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The importance of experience

Wink Sutton's Blog
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Peter Koch was a most productive forest products scientist. His publications include a series on the southern pines and lodgepole pine – known as contorta pine in New Zealand. Although a forest products scientist Peter was always understanding of forest growers and had an in-depth knowledge of forest management. Peter and I exchanged letters and I met him on several occasions in North America. Our last meeting was in June 1997 when he told me he had terminal cancer and would soon die. After he died I wrote to his wife and she replied that before he passed away Peter had asked her to send me a book he had printed privately.

The book Elers Koch – forty years a forester soon arrived. What an insight. Being a forester’s son explains Peter’s interest in and knowledge of forest management as well as his sympathy with forest growers.

In 1899 Elers Koch aged 19 was working for the Bureau of Forestry when he met its chief, Gifford Pinchot, later to become the first chief of the newly created Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Pinchot’s magnetic personality and enthusiasm so influenced Elers that he took a masters degree in forestry at Yale. On graduating in 1903 he joined Gifford Pinchot as a forester and spent his whole career with the US Forest Service.This was mostly on forests in the western States but sometimes in the Washington DC head office. Retiring in 1944 he subsequently wrote this book which was only published privately by his son.

Elers was proud to be one of Gifford Pinchot’s ‘young men’. He wrote, ‘I often think what a wonderful thing it was to have a government bureau with nothing but young men in it.’ Yet in 1935 he published The passing of the Lola Trial. In this article Elers was very critical of the US Forest Service policy of fighting all forest fires.This was a policy undoubtedly first developed by the young foresters in the US Forest Service.

I took from Elers’ writings two important lessons. First is the importance of charismatic leadership in attracting competent staff. Secondly, for organisations to have a mix of young and old staff – the young keen to change things and the mature to balance the young enthusiasm with wisdom that is the result of experience.

This is in real contrast to the current thinking where government departments appear to exist to await directions from politicians. Have we learned so little of why there were so many policy successes in the past?

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No environmentally acceptable alternative to wood

Wink Sutton's Blog
Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dovetail, the USA based non-profit environmental wood advocacy organisation, has suggested wood may be getting a raw deal. If wood must come from environmentally certified sources should not the same requirement be required for all wood substitutes – materials such as metals, concrete and plastic. I do not know why the global forest growing and wood using industries have not taken this line of reasoning. Unlike all its substitutes, wood is the world’s most environmentally acceptable raw material and, if it comes from responsibly managed forests, wood is endlessly renewable.

I recall a discussion I had with one of New Zealand’s environmental leaders. It was in the mid 1990s and I was employed by Fletcher Challenge on secondment to the Canadian Federal Forest Service. After our discussion had gone about 10 minutes the environmental leader made the comment that she did not like what Fletcher Challenge was doing, especially in British Columbia. She anticipated I would attempt to justify British Columbian forest practices which I was prepared to do, but instead I used the opportunity.

One of my responsibilities in Fletcher Challenge was to investigate environmentally acceptable non-wood alternatives as possible industries that the company might invest in. I asked what environmentally acceptable wood substitute she would recommend.

At first, she said that I must know what the alternative wood substitutes were. I knew them but I wanted the recommendations. After some time she finally said ‘hemp’. I replied that I could not believe an environmental leader could be so irresponsible. Hemp requires monoculture planting and also requires farmland – almost all of which is the result of permanently trashed indigenous forest. Hemp is only a fibre substitute and what we need is a solid wood substitute. What would be her substitute recommendation? After some delay she finally said ‘concrete’.

Wood is the world’s most environmentally acceptable raw material. If environmentalists are against managing indigenous forests for a wood supply as well as the establishment of plantations, where do they recommend the world gets its wood from?

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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