Thinking like a continent — the value of investing in forestry rather than softwood disputes

By Carlton Owen, retired CEO, US Endowment for Forestry and Communities
Tree Frog Editorial
October 11, 2021
Category: Opinion / EdiTOADial
Region: Canada, United States

Carlton Owen

With due respect to Quebec and its desire to hold to French as its official language, George Bernard Shaw’s quote about the United States and Britain – “two countries separated by a common language” – is perhaps even more applicable to Canada and the U.S.  As author Eric Rutkow noted in American Canopy, our two nations with the longest undefended border have a history founded on forests.  Respectively we steward the third (Canada) and fourth (U.S.) largest forest expanses on the planet.

In my way of thinking our respective forest sectors with so much in common seem to spend an inordinate amount of time and money focused on our differences.  I for one believe our collective futures would be much improved if we instead put our energy behind working together to steward those forests against unprecedented threats while also growing markets for forest products domestically and globally.

The lion’s share of my career in the forest sector have been spent in working at the “continental level” – at least to the northern two-thirds of the continent … Canada and the U.S. – with the last fifteen years intentionally and missionally spent in building bridges and collaboration between our two nations and our two sectors.  It’s learnings from those years that I’d like to explore as the foundation for a brighter future.

Regardless of where one stands on the Softwood Lumber Agreement 2006 (SLA) and the funds that were granted to “meritorious initiatives” in the states, I believe there is much evidence that at least one of the funded entities – the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities [the Endowment] (which I had the privilege of leading for its formative years) – rose not just to the letter but more to the spirit of the agreement.  In every meeting of the Endowment’s Board of Directors as well as discussions with staff, I reminded all that the SLA funds we stewarded had as its over-arching purpose to “ultimately support the North American forest industry.” 

When the Endowment and other institutions were funded some stories in the Canadian press charged the monies would be used as “slush fund” to promote political agendas.  I believe history records nothing of the kind.  Instead, the Endowment worked tirelessly to promote gains for the sector on both sides of the border.  Consider the following as evidence:

  1. It was the Endowment that, despite voices to the contrary, that studied and promoted developed of information and support that led to the creation of the sector’s first global commodity check-off program – today’s Softwood Lumber Board (SLB).From the successful vote by industry participants in 2011, the SLB has built an enviable record of partnerships and promotion that have grown markets for lumber products.   Since 2012, third-party assessments report a cumulative gain of more 7 billion board feet of incremental markets and a return on investment of greater than $30 for each dollar invested.
  2. Seeing the traction gained by the Endowment in the lumber sector, leaders in the paper and paper-based packaging sectors asked the Endowment to assist in the development of the second forest sector check-off.That successful work led to the creation of the Paper and Packaging Board.

These two entities are generating more than $40 million annually for direct investment as research and promotion funds to retain and grow markets for these vital forest products.  The lion’s share of all funding comes from producers in Canada and the U.S. overseen by Board’s of directors dominated by industry representatives from the two nations.

  1. Given the politically-charged environment generated by the ongoing softwood lumber dispute it is often difficult if not impossible for the respective federal leaders in forestry – Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada and the USDA Forest Service – to collaborate on important cross-border issues.Once again, the Endowment stepped in the fill the void.  Over the years the Endowment has been the convener of five Forest Health and Innovation Summits co-sponsored by the respective federal forest agencies.  The summits raised intentionality for cross-borders collaboration on forest health and market issues to new levels.

The Endowment’s list of cross-border and greater forest sector accomplishments is too great to list here.  Rather, the intent herein is to showcase the importance of investing and working at the continental level that has resulted from the organization’s work.

As a result of the Endowment’s work, we now have industry leaders from the Canada and the U.S. sitting at the same tables via the SLB and the Paper Board making investments for the future.  Likewise, the Forest Health and Innovation Summits have the Chiefs of our respective federal forest agencies leading their entities into deeper and more effective cross-border collaboration. 

Both represent strong foundations upon which a brighter future is not just possible but palpably within grasp.  What more could be accomplished for the continent’s forests and their respective forest industries if instead of investing in legal disputes such as the ongoing softwood lumber wars, we instead invested in forest retention, forest health and forest products markets?  Let me conclude with just a few thoughts from others who have said it far better than I will ever be able to do.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” – Michael Jordan

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” – Patrick Lencioni

“None of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful.” – Mother Teresa


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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