News & Publications
The College Magazine - Fall 2008
MAKING A CASE FOR ENDANGERED FORESTLAND
Abby Weinberg (SF00)
Progress needs to be considered not just from the standpoint of what we produce from forests, but also by
what we gain by leaving them as they are, says Abby Weinberg (SF00)
In her work as manager of the Conservation Research Program at the Open Space Institute in New York City, Abby Weinberg (SF00) finds the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith helpful in understanding the challenges to conserving the nation's endangered forest and farmland. It isn't easy balancing private property rights and free markets with the less tangible benefit of a forest as a good in itself, but Weinberg uses research to make the case for conservation—with good results.
Weinberg brought her enthusiasm for the outdoors to St. John's, where her studies of Smith and Locke helped her better understand the formative philosophies driving human's interaction with the natural environment. After graduating from St. John's, she worked as an economic analyst for the Federal Trade Commission. Four years later, Weinberg earned a master's degree in Forestry at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She worked as a forest technician at the City of Seattle's 90,000-acre watershed before joining the OSI in 2004. The Institute protects scenic, natural, and historic landscapes to ensure public enjoyment, conserve habitats, and sustain community character. Weinberg's work focuses on evaluating and developing tools for the conservation of actively managed forest and farm landscapes in the United States.
Although one-third of the country is forestland, "people don't necessarily see the value of standing forestland," Weinberg says. "Some of this goes back to Locke and his idea about labor and ownership. The labor of clearing trees and planting agricultural products is evidence of ownership, whereas people assume the forest is a public resource that takes care of itself and isn't necessarily worth paying for even though it is the source of our clean air and water."
Such ideas have made agriculture more prominent in our society, Weinberg explains. Agriculture receives more government subsidies and funding than forests, to the point that more land is in agriculture than the market would otherwise dictate. On the other hand, "Adam Smith argues that agriculture is inherently contrary to economic development, because division of labor doesn't apply to agriculture," Weinberg explains. "The same person plows, sows, and reaps, making it hard to increase production without increasing labor costs."
In her work at the Institute, Weinberg relies on economic research and land use analysis to recommend changes to conservation and public policy. Up until 2000, the amount of forestland in the U.S. was actually increasing as marginal farmland was allowed to return to forests, explained Weinberg.
The picture changed dramatically as suburban sprawl, fed by rampant real estate speculation, began encroaching more urgently on forests. "In the traditional analysis of forestland prices you don't assume someone is going to cut the entire forest at once," she says. Instead, "you need to know what you can earn from sustainably harvesting the land" without destroying it. However, these days, land prices are driven more by development than the potential for forest products. Development speculation has driven prices three or five times what can be justified for forestry conservation, she says.
It's part of Weinberg's job to make a case for the value of preserving forests. One of her first research projects at OSI was to complete an assessment of conservation in Massachusetts for the Kohlberg Foundation. Her work led to the creation of an entirely new grant program for conserving forest and farm landscapes in the area and the dedication of another $6 million towards land protection.
With lessons from Locke and Smith, Weinberg has found a way to address both natural and economic issues by researching how to conserve forests while using their resources sustainably. The traditional idea of progress, that is, the conversion of our natural resources for economic goods, she says, "is in many ways no longer valid when we recognize the values lost when a forest is cut down."
By Brooke McLane-Higginson (AGI09)