Dogwood Alliance marks two decades of defending Southern forests

SMALL BUT MIGHTY: Dogwood Alliance is a 14-person nonprofit that has made a big impact over its 20-year history. The group has convinced some of America’s largest corporations to adopt forest-friendly sourcing practices. Now it’s fighting the wood pellet industry, which the organization says is logging Southern forests and turning them into fuel for generating electricity in Europe. Photo courtesy of Dogwood Alliance

Danna Smith was hanging over the side of a supertanker docked in the port of Savannah, Ga., when she found her calling. Smith and co-conspirators working with the Rainforest Action Network had walked onto the ship, which was loaded with Brazilian mahogany, to hang a massive banner saying, “Save the Amazon: Ban Mahogany Imports.”

But as the young environmental lawyer dangled there for six hours, suspended in a harness, she looked across the Savannah River at her home state of South Carolina and asked herself, “What’s going on with forests here?” At that moment, she says, a new conviction was born: “I feel like I should be doing something to protect forests in my own backyard.”

A few months later, Smith attended a rally in Alabama, teaming up with a group of other activists to coordinate a regional campaign against the threats posed to Southern forests by the increasing pace of industrial logging.

That was in 1996. “I don’t think anybody then could have imagined we’d still be around in 20 years,” says Smith, the Dogwood Alliance’s executive director. “Just getting from week to week at that point was extremely challenging.”

Yet the grassroots coalition of forest supporters did survive, and while there’s been significant growth, particularly over the last three years, the organization’s 14 staffers still punch far above their weight when it comes to influencing billion-dollar national and global companies. The Asheville-based group has secured agreements with many top-tier corporations to embrace forest-friendly sourcing practices and avoid buying materials from endangered or ecologically significant forest areas.

But even as the alliance was serving as a catalyst for a new spirit of corporate social responsibility during the late 1990s and 2000s, a new threat to Southern forests emerged. Ironically, European regulations aimed at increasing the use of renewable energy created a new market for a Southeastern wood product: pellets used to fire electrical power plants.

“This new market exploded, and it is threatening to roll back in a major way all the positive gains that we’ve made,” Smith laments. Addressing this challenge while continuing to monitor the corporate commitments it’s negotiated over the years means the Dogwood Alliance won’t be resting on its laurels as it embarks on the next chapter in its history.

Early victories

“Big change happens from the ground up,” says Smith, and that’s been a key element of the Dogwood Alliance’s strategy since day one. The regional campaign against the growing number of chip mills threatening Southern forests in the 1990s mobilized a massive citizen-led engagement effort that culminated, Smith explains, in the U.S. Forest Service’s landmark 2002 Southern Forest Resource Assessment.

Communications Director Scot Quaranda, who’s been with the nonprofit since 2000, says the federal agency’s assessment was unprecedented because it considered privately owned forests in addition to public land. Since over 90 percent of Southern forests are privately held, he continues, any substantive effort to understand the impact of logging practices must look at all forest lands.

That study and others showed that over 9 million acres of mixed-species Southern forests had been converted to single-species pine plantations during the 1980s and 1990s. Based on these studies’ conclusions, the Dogwood Alliance began lobbying for a number of what it felt were modest measures, including requiring landowners to notify a state agency when planning large clear-cutting operations. But “It was a real uphill battle,” Smith recalls, “and we hit a brick wall.”

Lawmakers, she says, weren’t willing to regulate logging on private lands — and were actively promoting policies to subsidize landowners engaged in commercial forestry. “Those who are financially benefiting from the destruction of forests are politically the most powerful,” Smith observes.

So the organization decided the time had come to adopt a new strategy.

Taking on Staples

“Dogwood Alliance really came after us hard,” says Mark Buckley, Staples’ vice president of environmental affairs, recalling the campaign the organization launched in the 1990s urging the office supply retailer to reform its wood-sourcing policies. “They were very brave in going up against such a large organization,” Buckley says. “And then I think we also were brave in entering into conversations that led to a lasting partnership with them.”

Through a series of letters — “They didn’t know who Dogwood Alliance was,” Smith points out — the organization first threatened and then launched a national protest campaign against the retailer’s paper-sourcing practices.

“We were protesting outside their stores all over the country, and Danna was in the executive boardroom meeting with the company’s vice presidents and talking about what they needed to change,” remembers Quaranda.

The Staples campaign, says Smith, was “part of the wave in the U.S. that pushed this whole concept of corporate social responsibility. … You could no longer say, ‘This wood is coming from private landowners; we can’t control that.’ No, the public was going to hold the company responsible for their impacts down through the supply chain, down into the woods.”

Expanding the model

After Staples committed to new sourcing practices, including using Forest Stewardship Council-certified materials in its products, the alliance launched similar campaigns aimed at Office Depot and OfficeMax. And as those companies fell into line, the nonprofit set its sights on an even bigger prize: the nation’s largest paper manufacturers.

Within a year of targeting Bowater, the alliance extracted a promise that the major paper producer would no longer source its pulp from landowners who were converting natural forests to plantations. That, Smith explains, was “a huge nut to crack.”

