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Concepts in Action: The Institute for Sustainable Forestry

Paul Harper
Paul Harper of The Institute for Sustainable Forestry

The Institute for Sustainable Forestry grew out of the fertile, logged-over soils, of southern Humboldt County, on California's North Coast. Homesteaders like Jan and Peggy Iris moved there in the 1970s and bought land after its rich Douglas-fir and redwood had been harvested to feed the post-World War II building boom. The logging left behind trees too small to process economically in those days, as well as hardwoods for which there was no market.

As the homesteaders built their houses and planted their gardens and orchards, they realized the risks posed by the inevitable wildfires. The Irises began to thin the young forest and prune the lower branches, at first using the wood which they cut for firewood. But as time went on, the beauty of the hardwoods struck them; it seemed like a waste for potentially magnificent lumber to go up in smoke. After Jan took a course in hardwood processing through the University of California, the Irises were ready to develop a small-scale logging and milling system for their region. They named their enterprise "Wild Iris Forestry."

Using roads built for the original logging thirty years before, they towed a portable sawmill into the woods. Since they could get by with pickup trucks instead of full-size log trucks, it was possible to maintain narrower roads that disrupt drainage patterns less and generally cause less erosion.

The Iris's method of choosing which trees to cut was noteworthy, too. Instead of basing that decision on the mixture of wood they wanted to harvest, they made a choice based on their vision for the forest that would be left after they finished harvesting, often leaving the straightest, biggest trees to keep growing.

But for Wild Iris, the effort was worth it. Their philosophy was to increase the value of the wood as much as possible before it left the region-to maximize the number of people who could earn their livelihood from each tree cut. They would sooner sell their wood to a cabinetmaker in a nearby town than ship it to a wood boutique in the San Francisco Bay area, even if it meant making less money.

People began to call from outside the region to learn about the Irises and tour the lands they had logged. It proved difficult to carry on a small business while also propagating information about good forestry. After a speaking appearance at a 1990 restoration forestry conference outside Eugene, Oregon, they decided to form the nonprofit Institute for Sustainable Forestry to carry on educational work while they pursued their own business.

A few months later, in a meeting of a few dozen forest activists, The Institute for Sustainable Forestry was born. The institute uses "Ten Elements of Sustainability" as the basis of a program to certify wood and other forest products as ecologically harvested. These principles demand practices that mesh with the natural processes at work in the forest; they call for the protection of water, old growth, and all resident species; they pay respect to other issues, as well, such as workers' rights, the integrity of cultural sites, and the scale of timber operations.

In a rural region whose residents hope to make part of their living by working the woods, forest practices that benefit both the forest and the people in it are of great value. While others find the voice to say "No!" to bad logging, the Institute for Sustainable Forestry is creating something to which we can say "Yes!"

Seth Zuckerman is a restoration consultant and member of the board of advisers for the Institute for Sustainable Forestry in California's Mattole River valley. He now works as Ecotrust's Circuit Rider and his regular Circuit Rider Dispatches are available on Tidepool, our bioregional news service. He is also the co-editor of our most recent publication, Salmon Nation. This essay is adapted from The Rain Forests of Home: Profile of a North American Bioregion.


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Institute for Sustainable Forestry
P.O. Box 1580
Redway, CA 95560
tel 707.247.1101
fax 707.247.3555


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