Seventh American Forest Congress

Many Voices -- A Common Vision

Reports from participants in the Seventh American Forest Congress

The following was originally published in Connecticut Woodlands magazine (Volume 61, Number 1, Spring 1996).

The Seventh American Forest Congress: Reflections of a Participant

by by Carol E. Youell

I was honored to have been able to represent the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (CFPA) at the 7th American Forest Congress which took place in Washington, D.C., February 20-24, 1996 at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. This was an opportunity to follow through on Connecticut's own Forest Congress Pilot Roundtable held two evenings last July 1995 in Haddam, Connecticut and sponsored by CFPA. This very successful event, attended by over 55 people from across the state, proved to be a model for organizing other such roundtables (some 50) throughout the country which subsequently provided input to the formal Congress and offered a solid base from which to begin.

By way of background, there have been six so-called Forest Congresses, bringing together representatives from public and private interests, at critical points in our nation's history. The first, convened in 1882, laid the foundation for the conservation movement in the United States. The second, hosted by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, was followed by the establishment of the National Forest System. Subsequent Congresses, convened in 1946, 1953 and 1975, addressed the critical policy issues of the time.

The 1996 Congress was billed as a citizens' Congress -- with no delegates, no invitations, and no maximum level of attendance -- thus potentially opening up constructive dialogue about our nation's forests with a broad cross-section of the American public. I would like to share with you some of my own personal experiences and insights as a participant in this significant event.

I would venture to say that there will be as many "facts," "opinions," and views as to what transpired at the 7th American Forest Congress as there were people present. Some 1400 to 1500 people attended the event from all across America representing a host of environmental organizations; state and federal forestry and natural resource agencies; forest products and recreation related industries; as well as special interest and community groups, students, and just plain citizens.

We were organized into some 150 Congress roundtables of up to 10 people at a table and were all assembled in the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom. The make-up of each table was designed to represent a diversity of people, views, interests, allegiances, as well as an ethnic, gender, and geographic mix.

The basic premise was that we were all stakeholders in the future of America's forest lands -- be they public or privately owned. Our job was to find common ground and attempt to develop a shared "vision" or desired state of being for our forests in the future, a set of principles to guide this vision, and a series of "next steps" that could be implemented to achieve our vision.

These next steps or recommendations would hopefully result in cohesive policies and actions for our nation's forests that reflect the American people's vision and are ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.

Sounds pretty straight forward, right? Not so. I am somewhat disappointed to report that we did not accomplish all of the goals that were laid out for us -- it was a mammoth and perhaps overly ambitious task from the onset, with so many participants meeting for such a short period of time. However, the success of the Congress must be evaluated on at least two levels -- first, the output of the Congress as a whole, and second, the achievements of the individual roundtables.

As a whole, the Congress did get a good handle on a common "vision" for our forests, which was represented by a series of 8 statements. (Although there are those who I'm sure will argue that this was not satisfactorily or completely accomplished or agreed upon.) The Congress also identified some 61 "emerging principles," but this task is far from over, and still quite controversial. In many respects I think the Congress leadership may have lost sight of the overall process, which may have added to the bottleneck. Hindsight, being what it is, suggests to me that there was a need to connect the work on the principles directly to vision statements, so as to provide more guidance to the process. This was not done, however.

As far as "next steps," the Congress had only begun to address these. How to address and resolve these matters in the future is uncertain, however, participants were given the opportunity to make recommendations to the Forest Congress Office on the last day as to, "where do we go from here?" My table gave some very concrete steps as to how to proceed so that a viable product will result. Let's hope these suggestions are considered.

The true success of the 7th American Forest Congress can be measured more effectively when one looks at the progress of each of the 150 roundtables assembled. If my table were used as a gauge, I'd have to admit that it was a huge success! In my opinion, the Congress was very successful in terms of the positive impact it imparted on participants, especially those who opted to stick with the process, and not stray from the group and "do their own thing." I personally gained a great deal from the experience, even though I went to the Congress as an admitted skeptic as to the overall process and potential level of accomplishment.

