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Forestry Notes Q&A: Scott Davis, Keeping Forests as Forests

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By Mike Beacom

Forestry Notes Q&A: Scott Davis, Keeping Forests as Forests Project Coordinator 

Scott Davis is the project coordinator for Keeping Forests as Forests (KFAF), a 13-state southern forest conservation initiative. The group is supported by a diverse coalition of both private and public stakeholders ranging from human health professionals to traditional forest products manufactures and conservationists.

Davis spent more than a decade living and working in Belize, Ecuador, Indonesia and the Bahamas on a variety of fishery, aquaculture and coastal management projects. After that, he worked for The Nature Conservancy for nearly 25 years in various roles until accepting his post with KFAF in 2017. He shared time with NACD Forestry Notes recently to discuss KFAF’s ongoing work:

The genesis of Keeping Forests as Forests is the projected loss of 23 million acres of southern forestland over the next half-century. Provide the most frightening side effect from that loss if partners don’t take action.

Forests impact so many different aspects of our daily lives that it’s hard to identify a single “most frightening” scenario.  A basic tenant of KFAF involves shifting the conversation around forest conservation from one focused on “protection” to one which considers forests as “critical infrastructure.”

After all, functional forests create jobs and support local economies, keep our water clean, sequester carbon and provide wildlife habitat and places for outdoor recreation. In many ways, forests are every bit as important to people’s lives as highways and water treatment facilities. Unfortunately, we take many of these services for granted. I grew up under a paradigm that considered this country’s natural resource base as essentially limitless. Over the last 50 years or so I think we’ve come to realize that’s not true – and it’s been that realization that has driven so much of the “protection” work of the last several decades.

Now it’s time for that paradigm to shift again.  It’s time to move away from thinking about our forests as particular places on the landscape and reframe the conversation around the inherent social, biological and economic values that functional forests represent to people today and in the future.

You’re getting ready to roll out a strategic plan. What is the greatest obstacle for your group in turning ideas into implementation?

The greatest obstacle to making progress – to implementing the vision – may be in making the paradigm shift described above – getting legislators, land use planners, corporations and the general public to understand that forests truly are critical infrastructure worthy of public investment.

Although conservation strategies have to touch down somewhere, what KFAF is attempting is much more complicated than simply acquiring working forests easements or adding new tracts to public land holdings (although both are important activities). To facilitate a paradigm shift in how forests are viewed and valued, we have to create the enabling conditions that support and encourage the long-term ownership and management of forests by the private sector.

That means we’ll need to identify and implement the economic, social and political strategies that create these enabling conditions. And to do that – especially from a political and economic perspective – we’re going to have to move the discussion to a place where we begin to think about and value our forests as critical infrastructure. And as I think most people would agree that kind of change is always a challenge.

How might conservation districts fit into that plan?

As I recall, conservation districts were represented via NACD in the planning process, which was important and helpful in terms of private landowner representation (NACD is represented on the group by Forestry Resource Policy Group members John McAlpine of Arkansas and Gary Blair of Mississippi).  Beyond that, we’re excited by the leadership role NACD has recently accepted as we move from more of a planning stance into implementation.

Districts can be incredibly helpful in working with individual landowners to help them understand and take advantage of the various programs and/or incentives that may be available to support their management objectives. But of equal importance is the role conservation districts can play as conduits of information and perspective from the private landowners back to the larger collaboration.

This whole effort is focused on supporting private landowners in the long-term ownership and management of their forests. KFAF does not itself have the staff or resources to engage the landowner community in the same way conservation districts can. So, by participating in the collaboration, the individual districts (and NACD) can play an important role in both the development of thoughtful strategies and their implementation over time.

Everyone benefits from our forests, whether it’s clean air, clean water, recreation, wildlife habitat. How does your group plan to communicate these benefits to policymakers?

