By Rob Chaney
If a tree issue blows up in the forest, does anyone hear it?
Considering that eight of every 10 Americans live in big cities, that’s a problem for the Society of American Foresters. On Friday, the organization of forest professionals, loggers, mill workers, academics and government land managers gathered to puzzle how to better get their stories told.
Because while millions of Americans may never see a Ponderosa pine burn in a wildfire, they will breathe the smoke and may cancel their vacation plans and might pay more taxes for disaster relief. Meanwhile, the assembled society members at the University of Montana struggled with their own mixed messages, long-standing mistrust of opponents and unfamiliarity with a fast-changing media landscape.
“If we can’t get our collective act together, how can we expect the public to come around to broader agreement on forest issues?” asked Dave Atkins, a retired forester who now runs the online Treesource.org media outlet and serves on the National Association of Forest Professionals communication committee. He cited a recent NAFP survey that found 45 percent of U.S. and Canadian residents think that trees are harvested in national parks and protected areas (not true), and 64 percent believe deforestation is a major threat in North America (forests here are shrinking, but not at the rate of tropical forests in the Amazon or Indonesia).
“We have to take responsibility for the fact that people don’t understand what the forest condition really is,” Atkins said. “Seventy-one percent of the respondents had not heard about a forestry sector story in the past year. In places like Montana, we see this stuff all the time. But 83 percent of Americans live in urban areas.”