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BioOpinion: Chuck Leavell - Forest Owner and Rolling Stones keyboardist

Parallel to a legendary musical career, not least as long-standing keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, Chuck Leavell is one of the most respected advocates for land conservation and the environment in the US. In BioOpinion, he shares some personal notes on balancing forestry with conservation and why biomass is a key part of the equation.

Chuck Levell- Forest Owner & Rolling Stones keyboardist

Chuck Levell- Forest Owner & Rolling Stones keyboardist

Running an award-winning forest estate with his wife,Chuck Leavell has authored four books on forestry and served on the board of the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the US Endowment for Forest and Communities. In 2012 he became the second person ever to become an honorary Forest Ranger by the US Forest Service.

When did it all start, how did you come to be a forest owner in aptly-named Twiggs County?

– It is all my wife’s fault! Rose Lane’s family have been connected to the land for generations being good stewards as farmers, tending livestock and tending forestland. We met back in 1970 when she was working at Capricorn Records, and I had come to Macon, Georgia to engage with the record label. We started dating in ’72 and were married in ’73. We celebrated our 42nd wedding anniversary on the last Stones tour.

As I began to get to know her family, the love of the land rubbed off on me. Then in ’82 her grandmother passed away and left her about a thousand acres of land. I investigated several options of what to do, but gravitated toward forestry, as it seemed to fit with being able to pursue my musical career. There was a direct connection for me, as my own instrument, the piano and so many other musical instruments come from the resource of wood. So I started studying forest management and we began to actively manage our land for forestry. We now have about three thousand acres under management.

As an environmentalist and forest owner what’s your perspective on using biomass?

– I think it is a very important part of the world’s energy needs. Let’s remember that we’re talking about material that is natural, organic and most importantly, renewable. And of course one of the most important things is that the parts of the trees we use are for the most part material that would otherwise go to waste like low-value wood, twigs and limbs. I like to say that we take material that is a result of “weeding the garden” of our forests. And let us all remember that for the years that wood has grown, it has been sequestering carbon, so it is a carbon neutral source of energy.

Of course we want to continue the traditional uses of wood; pulp for paper and packaging products, and lumber from larger diameter logs. But I can tell you that right now on our place, we have large stacks of material that came from a thinning we did earlier this year and the sad thing is that we don’t have any place to take it. If we had a biomass plant near us, that material could go to make energy. As it is, the only choice I have is to light it up and let it burn where it is. To me, that is so sad and such a waste.

Let’s remember that we’re talking about material that is natural, organic and most importantly, renewable

Is the argument against biomass an expression for a lack of understanding and confidence in US forest regulation and forest owners?

– It is simply misguided thinking. Somehow there are some folks that think we’re talking about clear-cutting all our forests for biomass. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I am a conservationist. I am an environmentalist. I love my land and my forests. I love all the flora and fauna within my forest. I have and always will manage our forest sustainably. Every other forest landowner I know feels this way, and we have a wonderful community and network of forest landowners in the US. Even the industrial landowners, the big timber companies manage sustainably. Again, this is material that would otherwise just rot or be burned up. If we can use that material to make pellets, use the chips to run boilers, even use it to make liquid fuels, wouldn’t that be a better choice?

I would invite anyone to come see our forests and see the forests of other landowners in the southeast or in other parts of the US and see how they are being managed. We have an abundance of wood, we manage it carefully and responsibly, and we are very proud of that.

“Stewardship” and “partnership”, can you explain what you mean?

– These are two things that I believe are essential for success, and for living in the right way. We want to be good stewards of our lands, our forests but also of our businesses, our communities, our cities. To be good stewards, it is essential to understand that we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need strategic partners that will work with us and help us to meet our stewardship goals.

Mountain pine beetle (MPB) is one major US forest health issue but also something you’ve termed the ”invisible forest health crisis”?

– Well, MPB is what I would call a “very visible forest health crisis”. Anyone that has travelled to the areas in the US and Canada where this is going on can see with their own eyes what is happening. It is a terrible tragedy and very visible. What is not so visible, and what I mean by the “invisible forest health crisis” is the loss of natural lands to growth and development. It happens by “osmosis” that is, it happens right under our noses, but we don’t really think about it that much. We see a new development, a new building, new mall and we don’t’ think so much about all the loss of trees or agricultural lands that result in that development.

Now, we know we can’t wave a magic wand and just stop it all but what we can do is to be thoughtful and smart about how we grow. That is the theme of my most recent book, “Growing A Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable”. We need some lands for our homes, schools, offices, churches and such. We need some lands for production of food, wood and other needs and of course we want some lands to be protected for recreation, for aesthetic use, for the shear beauty of it. It’s all about balance.

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