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Guest Opinions

Looking Back – Let’s Learn From Our Mistakes

Written by Leanne Stevenson

By Leanne Stevenson, Natural Resources and Policy Division, Wyoming Department of Agriculture

As I sat in the legislative committee meetings during the legislative session, I listened to the continuing saga of bark beetle infestations in our forests. There is a loud public outcry asking: “What can we do about these dead trees?”

As a result of discussions and the need for urgency to address this issue in the state, Senate Enrolled Joint Resolution 0004 was signed, supporting continued efforts to combat the bark beetle infestation. So here we sit, looking back, asking what happened and what we can do to get the timber industry back in Wyoming. As I sat there, I started reflecting on my perception of what happened to the timber industry, and what we can learn from the mistakes we made leading up to where we are today.

At one time during the rich history of Wyoming, the timber and agriculture industries were sustainable, thriving and crucial to Wyoming’s rural economy. These industries were the lifeblood of many communities.

As time passed, the timber industry saw more regulations, more litigation and additional limits on the tools available for managing forests. Each one individually didn’t seem that bad, but the combination of restrictions and lack of proactive actions led to the demise of an industry, the lack of active forest management and the eventual situation we face today. Today, the industry is non-existent in most of the state, with the only remaining sawmill in the northeast corner of.
As I see it, there are many similarities in the two industries – timber and agriculture. They both rely on natural resources in ecosystems under heavy scrutiny by those who want to save everything except the industries that put a roof over our head and food in our stomach. In many ways, I believe the agriculture industry is facing the same situation the timber industry faced the last 30-plus years – more regulations, more litigation and more restrictions on proactive management to the point of unintended consequences. I just hope the agriculture industry doesn’t have to be crippled to an equivalent state of existence before we take a firmer stance. I don’t want to look back 20 or 30 years from now, asking, “How can we get our agriculture industry back in Wyoming?”

I know the saying “hindsight is 20-20,” but aren’t we also supposed to “learn from our mistakes?” Ok, then. The mistake we see looking back is that, since our ecosystems are heavily influenced by humans (and, by the way, there is nothing within our scope of human control that allows us to remove the human influence on ecosystems), we need to maintain industries that provide food and fiber for the world because it is much harder to bring them back once they are gone. We can’t change the past, but we can influence the future.

I firmly believe we are capable of sustaining the agriculture industry in our great state. The combination of knowledge and determination of those in the agriculture industry, Wyoming’s citizens and the state’s great leaders are a wealth of resources and the full force in utilizing these resources is yet to be seen.

The adversarial regulations and litigation in the agriculture industry are more prevalent than ever. Those of us who work in the “agriculture policy” world are doing the best we can to address the issues, but we need each of you to join in the battle and act as reinforcements to strengthen the effort. Remember another saying: “strength in numbers.”

There are many things each of us as individuals can and should do to protect an industry critical to our local communities, state, country and world. Let’s work together to fight smarter, not harder. Each person doing a little can make a difference.

If we all take a stand in the fight to keep agriculture sustainable, we won’t have to look back and ask what happened with the demise of the agriculture industry in Wyoming. Let’s learn from our mistakes, fight to maintain proactive agriculture management practices and maintain this vital industry. Don’t wait until it is too late to protect the agriculture industry. Let’s learn from our mistakes and influence the future.