Project Learning Tree
A clearcut recipe for duping teachers

By: John F. Borowski - 07/17/03


Now being served in classrooms across America: Project Learning Tree, an educational entre cooked up by big timber. But before this is served to students, the ingredient list should be exposed to the fullest of light:

* Omit crucial data that reflects negatively on multinational timber corporations;

* Hone it with "Madison Avenue" semantics leading teachers to believe that the nation's forests should exist as fiber farms for profit;

* Sprinkle in a dash of credible activities to hide the bitter taste of glaring omissions.

Now you have the best curricula blood money can buy. This self- proclaimed preeminent environmental education program has all the ingredients for success: corporate money, overburdened teachers in search of free curricula and alliances with all the politically correct organizations. How could this project of the American Forest Foundation now be in the hands of almost twenty million students and five hundred thousand teachers?

As slick as big tobacco's PR campaign of the last fifty years, Project Learning Tree appears altruistic, yet its omission-riddled approach to forest education is simple: whatever science data reflects poorly on the likes of forest pillagers such as Weyerhaeuser, Sierra Pacific and Georgia-Pacific is absent and crucial ecological dilemmas created by logging are avoided. PLT's mantra is: without human intervention forests will suffer. Of course, all that is needed is the prescribed medicine of roaring chainsaws. The duping of hard working and material poor teachers is bearing fruit, a tainted fruit that we need not provide to young "Johnny Appleseeds" in the nation's classrooms: unless we envision a nation of clearcuts, tree farms and disappearing wilderness.

Our students need to know this: much of the world's remaining intact forests are at risk. With more than 23 million acres of the world's forests disappearing yearly, some nations will lose their native forests in less than 10 years! Embarrassingly, the U. S. has only 4% of its native forest still standing and a penchant for replacing forests with tree farms is a tragedy that needs to be reversed. Project Learning Tree deceitfully leads teachers, most of whom intend to teach forest issues well, through a "clear cut" charade.

You are judged by the company you keep!

PLT was created in 1970 by the American Forest Foundation and has received millions of dollars from a rogue's gallery of multinationals:

Boise Cascade- One of the largest cutters of public timberlands and outspoken foes of Clinton's roadless plan. According to the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory, Boise Cascade is also a major polluter of our air, water and land.

Weyerhaeuser- Researchers estimate that Weyerhaeuser has clearcut over 4 million acres of forestlands since 1990. They were also under investigation for illegal timber cutting on public lands.

Pacific Lumber- Pacific Lumber has razed 1000's of acres of old growth redwood despite damage to Coho habitat and other endangered species.

Sierra Pacific- Friend to large scale, clear-cuts in the state of California, Sierra Pacific is major lobbyist in Washington D.C., to further weaken environmental law.

Georgia-Pacific- Based on the TRI reports (1997) is a major polluter of air and water. They finished second to International Paper, who had the honor of being first, and of being another PLT supporter.

Plum Creek- So notorious a clearcutter in the 1980's and 1990's, Plum Creek was referred to as the "Darth Vader" of the Pacific Northwest timber companies. They knowingly clearcut 100,000's of acres in Montana, knowing that it was unsustainable and would not only cause ecological havoc, it also destroyed the lives of workers.

I knew nothing about them until a fateful day in 1996. Asked to lead a forest tour of Project Learning Tree award- winning teachers opened my eyes to the deceit of this timber lackey. I met them in Opal Creek, Oregon (a magnificent old growth watershed in the Willamette National Forest). I met their vice-president, Kathy McGlauflin. I was shocked by her lack of knowledge of public lands, her misstatements about replanting of clearcuts and her obvious bias towards the timber industry. She told the group that an apple orchard could be considered a forest ecosystem, that our national forests have not been over cut and refused to broach the subject of fragmentation. How could this be the VP of an environmental education group?

PLT and its' shrill and slick approach is best summed up by Ailene Kane of Forest Ecology Network, found in Maine. A FEN press release says it all. "This program of Forest Teachers' Tours (which used PLT materials) is analogous to the state offering recertification credits to teachers who spend three days with the Tobacco Industry listening to the merits of smoking."

During a tour in Maine, seeking to expose teachers to PLT curricula, 'red flags' went up quickly. The tour included no one from the environmental community. Apparently one of the speakers was from one of Maine's most notorious timber companies, Sappi. This tour actually offered 'recertification credits' for Maine teachers (to renew their teaching licenses.)

Defenders of PLT will use the same tired defense: a myriad of lies. Please judge for yourself. Lie number one: PLT is funded by a diverse group of private, public and even environmental groups. Closer scrutiny will tell a different story. With over 151 donors the list is dominated by timber, paper, energy and oil trade groups including ExxonMobil, Weyerhaeuser and the American Petroleum Institute.

Lie number two: PLT defenders boast that their 400- page curriculum is not meant to be all-inclusive. A former state PLT representative in Oregon often chided me, telling me that no curriculum can "cover it all". Yet, page VI of PLT's own manual states, "PLT is a comprehensive environmental curriculum."

Lie number three: Some say the biggest form of a lie is omission, and this curriculum is living proof. Where is the discussion on habitat fragmentation, use of herbicides, the downside of clearcutting and the abysmal record of timber multinationals? PLT's goal is "teach students how to think, not what to think." Apparently, "timber think" is the goal and avoiding hard science is the vehicle to this trip down the road of "we can have it all, don't worry." But the omissions are glaring and damning.

