Friday, December 14, 2012

Signing Off

Rationalizing Workload within the Team
Since early 2008 we at the Endowment have done a periodic (about monthly) blog to help those with interest gain deeper insight into our processes, thinking, or understanding of how/why we do what we do.  In 2012 we committed to ramp that up to twice monthly.  Sounded easy in January….whew!

Anyway, with a very lean staff model of only five full-time staff (three program professionals), it is amazing at how difficult it is to find time for keeping up with something like this.  So, as part of a six-year review to look at how we can best rationalize the workload and do those things that are truly important – not just urgent – we have decided that the blog is one of several things that must come to an end.  Or, in this case, be a lot less frequent.

As part of our commitment to set a high bar in our approach to openness and transparency, the blog was just one of several specific things we started.  Others include an up-to-date website, maintenance of a ListServ for those who wish to receive specific updates, immediate posting of our Audited Financials and IRS Form 990, and more. 

Quarterly Stewardship Reports
One, well-above-the-call, thing that we’ve done since the third quarter of 2008, was a Quarterly Stewardship Report.  These one-page reports included quarterly portfolio performance, cash on hand, grants received from partners, and cash out the door.  They too were just one more tool for those who wanted to “look under the hood” at the Endowment’s operation.

While neither the blog nor the Quarterly Stewardship Reports took loads of time, each was among dozens of things that required a commitment of effort and follow-through.  The proverbial camel was getting loaded…and not from tarrying too long at the water cooler.  After reviewing the numbers of people who viewed each of these two items on a regular basis, we determined that – while good – they were not necessary items.  And, thus, we have accordingly suspended them.

If you were one of those rare but committed followers of the blog or Stewardship Reports, I’d appreciate hearing from you -- – with your thoughts.

All the best,

Carlton N. Owen
President & CEO


Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A Season for Thankfulness

While Thanksgiving may be in the rear-view mirror, November and December seem to elicit deeper thought than is true of the earlier months of the year.  As we hold on tight as 2012 races for the history books, we can’t help but take time with this blog to focus our thoughts on just a few of the very long list of things for which we are deeply thankful.

A Great Leadership Team
We at the Endowment have perhaps the most diverse and committed group of Board leaders that any non-profit could wish to have.  That team has been amazingly stable.  In fact, through our November 2012 meeting, 10 of 13 of our number were “charter” members.  But, as we pass our sixth year as an institution we have reached the point where mandatory term limits and normal changes in people’s lives ensure change.  At the close of the November meeting we saw three more of our initial number – Chuck Leavell, Duane McDougall, and Jim Rinehart – step aside from service.  While each will be missed, they helped ensure that the Endowment has deep roots and is headed in the right direction. 

Too, those changes result in opportunities to add fresh perspectives and renewed passion.  In that regard, John Kulhavi and Kent Gilges, have come aboard.

The broader forestry sector is far from the world’s model for diversity in all of its facets.  But, at the Endowment, with our twin mission of advancing healthy working forests and promoting positive social/economic change in rural forested communities, we have a deeply experienced and diverse team for which we are very thankful.

Outstanding Partners
We sometimes think of what we do as similar to the old BASF commercial, “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy; we make a lot of the products you buy better.”  As an organization that uses a catalytic business model to advance its mission, it is critical that we identify and collaborate with partners who can “put boots on the ground.” 

Again, we’ve been VERY blessed.  Our for-profit and non-profit partners are among the best of the best in the broader forestry sector.  Whether it is our team of researchers working to consider the potential of modern biotechnology as a tool in the battle against destructive pests and diseases or be it the businesses with who we are investing to add family supporting jobs in rural communities, each is outstanding.  We are proud to be working with not-for-profits, universities, businesses -- both start-ups and household names -- and others for the good of the nation’s forests and the people who depend upon them.

