Perception Undergirds Conflict, Says Activist

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Smurfit-Stone Employee Honored for Activism on Behalf of Forest Products Industry

One of the most important battles the forest products industry faces today is in our national forests, according to a leading activist on behalf of the industry.
“The largest battle we have today is that the national forests have become preservation forests,” said Mike Branch. “Whenever a national forest has a timber sale, it goes to litigation. All it takes is one person and the right judge to stop a timber sale. Even after a fire has wiped out an area, the courts can stop you from salvaging the wood that could still be used. This is a battle we have yet to win.”
Mike, governmental affairs manager for Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. in Fernandina Beach, Fla., was honored earlier this year by the Forest Resources Association, a forest products industry trade organization. He received the FRA’s 2006 National Outstanding Forestry Activist Award.
The conflict the forest products industry finds itself in with environmentalists is primarily perceptual, noted Mike. “Too many people see the environmentalists as the good guys and the people who cut trees down as the bad guys. The good thing about forests is that they are a renewable resource. You can cut the trees, walk away, and the forest will grow back. The only way the forest will not grow back is if you convert those lands to roads, buildings and urbanization. So good management practice means you can both cut trees down and manage the forests in optimal condition, too.”
Candidates for FRA’s annual activist award are nominated following regional competition. Mike was cited for his “strong campaigning, nationally and locally, on behalf of forestry and logging.”
Activism on behalf of the forest products industry can take many forms, Mike acknowledged. “Some work more in lobbying government,” he noted, “sometimes in Washington, sometimes locally, or working with the public in a variety of ways. The commonality is activism in supporting sustainable forestry and putting forth an extra effort above and beyond what is expected.”
Although his job title is legislative affairs manager, Mike estimated that only about 25% of his time is spent on governmental affairs. He spends 50% of his time on environmental issues and the remaining 25% on public affairs, he said.
Mike, 52, was born in Plant City, Fla., the youngest of four siblings. He was imbued with a love of forestry from his father, Eugene, at an early age; Eugene worked for the Florida Forestry Service for 21 years and Rayonier for 20 years.
“I was exposed to forestry through my dad,” Mike recalled, “and often went with him to see tree plantings, tree harvestings, site preparation, prescribed fires and wild fires. These experiences shaped my future and instilled the importance of the word con­servation in me, which is the wise use of natural resources. I appreciated my dad’s guidance.”
Mike went to community college and then the University of Flor­ida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in forest management. During college he worked summers for a few different paper companies. When he graduated, he was offered a job with Container Corporation of America, which, after a number of permutations, has become Smurfit-Stone. He started as an assistant area forester and worked up to forestry engineer, land manager, and eventually regional manager, in charge of land and procurement for two of the company s paper mills.
Mike has long been active in a number of industry associations. He is a former president of the Florida Forestry Association and chaired the environmental and communications committees.
In the Florida Forestry Association, Mike was instrumental in organizing forestry tours for school teachers the past four years. The initiative began in 2002 when the Temperate Forest Foundation organized the first tour. Some 35-40 teachers participated in the first three-day tour; it has continued annually.
“This has had a real impact and is one of the best things we do,” Mike said. “It’s been a real education for us as well. And it teaches teachers the reality of the forest in the real world.”
Mike also has served as a member of the St. Johns River Water Management District’s governing board and chairman of the regula­tory committee. As a member of the Sustainable Forestry Board’s resource committee, Mike has helped review and implement the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® standards.
Mike serves on the Florida Forestry Council, where he’s helped strengthen Florida’s best management practices for forestry. He also serves on several FRA committees, including the pro-active forestry communication and education committees, the national forestry operations committee, the timber harvesting and transportation safety committee, and participates in the annual ‘Make a Cut on Us’ legislative event at a Washington, D.C. area Christmas tree farm.
Mike’s duties put him on a number of different fronts. For instance, he works with local governments to help solve problems related to the forest products industry. When logging truck deliveries became an issue for residents near mills, Mike helped forge a solution: delivering wood at night. The truck drivers were happy because there was less traffic, and the communities were happy because it kept logging trucks off their busy roads during the day.
A related challenge had to do with logging trucks keeping to the right lane during rush hour, which slowed motorists who wanted to turn right. Mike and others worked with various law enforcement and transportation officials to allow the trucks to use the left lane when they near the mills, which alleviated congestion.
Mike works with loggers who supply wood for his company to follow sustainable forestry practices. One of the most important, he noted, are Best Management Practices. They have to do with wetlands protection and streamside management zones. These measures ensure there are sufficient grasses, shrubs and trees, which reduce the velocity of water in wetlands and aid in naturally filtering the water.
Mike also works with landowners to encourage them to observe forestry practices that benefit wildlife, too, such as leaving groups of oaks and other mast-producing trees that provide food for wildlife. Another technique is planting or conserving different species, which allows different harvest periods in the future and helps create a mosaic of different species and growth, which also benefits a variety of wildlife.
The danger of a nonmanaged forest culture is that “after a point, the forest declines rather than thrives,” said Mike. The result can be a “climax forest, a tangle of decaying trees and underbrush” that creates a risk of forest fire and does not thrive as a healthy forest.
Mike and his wife, Julie, have been married 29 years. They have two children, Seth, 24, a nurse at Wilson Children’s Hospital, and Sarah, 21, a senior at Florida State University. Mike spends his spare time leading mission trips for his church to countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras. He also enjoys photographing wild flowers and birds with his wife.
“I’ve known Mike for many years in both his professional and personal worlds,” said Florida State Forester Mike Long. “He leads by example. He has the ability to look at all sides of an issue and always find a graceful way to leave the table with a positive solution that is best in the long term for forestry in Florida.”
Jeff Doran, first executive vice president of the Florida Forestry Association, said that Mike “makes our forests come alive” whenever he takes on a volunteer role. “For the past four years he has become an icon of the forests for many Florida teachers who have participated in our teachers’ tour. He puts a human face on forestry that helps teachers connect with the woods in an unforgettable way.”