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If a tree issue blows up in the forest, does anyone hear it?

Considering that eight of every 10 Americans live in big cities, that’s a problem for the Society of American Foresters. On Friday, the organization of forest professionals, loggers, mill workers, academics and government land managers gathered to puzzle how to better get their stories told.

Because while millions of Americans may never see a Ponderosa pine burn in a wildfire, they will breathe the smoke and may cancel their vacation plans and might pay more taxes for disaster relief. Meanwhile, the assembled society members at the University of Montana struggled with their own mixed messages, long-standing mistrust of opponents and unfamiliarity with a fast-changing media landscape.

“If we can’t get our collective act together, how can we expect the public to come around to broader agreement on forest issues?” asked Dave Atkins, a retired forester who now runs the online Treesource.org media outlet and serves on the North American Forest Partnership communication committee. He cited a recent NAFP survey that found 45 percent of U.S. and Canadian residents think that trees are harvested in national parks and protected areas (not true), and 64 percent believe deforestation is a major threat in North America (forests here are shrinking, but not at the rate of tropical forests in the Amazon or Indonesia).

“We have to take responsibility for the fact that people don’t understand what the forest condition really is,” Atkins said. “Seventy-one percent of the respondents had not heard about a forestry sector story in the past year. In places like Montana, we see this stuff all the time. But 83 percent of Americans live in urban areas.”

That means explaining things like “fire-borrowing” to Congress members or taxpayer organizations starts from a point of blank confusion. The U.S. Forest Service must borrow money from its own day-to-day activities to pay for wildfire expenses – which in recent years has often consumed more than half its annual budget. That’s very different from the natural disaster funding systems the federal government uses to provide relief after hurricanes or tornadoes.

“Fire’s a big deal,” said former Chief of the Forest Service Dale Bosworth. “We need to do a better job communicating the things that can be done on the ground, in environmentally friendly ways, that can help with the fire problem. Thinning followed by adding fire every 15 or 20 years could make a huge difference, but we haven’t communicated that very well. We haven’t explained that what’s happening every year doesn’t need to happen.”

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Representatives for senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines added that Congress would be working on issues like overturning the Cottonwood decision – a federal court ruling requiring the Forest Service to do much more planning where endangered species are affected. That likely will face intense opposition from supporters of the Endangered Species Act unless someone can make the case that forest planning can be done without hurting protected animals.

UM Bolle Center for People and Forests Director Martin Nie said considering the opinions of others outside the usual tribe of co-workers can be tough. And people deeply invested in a topic often don’t get why the rest of the world doesn’t feel the urgency.

“What has the Society of American Foresters done to engage with the Wildlife Society?” Nie asked. “I saw the same thing a few years ago when I was at a Society of Conservation Biology meeting, and everyone was asking why won’t the public engage in this ecological crisis?”

Retired Forest Service Supervisor Edward Monnig said the issues got more personal as well. Noting the divide between people who believe nature is best left alone to self-correct and those who think people should intervene to restore historical conditions, Monnig said forest professionals need to consider their audience when proposing ideas.

“We’re dealing with the results of years of fire suppression in places like the Clearwater-Nez Perce National Forest or our own backyard in the Rattlesnake (National Recreation Area),” Monnig said. “We did lots of high-grading (logging best-quality trees) in the Rattlesnake in the past. How much should we intervene in those natural processes?”

Any kind of intervention takes time and participation, added retired Bitterroot National Forest supervisor Orville Daniels. Speaking of his own involvement with the Clearwater Basin Collaborative that’s working on restoration of 1.5 million acres in Idaho, Daniels warned that the highly polarized communities at land management negotiations needed patient trust-building before they might agree to any course of action.

“We as a profession need to get our act together to reach these people,” Daniels said. “We as a profession are the best-qualified to make this work.”

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