Sonny Perdue, Trump’s Agriculture Pick, Could Roll Back Forest Protections

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's policies in his state favored the timber industry and ignored the climate implications of the loss of forests, opponents argue.

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is Donald Trump's choice to run the Agriculture Department

Former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue is Donald Trump's choice to run the Agriculture Department. Credit: Getty Images

The man nominated by President Donald Trump to steward the national forests as secretary of agriculture, former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, is drawing opposition from conservationists and climate activists, who are concerned about Perdue's ties to the timber industry and his dismissal of climate change science.

Perdue comes from Georgia, one of the country's biggest timber states, at the heart of a region that cuts and sells more wood than any other on the planet—the "wood basket" of the world. A woodland owner himself, Perdue has questioned the link between extreme weather and climate change, has taken campaign funding from the timber industry and has been a booster of converting wood to ethanol, with potential climate consequences.

That, conservationists say, could spell a worsening situation for the 193 million acres under the control of the U.S. Forest Service, which is within the Department of Agriculture. Those woodlands provide habitat for wildlife, purify drinking water for millions of people and absorb carbon dioxide, keeping it from warming the atmosphere. That gives the forests a critical role in addressing climate change.

"The concern is we'll go back to the Reagan days—of billions of board feet of wood coming out of the national forests," said Mark Woodall, the legislative chair of the Sierra Club's Georgia chapter. "There's a concern that Sonny Perdue has always been close to the timber companies and would be favorable to them."

The Department of Agriculture has nearly three dozen agencies and offices under its sprawling mandate, overseeing everything from school nutrition programs to crop insurance to the forest service.

The timber industry has largely backed Perdue's nomination, which this week also earned the nod of Tom Vilsack, Obama's secretary of agriculture.

The American Forest Foundation, which endorses forest management strategies at odds with some conservationists, is also backing Perdue.

"He's been a big leader in expanding forests to markets," said Tom Martin, the foundation's president and CEO. "Many of the threats to forest—drought, fire, invasive species—can be hedged against through smart management."

But conservation groups argue that these management techniques, which include thinning forests to remove fire-feeding, hazardous overgrowth and prescribed burns, are a means for the timber industry to gain access to valuable federal lands.

"That has been used by timber companies as a backdoor into destroying habitat," said Rachel Cleetus, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists' climate and energy program. "The challenge is finding the balance of doing this with certain criteria in place."

Those criteria, conservation groups say, are under threat as Republicans and the Trump administration attempt to roll back environmental review processes.

"Undoubtedly there will be a lot of pressure on [Perdue] to open up more national forest to logging, said Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director at The Wilderness Society. "Conservatives in Congress are looking to ways to incentivize more timber, cutting back regulations and rules that are designed to protect the American public's interest in making sure those lands are available. He's going to have to deal with that push-and-pull."

Perdue made the rounds on Capitol Hill last week, meeting with senators who he'll face in a confirmation hearing, which has not yet been scheduled. They discussed opening up more federal lands to timber. Perdue's cousin, Sen. David Perdue, (R-Ga.), heads the subcommittee that oversees forestry under the Senate Agriculture Committee.

If confirmed, Perdue will help craft the agency's budget and steer its priorities. Yet more important, perhaps, is his choice for deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment. That person directly oversees the operations of the Forest Service.

"That person will really run the Forest Service. We hope he thinks long and hard about that, and it's not someone whose background is in timber or logging," Rowsome said. "That will send a big signal about what his philosophy will be on national forests."

Perdue did not respond to requests for comment.

Perdue's Record in Georgia

During his first term as governor, Perdue quickly angered forest conservation groups. He killed the land conservation program started by his predecessor and replaced it with one that allowed continued harvesting of trees on rural lands where the state had bought development rights.

In 2004, the Nature Conservancy offered to buy a huge tract of forest once owned by timber giant Weyerhaeuser, if the state agreed to compensate the group for the purchase later. Perdue refused to sign the agreement, saying the state couldn't afford it. The land, known as Oaky Woods and adjacent to one of Perdue's own pieces of land, instead was sold to developers for $1,600 an acre. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported that the value of Perdue's property nearly doubled. Six years later and a month before Perdue left office, the state bought 10,000 acres of the property for nearly $3,000 an acre—more than twice the 2004 price.

"Sonny killed Gov. Roy Barnes' green space program," Woodall explained. "That and Oaky Woods doesn't inspire much confidence in Sonny Perdue's stewardship of 193 millions acres of national forest."

