and company planners could look at the one-million acres as one large picture rather than dozens of smaller pieces.  As a result, we were able to set aside not 500,000 acres as required by law, but more than 660,000 acres.  These acres were the most ecologically valuable large blocks.  Some of Tom’s other research in the Amazon had added information to address the question of SLOSS – whether it is best to protect “single large or several small” conservation reserves.  Most studies point to greater sustainability and ecological value in retention of large blocks of habitat versus small patches.   In this case we were able to one-up SLOSS with “several large vs. several small” habitat blocks.

Clearly the Amapa project yielded great conservation outcomes, but what about the economics and advantages to Champion?  By concentrating the plantations on the most disturbed areas, which also happened to be nearer the port, the company would save millions of dollars in transportation costs and the ability to manage larger forested blocks rather than fragmented plantations. 

So, is it possible for the environment and business to get both what they want?  Champion’s approach showed that it is more than possible.  As I think about my friend Tom Lovejoy, it’s easy to consider how few people of his reputation would ever have given a second thought to working with what many environmental leaders considered destroyers of the environment – a large forest products company.  Our world needs more Tom Lovejoy’s as we wrestle with the challenges that face our planet and the needs of nearly eight billion human inhabitants not to mention the billions of our wild neighbors


Carlton Owen has 45 years’ experience in leading change for the greater good of the sector including stints with Potlatch Corporation; policy work with trade organizations in Washington, DC; a decade with Champion International Corporation; owner of his own global consulting practice; and the last 15 years as founding chief executive of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. He can be reached at

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