Well, as part of the strategic plan KFAF has identified six important areas of focus for strategic activity:  public and private partnerships; forest values; political action and policy; markets; planning; and communication and education. Each of these topics now has a working team made up of partner organizations whose charge includes the development of strategic approaches designed to move KFAF’s conservation agenda forward through the lens of that particular team.

Communication and outreach – given the need to literally “change the conversation” around forests – will obviously be critical to the effort. That said, there is already a lot of really good information out there that has been generated by like-minded organizations, and there is no need for KFAF to reinvent the communication wheel. One thing the team will do, however, is compile the best information available and make sure it is in a form that the political action and policy team can effectively utilize in the implementation of their strategies and messaging to our elected officials.

One of the advantages of a collaboration like KFAF is the ability to integrate the work from different teams to create leverage points that otherwise might not exist. The work of the communications and education team will be critical to a number of working groups. They will help compile the existing available information in addition to creating effective messages for the broad variety of audiences we will need to communicate with over time, including those responsible for making policy decisions.

How does forestry’s connection with public health fit into the conversation?

That is a really interesting question. Historically, we have not focused our conversation surrounding forests on their impacts on human health, but that is changing. Recent studies in urban centers have shown documented benefits from tree planting and urban canopy cover on the heart health of local citizens, and I think many of us understand the mental health values of spending a day in the woods.

Beyond that, the impacts of forests on air and water quality, and subsequently on human health, are pretty well understood. But once again, it’s something that I think historically we’ve taken for granted, but are now beginning to document.

What’s interesting about KFAF is that we’re trying to expand the boundaries of a typical forest-focused collaboration to include human health professionals. It’s another piece of the puzzle and is something I think will be important in helping to define forests as critical infrastructure. The Center for Disease Control is currently serving on our Executive Committee and brings some unique and fresh perspectives to the conversation. Pardon the pun – but I think human health will be a “growth” area for KFAF and any other collaboration focused on natural resource management moving forward.

Large-scale sustainable forestry requires a strong wood products market. Many southern states have suffered from shrinking infrastructure. What can your group point to as proof things can turn around in those states?

Both new products and new markets will be key to sustaining our forests. As we’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest, the development and application of new products like cross laminated timber (CLT) can make a big difference to local and national markets and can help to fill the gap created by the decline in use of other, more traditional forest products. The markets team within KFAF is tasked specifically with supporting partner research on the development of new products and the marketing of both new and traditional products, and will work with both the communications and outreach team, as well as the political policy and action team, to facilitate the adoption and use of new products like CLT.

Another approach may involve looking at both products and markets a little differently. As we’ve discussed, forests provide us with any number of services that could and should be monetized and marketed, but are currently taken for granted including: the maintenance of water quality and quantity, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitats, etc.  All of these “products” have a value to society as a whole. One of the things we need to figure out is how to effectively monetize them and use those revenues to support private property owners in their efforts to maintain and manage their properties. Once again, it will take a bit of a shift in thinking to get there, but it’s where we need to go.

Private landowners love their woodlands for a variety of reasons, but one deterrent is their tax bill. What can be done to help landowners understand timber tax laws and educate landowners about programs to offset taxes?

This is a bit of a two part question. The first part deals with current tax policy and the changes in policy needed to support the long-term management of our forest resources. Understanding how tax policy specifically impacts the decisions of private landowners and then adjusting those policies in support of the long-term ownership, management and restoration of forests is obviously a high priority for the political action and policy team. Developing a regional identity around our southern forests and subsequently using that collective identity and influence to engage emerging Working Forest Caucasus’ in both the House and Senate will also be important to our long-term success.

The second part of the question deals with making sure landowners are participating in the process described above and that they have the knowledge and information necessary to make informed choices. This is where our public partners like conservation districts and NACD can really help. KFAF as an organization has very limited staff resources; we rely to a great extent on our partners, their expertise and networks to communicate to both landowners and decision makers. Hopefully through their participation in KFAF, partners like the NACD will have the necessary information to help inform and educate their constituencies, who in turn can then support the larger objectives of KFAF.

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