Who needs to know about fragmentation, clearcutting and monocultures?

Four hundred pages of "activities and data" but where is the information on fragmentation of habitat (the world's most pressing problem for wild species)? The word is not even in the glossary! No overviews, assessments or discussion of fragmentation of habitat by logging. We have lost nearly half of the worlds' forests (7.2 billion acres) and some 76 countries have lost all of their frontier forests. Nowhere in the PLT curriculum does it show our nation's "jigsaw puzzle" national forests, pocked by rampant clearcut logging. 50-90% of all terrestrial species inhabit the world's forests, yet PLT declines to examine their main threat? Large intact frontier or native forests provide homes to indigenous species, cleanse water, ensure the survival of our most beloved predators and are zones for evolution.

The benefactors of PLT, the timber industry, see our forests as factories, nothing more than pulp monocultures to be cut in short time frames. Our national forests are crossed by over 400,000 miles of roads, increasing fire danger as winds dry out the edges. Fragmentation leads to the loss of interior species as edges are created, viable populations are slashed by limited continuous forest, weedy species and exotics have easy entry into the forest (Scotch broom is a good example) and fragmented forests replaced by sterile rows of "farmlike" plantations fall prey to disease. Where is PLT's comparison of native forests to replanted forests? Shouldn't students be aware of critical tradeoffs?

My students love to do labs and a favorite is comparing native forest soils to tree plantation soils. The frontier forest soil is darker, thicker, contains more mutualistic fungi, holds more water and is more fertile. Where are PLT's activities on this issue? I could not find them.

Big timber has clearcut vast acreage in the United States, yet the preeminent ecological curricula in the United States do not even discuss this? No maps or diagrams on the endless sea of stumps in our national forests are shown. No discussion on how big timber, like big tobacco has manipulated Congress, pressured lawmakers to allow unsustainable harvests to render our national heritage into tinderboxes waiting to burn? Yet, PLT claims that it "teaches how to think?" To think what? That forty year old stands of cropped trees are normal, that massive fragmentation is normal, that we can continue to plunder native forests in the name of "modern forestry?"

Time for PLT to answer the critics

Project Learning Tree better be careful, for despite its deep pockets and powerful friends people are catching onto their sham. "Life in a Barrel of Oil," a beautifully written piece by John Stanton, outlines PLT's newest foray into energy education with the American Petroleum Institute. It is often stated, "You are judged by the company you keep!"

Project Learning Tree should be ashamed. Their "energy module" was constructed with the help of purveyors of greenwashing. And to think that they are proud of working with the American Petroleum Institute, an organization that was exposed trying to downplay the fears of global climate change in a recent EPA document? The American Forest Foundation (PLT's money machine) is proud to list their new partner: the American Petroleum Institute, a wise use group and an organization that was forming a $5 million dollar program to mislead school children about global warming on behalf of Exxon and Chevron. Who else played a role in this PLT/API pseudo education program?

* Red Cavaney of the American Petroleum Institute, who wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, more public lands to exploration and opposes global warming treaties like the Kyoto Protocol;

* Mary Butterworth of the American Coal Foundation, ACF has put out bogus data on global warming and downplays this issue;

* Jo Cooper of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, AAM is opposed to California's plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

If Project Learning Tree keeps company and works with those who want to open ANWR, fight global warming issues and want more public lands opened to extraction, how could they be trusted to give out quality "educational materials"? Their bias is a clear and present danger, especially in the hands of unsuspecting teachers. This is indoctrination, not education.

The truth is more powerful than timber money

Some will wail that PLT is too strong and too well funded. I say that David can slay Goliath by just flushing them out. Teachers must say no to PLT, demanding that PLT have a frank discussion about their omissions. Email PLT and ask them the tough issues raised in this piece. Teachers must supplement their forest units covering the tradeoffs of management and taking a hard look at what PLT avoids completely: habitat fragmentation.

Environmental education organizations like the North American Association of Environmental Educators must demand that PLT become comprehensive or face alienation. The media must start exposing the corporate flood of sponsored curricula that stands to taint credible science education in our schools.

I challenge PLT to debate me on this issue, any time, any place. A sympathetic PLT facilitator told me that national PLT bigwigs have been instructed not to engage me in conversation. Obviously, they are afraid of any teacher who has seen through their smoke screen. They are afraid of answering the tough questions about their omissions and focus on forests based on management.

Our forests, especially our national forests, are to be jealously guarded by their absentee landlords: the nation's taxpayers and future taxpayers. Building ecologically fluent children translates into active, knowledgeable and voting citizens. Curriculum like Project Learning Tree seeks to dull our children into comfortably numb and passive pawns. I have truth in my slingshot and I say bring on the timber funded Goliath and watch them fall.


John F. Borowski, a contributing writer for Liberal Slant, has been a teacher of environmental and marine science for 23 years. He sits on the advisory board of the Native Forest Council, and has testified in Congress on behalf of forest protection. His pieces have also appeared in NY Times, Oregonian, PR Watch, UTNE Reader, Forest Voice, Commondreams, Z Magazine and numerous other sites. He can be reached at [email protected] 


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