The national discussion around environmentalism sounds partisan and contentious. But to those who are working daily to improve the environment, the real world has a far different feel. Rich Bowman, policy director of the Nature Conservancy in Michigan, joins me to discuss hands-on environmentalism for this week’s Overton Window podcast.
A key Nature Conservancy objective is to make the environment more resilient to climate change. “Fossil fuels have helped us do amazing things but they’re a little bit like spending money from your savings account. We’ve taken a whole bunch of carbon that was in long-term storage and released it back into the atmosphere,” Bowman says. “We’re working on natural climate solutions. We’re trying to manage forests and grasslands and agricultural working lands in a way that, in addition to producing all the things we want for life, they also capture and store, for longer periods of time, more of that atmospheric carbon.”
To do this, Bowman encourages letting valuable trees mature for longer times. Logging is an efficient industry with low profit margins, and costs are lower when companies can plant and harvest trees that are of the same age and species. So, if possible, forest companies will want to work in a maple forest that is made up of similarly aged and sized maple trees.
But the single-species nature of a stand like this can quickly become a double-edged sword. “What if our next emerald ash borer is the maple ash borer?” Bowman asks. “What if it’s even a native pest like the spruce budworm which attacks trees of a particular age in their life cycle?”
To avoid that risk, forest managers can increase the diversity of species and the ages of trees in the forests they manage. “If we can decrease that risk, we can increase the number of trees that grow to a larger size, and that increases the amount of carbon we store,” Bowman says.
He also wants to ensure that wood gets used for products with a long life, like buildings and furniture, so that the carbon captured by the tree stays out of the atmosphere.
In addition to providing for carbon sequestration, managing forests can improve biodiversity. “I’ve heard it called the watchmaker’s dilemma,” says Bowman. “You want to make sure you save all of the parts because you never know what part you might need.”
Bowman also describes the importance of establishing management policies at the state level that don’t incentivize overharvesting or other environmental harms. In the 19th century, the state owned most of the land and wanted to move it into private hands to encourage development. But this system encouraged overuse and poor forest management. “You could buy land inexpensively through public land offices, then go out to see if there was anything worth harvesting, get it harvested for a profit, and refuse to pay taxes,” Bowman says. “And it would take five years before the government got that land back.” Unfortunately, governments were complicit. “In the late 19th and early 20th century,” he explains, “the land office in Michigan sold something like 40 million acres of land, and the entire state of Michigan is only about 36 million acres.”
After setting up a tenure and permitting system that encouraged owners to take the valuable resources from these lands, the state became the default owner of millions of acres that no one wanted, and it couldn’t sell them. Policymakers then decided to reforest the land over time. Those lands became state parks. “The state owns about 4.6 million acres of land. We got 4.1 million of that because no one wanted to pay for it,” Bowman says.
“Today the state forest system generates $50 million to the forest development fund from sold timber. And it provides recreational opportunities. It provides all the things that we love about the forests up north,” Bowman says. “When I look at them, I see probably one of the more successful brownfield redevelopment projects in the history of the state.”
One of the state’s effective approaches is to recognize that foresters, farmers, and other people who own a lot of land face constraints. Those restrictions can encourage practices that may have unintended and harmful consequences. But Bowman and the Nature Conservancy believe that using market forces can focus land owners on better management techniques.
For instance, the Nature Conservancy is working with sugar beet farmers to use a different method of planting that doesn’t till the soil as much. This technique protects soil health and prevents erosion. But the equipment needed for these low-till practices is expensive. The Nature Conservancy has established “a program that we’re doing in cooperation with sugar beet farmers where we’re helping them with the costs of a strip tillage machine in exchange for them planting their beets using strip tillage,” Bowman says.
“We’re moving toward a world where nature and people thrive, so that we get all of the benefits and all of the things that are necessary for us to live our lives,” Bowman says.
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