What do you get when the powerful extractors of resources on earth, combine their bottomless war chests, and finance the worst form of a lie? It is called Project Learning Tree, funded by the worst clearcutters on earth, such as Sierra Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and Pacific Lumber, and guilty of that greatest sin in education: omission.
With the motto, “We teach kids how to think, not what to think” PLT gives new meaning to the terms: panderer and knavery. Corporate America has realized that ecological fluency, brought on by environmental science classes in public schools, were enlightening young citizens to their shrill fabrications about sustainable growth and logos like Willamette Industries’ “Timber today, forests forever.” And it was time to fight back. This meant spin and the best curricula timber money could buy.
Project Learning Tree panders to and constructs their “curricula” according to their funders. PLT does not discuss short rotation forestry, the downsides of monocultures, or the most serious wildlife problem worldwide: fragmentation of habitat. No serious discussion of clearcuts and salmon, or herbicides and human health takes place. Their curriculum has a great focus on tree farms and management. And most noticeable, timber multinationals are absolved of their horrendous track record on public lands, their influence on political riders, their vehemence towards protective legislation and their ownership of powerful political allies. These are not even discussed in a single sentence.
Detractors of such opinion will quickly ask does PLT have some good activities. And the answer is yes. Just like Monsanto, the Greening Earth Society or Exxon, PLT has credible science in their portfolios, but ingeniously weaves a web of deception for unsuspecting teachers. Which leads to a critical point: wouldn’t most teachers be able to supplement the issues in question themselves, don’t they see a need to ask hard questions of PLT’s avoidance of data that reflects poorly on “big timber”? And the answer is a resounding: no. Users of this curricula range from elementary school teachers, with very limited training in science, to high school teachers, who teach earth science or biology, but have never been trained to teach the dynamics of forest ecology, successional systems and population dynamics of the forest. The big environmental groups have failed to counter this assault by big timber on science education and most science teachers are not certified in environmental science, because that certification in many states simply does not exist.
When free, slick lesson plans are presented to an overworked and exhausted teacher it is tempting to implement those materials, and not rely on instinct to question its motives. And the motives of PLT are clear. Teachers are not at fault here, there is no system in most schools to screen these “freebies” and with plummeting economic support schools are taking what they can get. And PLT is giving it to them: literally.
A knave is a deceitful rogue. PLT “friends” are a true rogue’s gallery.
The American Forest Foundation, of which PLT is their miseducation program, just recently announced a new player (and big funder) to their team. PLT’s newest energy module was made with the help of a corporate bad actor: the American Petroleum Institute gives new meaning to being a rogue. A leaked internal memo revealed API’s intention to use propaganda to downplay global warming in America’s classrooms. A NY Times story revealed a multi-million dollar scheme to set up a new front group to put industry PR in the hands of school children and their teachers under the name “Science Education Task Group.” Would any good environmental education organization hook up with the likes of API? Probably not, unless you are PLT.
Boise Cascade is a funder of PLT, and avid opponent of roadless legislation and according to the EPA a major polluter of air and water. Georgia Pacific, a funder and supporter, states, “PLT shares GP’s goals of non-biased, scientifically grounded environmental educational materials.” Yet, GP’s own educational materials site old growth as somewhat inferior, old trees, shading the ground and stunting forest floor growth. PLT is endorsed and used by Wise Use Groups (groups that lobby Congress to open more public lands to mining, logging, grazing and commercial interests) such as the Southern Appalachian Multiple Use Council and the Wyoming Timber Industry Association. The Wisconsin branch of PLT went as far as giving the National Hardwood Lumber Association an award. NHLA is a proud Wise Use Group.
We may conclude that PLT’s motto is “teach kids how to think, as we omit things they need to know, to make decisions about forests.” Unless PLT decides to explore all its omissions, cuts its ties with nefarious despoilers of Mother Earth, it will remain a pet to timber interests. Unless we as teachers and parents demand that our schools have the resources to explore all “sides” of the forest debate, corporate interests will own one more vestige of our children’s culture, and in turn, a forest in the eyes of children will be no more than Douglas fir tree farms, forty years old, and in line, just like PLT wants our children to be.
John F. Borowski
is an Environmental and Marine Science Teacher at North Salem High, Oregon.
His pieces have appeared in the Forest Voice, PR Watch, N.Y. Times, Utne Reader and Z Magazine.