Moving from victory to victory, the organization then negotiated agreements with GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, the Universal Music Group and Georgia-Pacific. A campaign against Kentucky Fried Chicken, whose takeout buckets were made from wood logged in North Carolina’s coastal hardwood forests, put the nonprofit in contact with the biggest fish of them all: International Paper.

In 2013, the corporate giant agreed to become the world’s largest user of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood. The company also partnered with the Dogwood Alliance to map endangered forests and avoid sourcing from areas that were identified as endangered or having a high conservation value. Taking its commitment even further, International Paper pledged $7.5 million to fund land conservation across the South. “Which was a big deal,” says Smith.

Burning down the house

When the Dogwood Alliance first became aware of the emerging market for wood pellets in the southeastern U.S., the organization attacked the problem with the toolkit it had used so successfully in reforming the paper market. “We mapped out who the biggest customers and users were. We tracked that to Drax, a big utility in the United Kingdom, and Enviva, the largest manufacturer of wood pellets in the South,” Smith explains.

But it quickly became clear that the wood pellet market was a horse of an entirely different color. Driven by European environmental policies requiring a certain amount of electricity to be generated from renewable sources, Drax imports wood pellets (also known as biomass) and burns them to create power.

Incinerating trees to generate electricity, says Smith, “is a big double whammy on the climate.” Along with the direct carbon emissions generated by burning wood, using biomass as a fuel source means those trees aren’t available to absorb and store carbon. Her organization’s “Our forests aren’t fuel” campaign promotes alternative renewable energy sources such as solar and wind while pressuring governments, companies and citizens to stop burning wood to create electricity.

Besides being an ecological disaster in the making, Smith asserts, the wood pellet market disproportionately affects the most economically vulnerable communities in the South. “The rural communities that are most impacted by high logging rates are some of the poorest in the country,” she reports, pointing out that standing forests offer protection against the negative effects of climate change that are likely to hit these communities hard, such as flooding, drought, extreme weather and threats to water quality.

Local consultant Desiree Adaway praises yet another aspect of the alliance’s work. “As a woman of color who’s been working with this organization for several years, I’ve seen firsthand how committed they are to inclusion, equity and social justice work,” she says. The model of the “white environmentalist savior,” continues Adaway, is no longer the only way this kind of work gets done. The Dogwood Alliance is bringing voices to the table “that may not have ever been there before.”

In addition, notes Adaway, the organization is in it for the long haul. “They are trying to dig in deep and create lasting relationships. This is the hardest of the hard work, but they are committed to learning by asking, ‘What did we do right? What did we do wrong? Who did we hurt? How do we make it better?’”

A strident voice

Steve Kallan has spent his career working with environmental nonprofits, including a stint as chief financial officer of The Wilderness Society in Washington, D.C. And with its focus on using market pressure along with relationships with corporations to advocate for change, he says, the Dogwood Alliance is “as successful, if not more so, as any regional environmental organization in the country.”

Kallan knows the nonprofit well, having recently completed a three-year term as chair of its board of directors. He’s now serving as vice chair. Despite its small size, he says, it would be a mistake to underestimate the Dogwood Alliance. “This is a powerful, sophisticated organization using limited resources to create partnerships with corporate enterprise to stand against threats to this region’s forests in a powerful way,” he maintains. “I don’t believe any nonprofit can be careful in its vision. Successful nonprofits have to be strident and hold themselves accountable to have an impact.”

Joshua Martin, director of the Environmental Paper Network, has volunteered with and supported the Dogwood Alliance for 17 years. He says it stands out from other nonprofits “because they represent grassroots voices, they challenge corporate greed and power, they are creative, and they win.” What’s more, he continues, the group takes on issues that no one else does: “If not for Dogwood Alliance, European leaders would not be reconsidering their misguided plans to massively exploit wetland hardwood forests in the southern U.S. to make wood pellets for biomass energy.”

According to Smith, her organization is funded by a combination of grants from private foundations and donations from individuals. Growing its base of individual supporters, she says, “allows us to be a more sustainable organization that is not reliant solely on our foundations’ priorities, which change periodically.”

Finding ways to directly engage supporters in the Dogwood Alliance’s work is crucial, says Smith, whether it’s connecting the organization with a potential local business sponsor, meeting with an elected official or attending a protest. “We try to focus on the individual — who they are, what strengths they have and where their passions are — to find ways for them to get involved.”

For her own part, though, Smith is pretty clear about her path. “I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life at this point. We are putting Southern forests on the map in a big way, not just across our region but also on a national and now, increasingly, an international level.”

Most folks don’t realize, she says, that “ground zero globally for industrial logging is right in our backyard. And the impacts of that on climate, on biodiversity and on our communities are significant. Dogwood is the only group in the whole country that’s exclusively focused on addressing this issue.”



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About Virginia Daffron
Managing editor, lover of mountains, native of WNC. Follow me @virginiadaffron

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2 thoughts on “Dogwood Alliance marks two decades of defending Southern forests

  1. boatrocker

    Dogwood Alliance, for standing up for good causes- you do know for posing for that pic that SOS (save our ship in Morse Code) + forests does not make any sort of sense. Are you saving ships or forests?

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