– by Josh Schlossberg, March 22, 2016, Earth Island Journal
The Nature Conservancy’s Russ Hoeflich might not like the spotlight, but he’s among the vanguard of a new conservation movement hoping to move beyond conflicts with the timber industry to find common ground on forest management.
Abandoning the long-time environmentalist focus on wilderness, “new conservationists” such as Hoeflich want to strike a balance between natural ecosystems and people by creating “working landscapes,” where only limited forms of extraction are allowed.
Over his 27 years as director of the Oregon Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Hoeflich helped reinvent the role of conservationists by allying with the timber industry to promote restoration logging in both public and private forests. Hoeflich has made ample use of his smarts and charisma in an effort to alert the public and elected officials to what he calls the “ever degrading forest condition” of national forests, Bureau of Land Management tracts, and industrial timberlands, thanks to high-grade logging, livestock grazing, and wildfire suppression.
These unhealthy forests, according to Hoeflich, are at high risk of devastating wildfires, which threaten ecosystems and human communities alike. His solution is the expansion of “fuel reduction” logging to restore forest health, protect homes from burning, and provide a source of renewable “biomass” energy.
In 2014, Hoeflich’s focus shifted from Oregon to the US as a whole, as he took on the role of vice president and senior policy advisor for the $6 billion organization’s Restoring America’s Forests Program, the main goal of which is to “accelerate the pace and scale of forest restoration.” Hoeflich certainly has his work cut out for him, what with Forest Service estimates that up to 82 million acres of national forests are in need of restoration.
However, not everyone’s on board with the new conservationists’ agenda. Some forest ecologists, hydrologists, and more traditional, wilderness-centric conservationists contend that groups like The Nature Conservancy aren’t helping the forest, but instead are doing the bidding of the timber and bioenergy industries by inflaming fears of natural wildfire and “greenwashing” logging as restoration. Far from a forest remedy, they see this “log the forest to save it” mentality as a major threat to the nation’s carbon-storing forests, one of our best buffers against climate change. (See earlier Journal articles on the importance of wildfires here and here.)
Has The Nature Conservancy found a more realistic, and ultimately effective, approach to conservation by teaming up with an industry long despised as the enemy? Is Hoeflich, as some of his toughest critics suggest, merely an industry shill in environmentalist’s clothing? Or is the rift the result of two very different views on the relationship between humanity and the natural world?