Visionary Co-Investors
As a very young institution just beginning to put deep roots and investments in “our space,” we are once again blessed to be joined by others who have been engaged in the fray for many decades.  Our lead federal partners – the USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service – have been joined by the Department of Defense and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.  We are very appreciative of not only the financial commitment each has made, but more importantly, for the trust each has placed in us.

From the American Forest Foundation to the Weyerhaeuser Family Foundation, still others are co-investing with an understanding that where we can advance a common objective our chances for success increase.

A Committed Staff
While my list of thanks could exceed that of even the most ambitious child who pens his wishes to Santa, let me save my final thanks for those few who comprise the Endowment’s staff.  While there are only five full-time members – two of us who have been here from the start – few organizations can be as blessed as to have such a professional and committed group with whom to labor.  Too, we’ve been doubly blessed to be able to augment our hands and feet with the service of outstanding interns --the current bunch all hailing from Furman University.  The core team, buttressed by our interns, is further aided by a cadre of top notch consultants who help us deliver many of our programs.  All are critical and each adds value.

For now, my special thanks to Florence Colby, Sofi Delgado Perusquia, Kim Free, Alan McGregor, Katie Premo, Peter Stangel, and Patrick Starr.

Too, each of us is thankful to have the opportunity to work with and for the premier public charity working for the good of the nation’s forests and rural forest-based communities!

As the old hymn says, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”  For us, very true words.
Carlton N. Owen
President & CEO

Friday, November 16, 2012

PBS Documentary Explores Origins/Rationale of Important Endowment Partner

This weekend, November 18 and 19, PBS will premiere the Ken Burns documentary, “The Dust Bowl.”  The film brings alive the devastating drought that followed “the Great Plow-Up,” the result of a frenzied boom in wheat production across America’s Heartland.  

The program is of particular interest to the Endowment since it explores the origin and rationale for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).   The alignment of the Endowment’s goals with the work that the NRCS does has led to numerous partnerships on issues including water conservation, conservation easements, and stemming African American land loss through improved sustainable forestry practices. 

NRCS Roots in the Dust Bowl
NRCS was founded in the 1930s as the USDA Soil Conservation Service in response to the Dust Bowl environmental tragedy.  Today, the agency is leading the government’s efforts to support private farmers, ranchers and landowners to conserve our natural resources by applying conservation practices on millions of acres of agricultural and forest lands. The goal is sound conservation solutions that keep soils healthy, water and air clean, wildlife abundant and food plentiful

We expect in “The Dust Bowl” Ken Burns will remind us about how critical  the very few inches of top soil are to sustaining life and how vulnerable they are to human abuse and natural calamity.  As the globe seems to experience increased weather extremes, we are reminded of the importance of the mission of NRCS to help us ALL be good stewards of the land.

Chief Dave White Leaves a Legacy
We are also reminded of the importance of good leadership in government and salute the visionary work of Dave White, Chief of NRCS, who this week announced his retirement.   Under Chief White’s leadership, the agency initiated more than a dozen landscape-scale initiatives for wildlife and ecosystem conservation.  His work marks another chapter in a legacy that has seen significant advances in conservation all while the nation’s population has continued to grow.

We tip our hat to Ken Burns for documenting an important part of our nation’s history and to public-sector stewards like Dave White for their service.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Happy Birthday...To Us!

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (the Endowment) started as part of a vision by members of the respective trade delegations from Canada and the United States as a side outcome of the Softwood Lumber Agreement 2006 (SLA) between the two countries.

Just over a week ago we had the privilege of providing a report to the Softwood Lumber Committee -- another creation of the SLA -- that includes representatives from both governments who meet at least annually to review progress under the agreement.  While four organizations were granted one-time funds as part of the SLA, the Endowment was one of only two newly created institutions that resulted directly from the agreement.