Perdue signed into law the Forest Land Protection Act in 2008, which lowered the taxes on owners of large tracts of forest, including corporations. Under the previous law, only those who owned 2,000 acres could qualify for the tax relief, prompting big timber companies, including Georgia-Pacific and Weyerhaeuser to sell off their Georgia plantations.  

"During his tenure as governor of the state of Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue was a supporter and effective advocate for the forest business. One example was his leadership in having the Forest Land Protection Act signed into law," said Joe Hopkins, a former president of the Georgia Forestry Association and timberland owner in a statement. "He will bring to this position his understanding that forestry is inclusive within the term 'agriculture' rather than exclusive."

Forest conservation groups fear exactly that.

"Gov. Perdue and the timber industry cite sources saying we've increased the number of trees and acres of forests," said Adam Macon, of the North Carolina-based forest conservation group Dogwood Alliance. "But what's really happened in the past 50 years is we've seen a decrease of over 30 million acres of natural forest in the U.S. south, and an increase of over 40 million acres of pine plantation. We're turning our forests into an industrial crop being grown for Big Timber."

The Raging Wildfire Debate

Fueled by climate change, wildfires have become a worsening problem over the past 10 years, particularly across the western U.S., fueled by tinder-dry forests and parched conditions. Five of the worst fire seasons in history have occurred since 2006. Mega-fires, those that burn more than 100,000 acres, are seven times more likely now than they were 40 years ago.

Fighting these fires has come at a huge cost. For the first time in 2015, the Forest Service reported that more than half of its budget—nearly $2 billion—went toward fighting fires, and that by 2025 that percent would rise to two-thirds.

"We have these increasingly bad wildfire seasons, especially in the West, driven by climate change," Cleetus explained. "Every year the fire-fighting budget gets exhausted and they have to move money around from other parts of the budget."

Climate change is exacerbating conditions created by the Forest Service's policy, at least historically, of aggressively fighting fires in the first place. When fires are quenched and not allowed to burn naturally, a forest's underbrush remains as food for future fires.

Congress has tried to pass legislation that would boost the service's budget, but recent attempts have stalled, largely because Democrats have opposed language that would reduce the level of environmental reviews required for managing forests.

Regardless of Perdue's approach and philosophy—or those of his undersecretary—he will at least be forced to consider the role of climate change.

"It's hard to look at the wildfire issue without discussing climate change," said Peter Nelson, director of the federal lands program for Defenders of Wildlife. "It's so ingrained in the agency's conservation and management decisions."

Turning Forests Into Fuel

When forests are burned, they release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. One study suggested that burning biomass, including plants and trees, is linked to 18 percent of human-caused global carbon emissions. In California alone, wildfires accounted for between 5 and 7 percent of the state's overall carbon emissions between 2001-10.

But wildfires are only part of the carbon equation. Cutting trees and burning them for energy or fuel complicate the picture.

The timber industry has long argued that timber can provide a sustainable form of energy with its potential for conversion into biofuels, that wood waste from Georgia's abundant pine can be turned into liquid fuel.

No company has yet figured out how to scale up production of wood-based ethanol, but the timber industry is still pushing.

"The industry has been pushing this idea of biomass for many years and the industry's political friends, which include Perdue, have taken up this mantra that forests are fuel," said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the California-based advocacy group, Center for Biological Diversity. "But from our perspective we shouldn't be throwing billions of dollars at turning forests into fuels, when options like wind and solar are on the shelf."

While the forest industry considers burning wood to be carbon neutral and wood a renewable resource, burning wood for power, Bundy explained, releases more carbon dioxide than burning coal. It can also take decades or centuries before a regrown or replanted forest can store the same amount of carbon as the original forest.

"We need forests for habitat, for water, for carbon sequestration, for protection from natural disasters, from storm surge," Macon, of the Dogwood Alliance said. "Pine plantations do a pittance compared to what a natural forest does. Sonny Perdue is a big proponent of treating forests as a crop, and ignoring those benefits."

The forestry community—both on the conservation and timber industry sides of the complex debate over how best to manage federal forests—will carefully watch Perdue's confirmation hearing, which should come in the next few weeks.   

"What we hear in these hearings is going to be critical," Rowsome said. "There's reason to have some optimism, but we're going to need to hear it from him that he values wildlife, recreation, and water protection. It would be difficult to affirm those values and say he also wants to grow board feet coming out of the national forest."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the U.S. South had lost 30 million acres of national forest. It has lost that amount of natural forests.

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