Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

An Opportunity to Restore, A Guest Post by Dave Wallace

Environmentalist Baba Dioum said: In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” A recent retreat by members of LDS Earth Stewardship determined that the organization should focus on values, rather than politics. The organization should act as bridge-builders in politics by reminding people of values without necessarily dictating specific political actions. In five years the organization would like to be seen as a resource for other groups to build bridges.

In order to accomplish this goal you need to clearly understand your own values as well as understanding the values of those on the other side of the “bridge”.  I would like to focus on the issues, needs and opportunities in one part of the vineyard: restoration.

Unfortunately, humans have not always been kind to the environment.   Certain actions have impacted the landscape in such as fashion that restoration is required.  Actual restoration work comes in all sizes. Often, an entire watershed ecosystem may require restoration.  Poor logging practices, overgrazing and excessive road construction may have resulted in erosion and siltation of streambeds. The resulting poor water quality may have reduced the quality of fish reproduction and perhaps even required a municipality to spend large amounts of money to treat water for domestic use.

Our responsibility as Church members to support and encourage restoration is quite clear. President Ezra Taft Benson said: “We are morally obligated to turn this land over to those who succeed us — not drained of its fertility but improved in quality, in productivity, and in usefulness for future generations “.  I see little ambiguity in this statement. We have a moral obligation is to restore that which has been degraded. Even the sacred grove has been undergoing ecological restoration as a way of honoring its sacred importance to our faith

The causes of watershed degradation are many.  Our current economic model does not encourage the recovery of all the costs in developing and consuming natural resources. We debate just who should pay for the full costs in the consumption of natural resources.  For example, should an oil and gas supplier absorb all the costs of the burning of fossil fuels or should the consumer or government pay a portion? Can a domestic industry remain competitive in a world market using full costing when foreign competitors may not include all extraction costs?

Government regulations control resource extraction. There are varied opinions on the need for government regulation. Some see government regulation as costly and burdensome while others feel that governmental regulations over natural resources are often weak and favor the needs of industry over the public.  Any type of regulation exposes itself to criticism when the industry being regulated designs the applicable regulations.  Regulations may require extractor restoration efforts but a higher level of success is assured only when those regulations are enforced and the extractor has sufficient financial resources to perform restoration.

History has shown that the most damaging effect on a watershed statistically comes from the poor practices of the extractor.  I will use historical logging practices as an example. In a practice known as clear cutting, all trees in a specific area would be cut at the same time.  This method has huge economy of scale advantages.  The downside of clear cutting is that traditional extractor restoration generally requires the use of herbicides to control unwanted post-harvest vegetation and results in a subsequent monoculture of even aged trees.  Many argue that the results of clear cutting resemble a tree farm more than forest.  The results to the landscape can also be devastating when extractor’s restoration fails or is not performed.  A lack of ground cover and extensive logging roads and skid trails can produce significant erosion.

Selective cutting is a timber harvest method used by many companies.  Individual trees in an area are selected for cutting, thereby taking only the “interest” on the principal (the trees).  The asset remains intact and even-aged monocultures are avoided.

Clear cutting is banned on federal land but is legal on private lands in California. On occasion, the issue of property rights enters the discussion on clear cutting.  Fortunately, we have two statements from Church leaders that can be illuminating and provide clarification on where property rights fit in when applied to stewardship.  President James Faust said “There is a great risk in justifying what we do individually and professionally on the basis of what is “legal” rather than what is “right.”  Elder Nash, in a recent address is quoted as saying “ The gospel of Jesus Christ helps us think beyond ourselves, to think of the earth and all life given by God and to think of others now and in future generations, rather than pursue the immediate vindication of our personal desires or avowed rights” (my emphasis).

It helps to view a watershed from an economic perspective.  There is an economic value to society for the trees, the grasses and clean water.  The health of the soil and recreational use of the watershed has value.  The resources are assets to a society. No one doubts that these assets have value.  The disagreement lies in how the assets are valued. Should my performance as a steward of the land over a certain period of time be evaluated on the amount of timber I extracted or how I improved the soil that provides the nutrients for those trees?