My best experience was with being with the people at my congress table (#66) over the three and one-half day period. We bonded rather quickly, and we became very effective working as a team to accomplish our many and arduous tasks. We shared a common commitment to produce useful products, developed mutual respect for one another, and acquired the ability to recognize particular strengths in everyone present and also compromise when necessary.

We were a diverse group. Our ages ranged, I dare say, from 17 to nearly 70. We were among the lucky tables to have a high school senior as a participant. In essence, by having this student, Sid Shukla with us, we were looking at the future -- and based upon his intellect, interest and commitment, he reinforced in us a feeling of hope and encouragement for the future of our land and the wisdom of our young people. Sid's open-mindedness was refreshing to me. His questions were thoughtful and revealing. His input was invaluable.

We were also very fortunate to have George Leonard, a retired U.S. Forest Service official with us. George's wise and grandfatherly ways helped keep us on track during our many discussions and often stressful deadlines. He shared with us his past experiences in Washington, D.C. when there were "true" leaders in Congress who were committed enough to craft agreements between conflicting interests - - in particular, a story of Hubert Humphrey's tireless efforts to arrive at meaningful and supportive legislation dealing with our forests.

Of particular impact on me, was logger, Larry Mason, from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Larry is an eloquent and nationally recognized spokesman for local communities whose livelihood and way-of-life are interconnected and dependent upon the forest land that sustains them. Perhaps this is the beginning of true forest stewardship. He shared with us the demise of his way of life in the wake of the spotted owl controversy, the broken forest-based communities, the government promises, and the resulting suicides.

Jim Bryan, a mature post doc student and forest researcher from Yale University added a gentlemanly and upbeat note to the process. Always the compromiser and friendly face, he provided a somewhat different perspective, having studied the symbiotic relationship between forest legumes and bacteria for many years. He kept us in balance.

The forest products industry was well represented at our table. Besides, Larry, we were joined by three other industry representatives, each offering a somewhat different perspective. John Grunwald, a gem of a gentleman, manages a hardwood veneer plant in Indiana. John worked diligently with us on every issue and was very much a team player. Allen Bedell, a logging contractor from Arkansas, who unfortunately only joined us for a couple of days, also participated intently and productively. Both John and Allen are very much concerned about the future resource base.

Lastly, Michael Beard, the Director of Communications with the Northwest Forestry Association in Portland, Oregon, added the public communication and education link -- as did I. However, Michael's perspective came from the point-of-view of forest products industry, whereas my views were probably more representative of conservationists and landowners. I think we both acknowledged the differences.

Table #66 worked hard at each task presented. We learned to truly listen to one another, and most importantly, shared a common caring and commitment toward our forests. Our accomplishments were substantial, meaningful and insightful.

On a personal level, I learned to associate real people with real issues. I became more aware of my own intolerances, and learned how to listen and hear other viewpoints. I gained more of an appreciation and respect for our precious land resources and the "communities" that are particularly dependent upon them. I learned that there are at least two viable sides to most issues, and also that there is a lot of pain and hardship that has occurred as a result of decisions that have been made in the past, especially with regard to public lands. As I sat and listened to the various discussions that took place throughout the Congress, the thought occurred to me on more than one occasion "I'm witnessing democracy in action and history in the making."

My message to you? Americans from all walks of life do care a great deal about our nation's forests -- and how they are used now and in the future. Americans very much want to be a part of the decision-making process in determining these uses. The 7th American Forest Congress was the beginning of a difficult and much needed process to encourage productive dialogue among diverse and often conflicting interests for the betterment of our forest resources. I invite your questions about this event, and I pledge to answer them as truthfully as I can. When proceedings from the 7th American Forest Congress are published, I will share them with you.

Carol E. Youell is Director of Education & Natural Resource Programs for the Connecticut Forest and Park Association (16 Meriden Road, Rockfall, CT 06481-2961), and is editor of CF&PA's magazine Connecticut Woodlands.

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