Six Years, Seven Initiatives...
The Endowment, comprised of a thirteen-person independent Board of Directors and its lean staff of five with headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, hit the ground with speed and enthusiasm for the challenge.  Our goal:  to advance healthy working forests across the U.S. and to aid rural communities that depend upon the health, vitality, and productivity of those forests.  The first six years, marked less by our official charter (September 26) and more by assembling of the Board and retention of our first staff member (November 1), has flown by.

While we are still a young organization and clearly still learning, we are proud of the foundations that have been established in those first six years.  Among them:
  • A strong, creative, resilient Board;
  • A nimble and productive staff;
  • A roof of our own;
  • Emerging and maturing work across seven relevant initiatives;
    • Asset creation
    • Growing Markets for traditional products;
    • Exploring and growing markets for non-traditional products;
    • Forest retention;
    • Forest health;
    • Forest investment zones;
    • Woody biomass; and,
  • A growing list of outstanding collaborative partners.
The Challenge Ahead
One of the things that the Endowment's Board and staff does at each gathering is to review our mission as rooted in the SLA 2006 and affirm an admonition set-forth in one of the side-letters to that agreement -- that all we do shall "ultimately benefit the North American forest industry."

Among our values are to be transparent, focused, and to not fall prey to trying to be all things to all people by instead attempting to do a few things well and "do what others can't or won't."

We know we have a long way to go, but we are committed to doing all within our power to make sure that those who had the spark of an idea of what the Endowment could be will be able to say, "Well done!"

Carlton N. Owen

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Fire Season:  The Real Costs of Fires (Part 3)

The 2012 wildfire season in the U.S. is largely a fading memory.  That is unless you live or work in one of the forests that fell victim to one of the worst fire seasons in years.  In parts 1 and 2 of this series we looked at those men and women who help protect our forests and how a changing climate is driving losses at an ever escalating pace. 

What Does a Forest Fire Cost?
The USDA Forest Service, the nation's lead on forest fires, spends approximately $2 billion (that's BILLION) annually on forest fire suppression. Total costs are approaching one-half of the agency's entire budget.  But, that's just part of the story.

In a 2010 report entitled "The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S.," the writers reference research that suggests that the real cost of a fire is two-to-thirty times the cost of suppression.  So, using this year as an example, the true cost of wildfire losses in the U.S. was somewhere between $4 and $60 billion!

What's Included in Those Costs?
In addition to suppression to account for the total costs of a forest fire one must take into account the direct loss of forest value, the costs of rehabilitation (planting is just a tiny part), structural property losses and things like loss of wilderness values, impacts to water, and increases in health care costs such as treatment of asthma.  Before you jump to the conclusion that such costs are just imaginary, one recent fire near Denver, Colorado, carried with it $150 million in direct costs to cleanup damage to the city's water supply.  Clean water is in the words of the credit card commerical, "priceless."

Using these figures as guides we can see that the modest costs of "fireproofing our forests" with forest restoration/thinning efforts and use of controlled burns yields a very high return.  That said, it is often difficult to get convince society to invest money to avoid a problem.  Yet, once that problem has occurred, we have no choice and we just find a way to pay for the fix. 

As the old Fram oil filter commercial said, "You can pay me now or pay me later."  The costs to America's forests and all associated with them are just too precious to wait for the inevitable.

Carlton N. Owen

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fire Season: All Fires Are Not Created Equally – Part 2

“Fire season worst in decades.”  “Disastrous (Bastrop) wildfire, worst in Texas history.”  These headlines, similar to ones that might have appeared in the 1870s to 1920s, are actually from 2011-2012.  What’s going on?

Taking a look at some of the largest single fires in U.S. history – for instance in years when a total of more than 20 million acres burned -- some individual fires charred between 3 and 4 million acres.  We know that many or those larger fires were in areas that had been heavily cut-over.  That’s still a lot of acres.  But, clearly losing an acre of cut-over land isn’t the same as an acre of old growth forest – whether one considers ecological or economic loss.

