Friday, 19 Sep 2003

NEW YORK, N.Y.

Because today’s Grist diary entry is my last, I’d like begin by thanking all the committed and supportive people who work at Grist, and who’ve made the magazine into the valuable, widely read environmental information source that it is. Thank you sincerely for asking me to write a diary entry each day this week. It was an honor.

All week I’ve been writing about my day-to-day work trying to help stop one of the Earth’s most biologically outstanding eco-regions — the forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains — from being ravaged, polluted, and converted into toilet paper, newsprint, mail-order catalogues, magazines, and other disposable paper products.

But southeastern forests, ecologically unique and at-risk as they are, are obviously only one spectacular part of the world’s mosaic of forests that sustain virtually all species, by keeping our air and water clean, our atmosphere chemically stable, and our spirits and culture strong. Of course, and sadly, all of the world’s forests are under enormous pressure from logging and human settlements. If current trends continue, in 40 years less than 5 percent of the world’s tropical forests will remain and the southeast forests will be one giant, biologically sterile, and polluted pine plantation.

In North America, besides the great southeastern forests in the United States, we are also blessed with the great northern forests of Canada, known to environmental cognoscenti as the “boreal” forest. I bring this discussion of the northern, boreal forest to my diary today because a) my NRDC colleagues and I are working in collaboration with Greenpeace Canada and others to stop the paper industry from ravaging that globally outstanding region, which comprises the largest intact ecosystem on Earth, and b) earlier today two of my D.C.-based NRDC colleagues with whom I am working on boreal matters, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz and Liz Barrett-Brown, who forwarded to me an email note from a fellow forestry activist that read, in part: “Saw this [Grist diary] today [on the southeast forests] … Can you get him to say the word ‘boreal'”?

Boreal. Pronounce it: bore-eel. It is a wide expanse of unique, ancient, and intact forest and freshwater habitat that crowns the entire northern circumference of the Earth, below the Arctic Circle. Home to grizzly bears, wolves, caribou, wolverines, black bears, songbirds, and 80 percent of Canada’s indigenous First Nations population, the boreal forest hosts rare and fast-disappearing predator-prey relationships and large mammalian migrations. It also hosts some of the most outstanding freshwater ecoregions on Earth. (If you go to the NRDC website, you’ll see photos of some typically outstanding boreal scenes.)

When I received today’s email, asking if I might be able to “say the word boreal,” I immediately thought back to a few short weeks ago, when I was way up north in the Canadian province of Alberta, watching with my mouth agape as some of this boreal forest was converted into toilet paper pulp at a mill owned by Asian transnational corporations. I took a small slab of the pulp, bleached with chlorine dioxide, back to my office as evidence. Or, perhaps more accurately, I took it back home as a sad personal reminder of how low some industries can go. Every day thousands of boreal acres, globally rare intact hardwood boreal forests, one of mother nature’s most outstanding biological phenomena, a large piece of God Almighty’s only tangible communication to us, are cut down, not replanted — why bother, it would take a lifetime to re-grow — and degrated into toilet paper and throwaway newspapers.

Can humanity get more callous than that? Do we really need to produce what might reasonably be called our least inspiring consumer product by destroying the universe’s most inspiring places? We actually use toilet paper for all of five seconds before flushing it into sewage. Use of a newspaper lasts 240 times longer, but still only 20 minutes. Despite the availability of ecologically superior alternatives, industrial captains insist on making these disposables by cutting down and polluting some of the world’s most spectacular forested ecoregions in the southeast, as well as boreal and tropical forests — forests that take a lifetime to recover, if they ever recover at all. Anti-environmentalist apologists for the paper industry publicly claim that most paper is made “from trees specifically grown to make paper.” Not only is that a lie, but tree plantations are themselves ecologically awful, hosting 90 percent fewer species than natural forests. (For more on the problems with tree plantations, see my book Bronx Ecology: Blueprint for a New Environmentalism.)

Nor are paper industry impacts the only pressure on the boreal. Oil and gas industry destruction is so indiscriminate and widespread that an official at the toilet paper pulp mill I was visiting asked me if I could help his company fight the ravages of the oil and gas interests, who were wiping out the forest timber supply as fast as he was.

Earlier today I had to pick up some toilet paper for my family. None, not one brand on this store’s shelves, was made from recycled fibers, though many recycled toilet papers exist. I asked the store manager, “Any toilet paper from recycled paper?” “Nope.” “Gonna get any in soon?” I asked. “Nope.”

Not if I can help it. I coordinate NRDC’s paper industry advocacy work, and last Friday, just before taking off for my work in the southeastern forests, I hosted a meeting at NRDC’s New York City office with Greenpeace Canada to talk about paper production issues. There were a dozen of us from NRDC, including Linda Lopez, the quiet but powerful director of NRDC’s membership outreach, Rita Barol, our influential web manager, and Max Metrick, NRDC’s communications czar. Liz Barrett-Brown and Susan Casey-Lefkowitz were up from D.C. We were joined by Greenpeacers Tamara Stark, who flew in from Vancouver, and Richard Brooks, who flew in from Toronto. Our agenda: getting the word out on the urgent need to stop the destruction and denigration of the Canadian boreal and the southeastern forests in the United States for use as disposable tissue products.

Yesterday, that meeting bore a small fruit. At the World Forestry Congress in Quebec City, NRDC and Greenpeace, joined by a small and pleasantly scrappy group called ForestEthics, announced our intention to change the paper market that relies on boreal timber. Susan, an NRDC senior attorney, threw down our gauntlet: “U.S. and Canadian consumers care where their paper and wood come from. Our over 1 million members and supporters do not want to see a global treasure like the boreal lost so that companies can make toilet paper from old-growth trees,” she said.

I know we’re right about NRDC members and supporters not wanting to see natural forests converted into toilet paper or throwaway newspapers. How long and how much work it will take us to spread that concern to hundreds of millions of North American consumers remains to be seen. I suspect that describing that work would fill quite a few more Grist diaries.

Whatever you do, don’t buy toilet paper unless it’s made from 100 percent recycled fibers (at least 80 percent post-consumer) or from agricultural residues. And tell your local newspaper and magazine publisher that you want him or her to stop buying newsprint or magazine paper from wood harvested from endangered southeastern and boreal forests. Now that my diary writing is over, checking NRDC’s website will help keep you up to date on our efforts to change the way paper products are produced.

And finally, to the outspent, against-the-odds environmental activists who’ve been reading these diaries, remember: Don’t despair, but if you must despair, work on. When our time is up and we meet our great unifying spirit, we won’t be asked what did we accomplish. Rather, we will be asked what did we attempt to do, and how much love did we spread around while we tried.