At the risk of talking himself out of a job, historian Char Miller warns that history may not help guide the future of forest management.
“With climate change, the past is not prologue,” the Pomona College professor said Thursday before a keynote speech to the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation. “History has a role to explain what’s taking place in the present, but it’s only a partial guide to the future. We say, ‘Why can’t we go back 40 years ago when we had all those mills and jobs and roads?’ But this transformation is coming whether we want it or not.”
Miller is the author of “Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism” and, most recently, “Seeking the Greatest Good: the Legacy of Gifford Pinchot.” He said the challenges Pinchot and others faced in creating the U.S. Forest Service in the 18th century will be magnified in the 21st.
Miller said those who pine for the time when big timber mills supported thriving forest communities ignore the big government subsidies and outdated production methods they depended on.
“There was never a free-market economy – as soon as market forces came to bear, they folded,” Miller said. “We need to get over that myth. We can’t shut out the natural resources economy. There has to be an economic component to this (forest management). A resilient economy must be tied to the same forces that make resilient forests.”
By that, Miller said he meant looking at what a forest provides besides timber for lumber. Huge swaths of urban America depend on public forests for their water supply, for example. Biofuel from wood may be part of the future. And the forest’s capacity to absorb carbon from the atmosphere could become crucial as pollution increases in other parts of the globe.
“The very notion we can stop time or go back to a particular time – climate change has disrupted all that,” Miller said. “And we don’t have the political culture wiling to embrace climate change and the science that lies behind it.”
Instead, he looked to the students coming out of schools like the College of Forestry and Conservation. Its mix of botany, wildlife biology, engineering, communications and policy study make a good mix for future leaders charged with helping communities adapt to their changing worlds.
“But we’ve got to watch out for what I call ‘the green blues,’ ” Miller warned. “We’re really good at depressing our students. I had one student demand I install a therapist in the classroom. I try to remind them we need to know how to respond to great pressures as well as enormous opportunities.”