If you are having difficulty imaging 20 million acres, look at a U.S. map.  The States of South Carolina and Maine each have about 20 million acres of land.

Acres Lost are Growing, Again
The longest running campaign in Ad Council history, Smokey Bear and his well-known warning, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," was introduced in 1944.  And it worked!  The Smokey website notes that “the Forest Fire Prevention campaign helped reduce the number of acres lost annually from 22 million to 8.4 million (in 2000).” The sad part in that true statement is that 8.4 million acres is well above the average of preceding decades.  

The point we are straining to make is that the total acres burned – whether the fires are in shrub habitats or forests – after several decades of “relatively” small losses, are getting bigger every decade.  For instance, the average wild-land acreage lost to wildfires in the 1980s was just over 2.5 million acres.  That grew by another million acres in the 1990s.  But, astonishingly, in an era of increased detection and firefighting tools, the first decade of the 2000s saw that number nearly double to more than 6 million acres -- with some years approaching 10 million!  

Right Message for the Right Time
Responding to the massive outbreak of wildfires in 2000, the Smokey campaign changed its focus to wildfires and the slogan to "Only You Can Prevent Wildfires."   Even Smokey had to acknowledge that in fire-based ecosystems like much of America’s western and southern forests, all fires aren’t created equally. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Forestry and Its Seasons: Fire Season Part 1

We have all kinds of seasons.  As fall approaches, it’s football season.  There’s allergy season, the holiday season, and the Four Seasons – both those aligned with the calendar and of Frankie Valli fame.  Forestry has its seasons as well.  There’s the planting season, the growing season, and in the northern U.S. the infamous “mud” season.  Then there’s the one that gets the most media attention and that is all-too-sadly growing -- fire season.

From pine forests of the coastal southeast to the dry forests of the inland mountain west and the desert southwest, fires just like wind throw, floods, and bugs, are part of the normal forest cycle.  In fact forest firers occur naturally on every continent except Antarctica.  What isn’t so normal about the cycles that we’ve seen for the last few years and perhaps that serve as harbingers of the future is the size and intensity of fires in the U.S. and Canada.

Primary Causes of Wildfires
Most fires are started by natural causes – especially lightning.  However, fires escaping from open trash burning or a tossed cigarette aren’t rare enough.  Even more devastating are those fires which are intentionally set.  In fact, both in the 1940s and even more recently there have been documented attempts by Axis member Japan to Al-Qaeda who have attempted to use forest fires to drive disruption and fear.

Changing Times
Climate:  While wild-land forest fires have always packed a devastating punch, several factors are combining to make things even worse.  Whether you believe in the scientific reality of climate change – natural, human induced, or a combination of effects – there is little argument that weather patterns have shifted.  Many areas are experiencing droughts and little snow pack, leading to drier forests and more intense fires when they do come.

Bugs:  Insects and diseases are another very notable cause.  Perhaps none eclipse the native Mountain pine beetle and the 48 million acres of dead and dying trees across the western states.  These dead trees are ready-made for fires.

Unnatural Conditions:  The Endowment focuses all of its activity in “working forests.”  In short, we don’t “do” wilderness and we aren’t funding short-rotation woody agriculture.  Those working forests – what most folks would view as “natural” forests whether planted or naturally regenerating – depending on the species and location, have certain norms that make them more-or-less fire resistant.  Using the theory that one picture is worth a thousand words – here’s a string of three pictures that we think is worth millions of words.

This series of photos was taken of exactly the same spot on the Bitterroot National Forest in Montana by the USDA Forest Service.  Starting on the left (1909) after a harvest in an area where fire had been excluded since 1895.  The Second is in 1948 and the final in 2004.  Note the changes in vegetation.  If fire passed through the stand on the left it would have done little damage.  The one in the middle would have experienced some loss but many larger trees would have survived.  However, the current stand which is exemplary of all-too-many of America’s forests today in fire-prone areas would surely be a total loss.

Carlton N. Owen