The Power of Ordinary Citizens: Using Science to Stop Logging

On Aug. 17, 2012, Massachusetts citizens' widely watched years-long effort fighting biomass power plants culminated in a major victory. Responding to citizen pressure, the state had commissioned a scientific study of greenhouse gas impacts from biomass power plants, and the results prompted the state to now change its regulations to disqualify many wood-fired power plants from certain green-energy subsidies.

Less widely watched, but equally important, is the other side of the slash-and-burn coin, namely citizens' use of science to stop logging. A handful of ordinary Massachusetts citizens, enlisting the support of many others, overturned a "done deal" to log trees in Robinson State Park by disproving 22 spurious reasons the state put forth to justify the cutting.Their example can be replicated to save forests elsewhere. This article shows how they did it. It also shines a light on typical excuses given to justify logging.

In western Massachusetts less than five miles from the state's third largest city, 852-acre Robinson State Park is surrounded by development and used for hiking, picnicking, cross-country skiing, swimming, fishing, canoeing, bicycling, dog walking, and studying and enjoying nature. The park supports over 50 species of trees, diverse wildlife (including fisher cats, bald eagles, and moose), and a huge variety of plants. The park serves as an important stopover for migratory birds and home to numerous rare, threatened, and endangered plant and animal species.

One day, ominous blue paint marked trees in some areas of the park. People asked each other what was up and no one knew, so they contacted the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and were informed of plans to log 133 acres. At the citizens' request, DCR met with them at the local library, where DCR claimed that logging was needed to:
  • Improve the long-term health of the forest;
  • Reduce threats from windstorms, insects, and wildfire; and
  • Enhance public safety and natural resources.

While this may sound wonderful, the citizens weren't mollified and resolved to research these claims. One month after this meeting, despite public concerns, DCR sealed a deal with the only logger to submit a bid -- for $13,191 in exchange for the trees.

For two years, the citizens fought back. The pattern was that DCR would present reasons to justify the logging, which the citizens would then research, with the help of volunteer experts such as forest ecologists, and then refute. Rather than responding, DCR would put forth new reasons and once again place the burden of disproof on the citizens.

The citizens kept track of DCR's excuses as they changed, documenting 22. DCR offered one excuse after another in an effort to find one the citizens would accept. It was clear DCR did not even know what natural resources exist in the park, let alone intend to protect them. For example, DCR said there were no vernal pools in the park when there were seven, some of which would have been trashed given paint marks on the trees in and around them.

The 22 excuses all turned out to be insupportable at Robinson. Often the polar opposite was true -- rather than addressing the cited problem, the excuse would create or exacerbate that very problem. DCR presented generic reasons for logging with no science to back them up.

Here is the list, according to Massachusetts Forest Watch:

  1. We need to treat fungus-infested red pine.
  2. The hardwood forest needs the harvest for its health.
  3. The forest needs the harvest to create biodiversity.
  4. The forest needs the harvest to preserve existing biodiversity.
  5. The forest needs the harvest to promote age class diversity.
  6. The forest needs the harvest because its trees are reaching "maturity."
  7. The forest needs the harvest because it contains trees that might fall, creating liability issues.
  8. The forest needs the harvest because it lacks young trees to continue the forest cycle.
  9. The forest needs the harvest to remove large diameter trees that are most susceptible to catastrophic wind events.
  10. The forest needs the harvest to reduce risks from forest insects and diseases.
  11. The forest needs the harvest to reduce fuel buildup and risks of fire.
  12. The forest needs the harvest to benefit wildlife.
  13. The hardwoods need harvesting so as to efficiently use the same access roads and landings required for treating the red pines.
  14. The forest needs the harvest to enhance water quality.
  15. The forest will benefit because after harvesting, the loggers will bulldoze, smooth, and move some of the trails.
  16. The town will significantly benefit financially by receiving 8 percent of the revenue from the timber sale.
  17. The harvest will benefit the local economy.
  18. The forest needs the harvest to remove hazards and fire fuel buildup along boundaries with abutters.
  19. The harvest is needed where trees have encroached on a field.
  20. he harvest is needed because otherwise in 20 years the whole forest will be taken over by red maple.
  21. No one should worry about this harvest because it would be performed using Forest Stewardship Council guidance and green certification, signifying that the State maintains its forests in a sustainable manner.
  22. Including harvest of hardwoods is the only way to attract a logger to also treat the less valuable red pines.

DCR's approach was predicated on hubris, assuming humans can do a better job managing forests than nature, and denial, in refusing to acknowledge actual consequences of "treatment," "harvesting," and "management," such as encouraging invasive species, reducing biodiversity, disrupting/destroying wildlife and their habitat, eroding soil and degrading water quality, and making an ugly mess. In many if not most cases, the best course for the forest is to leave it alone.

After none of the excuses held up and DCR ran out of new ones, DCR ultimately canceled the contract. Aside from the pro bono experts, the relentless citizens were on their own. Large environmental organizations shied away from what they considered a local dispute, although one became supportive over time. The effort was led by a core group of about five people, and a dozen people regularly attended meetings. An email list of about 350 and well over 2,000 petition signers provided additional support.

Ripple effects spread out widely from Robinson, and the citizens can largely be credited with inspiring the state to undertake a "Forest Futures Visioning Process" to evaluate the full set of ecosystem services public lands provide. This resulted in the state defining some forests and parks as park lands and reserves, which are off limits to commercial logging. The state designated other properties as woodlands, where commercial logging is still allowed, despite public comments on the draft plan which were overwhelmingly against commercial logging on any public land. This may be just a start, but it is a significant improvement over prior policy.

Logging pressure intensifies with time. In some areas, trees are reaching commercially valuable sizes after recovering from heavy logging a century ago. The insidious practice of burning trees to generate electricity is an increasing driver. The desire to create jobs in rural areas also motivates logging. Forests on public lands are particularly tempting to loggers because they have been less cut over than forests on private lands.

The example at Robinson illustrates that much stronger forest protection is needed, that the rationale given for logging may not be sound, and that ordinary citizens can change the game. Especially now with climate change, we need every tree possible to absorb carbon dioxide and provide the earth's heat shield, in addition to trees' other services like sheltering and feeding wildlife, cleaning air and water, holding the soil together, moderating the water cycle, and providing wild places for humans. Although we can reduce our use of forest products like paper and lumber, some harvesting will be necessary. But that's no excuse for recklessness. Given our increasing need for trees, increasing threats to trees, and the long time frames needed to recover from tree cutting mistakes, we urgently need policy change now that acknowledges and incorporates the value of living trees. And ordinary citizens can drive such change, as the example at Robinson illustrates.

What can the average person do?
  • Be skeptical of rationale given for logging like the 22 excuses above. Seek the opinion of scientists who are not funded, directly or indirectly, by the timber industry.
  • Support sound climate policies.
  • Speak out against logging on public lands.
  • Support local groups like watershed associations.
  • Get involved in local efforts to protect forests. Exert pressure by going to the media and local politicians.
  • Support non-profit organizations working on behalf of forests (but beware of masquerading organizations with nice-sounding names).
  • Prevent forest fires in biomass plants (just because such fires are intentional and take place in a box rather than out in the open doesn't mean they're not massive forest fires).
  • Hold public servants' feet to the fire and don't give up.
  • Support outdoor education programs for children.
  • Alert others to timber industry propaganda.

The example at Robinson proves Margaret Mead's famous words, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."