WATER: The MOST Important Forest Product, Let’s Act Like It

By Carlton Owen, retired CEO, US Endowment for Forestry and Communities
Tree Frog Editorial
April 26, 2022
Category: Opinion / EdiTOADial
Region: Canada, United States

Carlton Owen

We in the forest sector love to remind people of the thousands of products made from trees.  Beyond lumber and paper, we are quick to note, among others, the filler in grated parmesan cheese, rayon clothing, toothpaste and more.  Yes, it’s true, that we who steward and make our living from forests touch every person on the planet every day.  Even in nations with few forests, we can point to the benefit of single trees as wildlife habitats, producers of oxygen and even shade on a blistering hot African desert day.

In short, we tend to take the scientific approach.  “All we know are the facts, ma’am.” Or, as Dan Aykroyd said it in his Dragnet movie of the 80’s, “Just the facts, ma’am.”   

It is important to be factually sound in the era of “alternative facts.”  But we in the forestry sector all-too-often state those facts sans emotion.  In doing so we come across as uncaring and preachy.  In her blog titled, “Scientists Have Feelings Too,” Faith Kearns, a self-described scientist and communicator with the California Institute of Water Resources, provides a vivid example.  She writes, “Historian Naomi Oreskes argues that scientists should express more alarm about climate change. She recalls a conference presentation where an audience member stood up and said, “You are telling us that we have a very serious problem, but you don’t sound at all worried. You don’t even sound upset!” 

Finding the balance between being factual and doing so with natural human emotions shouldn’t be as difficult as we seem to make it.  When we “scientists” root for our favorite sports team or cheer on our children or grandchildren at a Saturday soccer match, few of us would be accused of being emotionless.  Why then do we have problems injecting appropriate emotion into our professional language and lives?

If you don’t care for the “scientific” vs. “emotional” perspectives, what about just being human?  Isn’t it human to show at least some emotions about things we care deeply about?

Over the last few years one of my favorite topics as I addressed various groups around the continent was shared under the banner of “The Century of Forests and Forests Products.”  In short, my spiel centered on all of the ways that forests are important to life on our planet.  I didn’t begin with lumber and paper although I noted that they were important to quality of life.  Yet, we “could” live without them.  HOWEVER, we can’t LIVE without the most important of all forest products – WATER!

Think about it in terms of the “rule of 3.”  One can survive for 3 minutes without air (oxygen) or in icy water; 3 hourswithout shelter in a harsh environment (unless in icy water); 3 days without water (if sheltered from a harsh environment); or, 3 weeks without food (if you have water and shelter).  While some might want to point to 3 hours without shelter as meaning wood products, they miss the point.

Water is really the only forest product that we CAN’T live without.  (Remember, while trees do produce oxygen, most of what need to sustain life actually comes from ocean plankton not trees!).

Is it possible that we as forest managers or anyone who works directly in the forest sector, might connect more deeply with those who lean more toward the preservation approach if we acknowledged that forests are more than just fiber farms?  If we showed, through our emotions, that we loved forests just as deeply as they?  And that not EVERY forest has to be or even should be managed for human needs and wants?

Two of three North American’s get their drinking water from a forest every day.  In my adopted hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, it’s three of three.  Decades ago, Greenville’s local leaders created two mountain lakes surrounded by intact forests to provide superior drinking water for area residents.  As Greenville has grown from a sleepy small southern town to a bustling and bursting at the seams city, those two reservoirs no longer meet all our needs.  The future of Greenville’s water actually lies in another mountain lake, this one built for energy production and surrounded by a booming vacation home economy.

While citizens are not even allowed to hike or fish in Greenville Water’s protected watersheds, one can boat, swim, and build homes using septic tanks that all-too-often fail, in Greenville’s future water source — Lake Keowee.  It isn’t too difficult to explain in relative terms how much better active forest management when done right is as compared to rampart conversion of forests to development.

It’s time we learned to connect better with all citizens who love forests.  Part of the formula for doing so is rooted in not just what we say, but as my wife is always quick to tell me, “how” we say it.  Too, finding a common starting point of agreement, such as the importance of forests for water, may just help get those conversations off on the right foot.


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 carltonowen1@gmail.com

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