We should, however, take a look at our own economic behavior. The Rev Canon Professor Richard Burridge recently said. “Pointing the finger at the extractive industries gets us off the hook and avoids the fundamental problem which is our selfishness and our way of life, which has been fuelled by plentiful, cheap energy and more and more people around the world wanting that”.

Federal and state governments often assume the lead in watershed restoration.  A government may be the landowner or the watershed may have been privately held.  The government often takes a lead role because there is little interest in the “free market” to invest the capital required for restoration other than in their own extraction project.  Ardent critics maintain that the government has to intervene in restoration work because we, as a society, have allowed certain industries to privatize profits and socialize costs which guarantee that some level of government participation in restoration eventually be required.

Government participation in watershed restoration is not without controversy. Millions of dollars are spent annually on restoration. Is this the best use of tax dollars? Cost-benefit studies are performed to determine the viability of a project. For example, should an eroding dirt road causing stream siltation be decommissioned (actually removed) at a one-time cost of $8,000 a mile when the annual cost to remove the siltation for drinking water is $9,000 per mile? Unfortunately, many of these types of decisions are made from a short-term perspective.

One of the largest watershed restoration projects here in California has taken place in what is now the Redwood National and State Parks (Redwood) on the north coast of California.  Only 5% of original old-growth redwoods are in existence and many of the groves are threatened by logging practices outside of parks.  When the federal government purchased the land for Redwood there were hundreds of miles of sediment producing logging roads, gullies and ravines. Logged areas had no vegetation to hold rain water, creating floods that scoured once shaded creeks resulting in wide-open gravel bars between the water and the trees. Stream temperatures increased reducing fish populations.

In Redwood the federal government has spent tens millions of dollars in road decommissioning using the same machine that created the roads, a Caterpillar D-8 tractor.  The roads were removed and the contours of the landscape restored to the original slopes. Stream beds have been restored to their historical location with the help of fluvial geomorphologists.  The photos below show the work often necessary to remove the damage and restore the landscape.

Workers restore natural stream flows along the Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

Workers restore natural stream flows along the Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrus

Restoration work is providing jobs while improving river habitat along Washington State's Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

Restoration work is providing jobs while improving river habitat along Washington State’s Abernathy Creek. Photo: Sam Beebe, Ecotrust

Just what can you or I do about the need for restoration and prevent the need for restoration? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Express your values in the way you shop. Patronize businesses that sell sustainable products and have a solid record on the environment.
  • Educate and inform political leaders on the need to minimize the influence of industry in the development of the regulations that govern that same industry’s activities.
  • Share your stewardship values. Sharing values is a little like sharing your testimony- both the words and the personal nature of the topic affect the listener.

Dave Wallace, a member of the Church for forty years, lives in Cottonwood, CA. He is the Chief Fiscal Officer for a regional transportation planning agency and consults with resource conservation districts on the financial accounting for restoration projects.







  • Laura says:

    What a great post! Very interesting to get some perspective on an important local issue for those of us in Northern California (and, of course, this generalizes to other places). Thanks for educating us! Also, love the quote from President Faust. If we all focused on what was “right” instead of “legal” I feel sure the world would be a much better place.

  • Dan says:

    While in agreement with the post, I
    can’t help but think as a society that we have become so far removed from the
    processes and practices that fuel and feed our day-to-day activities, that the
    whole topic seems more conceptual/theoretical than reality. We may ‘connect’ intellectually with the idea, yet it is removed from personal experience – where it is most likely to affect behavior.

  • Peter says:

    I especially like this part: “Pointing the finger at the extractive industries gets us off the hook and avoids the fundamental problem which is our selfishness and our way of life, which has been fueled by plentiful, cheap energy and more and more people around the world wanting that.”

    It’s easy to say that problems are caused by oil companies, or by Monsanto, but the hard fact is that those companies are selling the public something that it wants. That’s one reason that it’s so important to shape public appetites, and that’s where LDS Earth Stewardship can do vital work.