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An environmental win amid post-election gloom

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Republican election gains don't bode well for environmentalism. But Andrew George still has reason to smile.

Last week, the Chapel Hill resident, who's an organizer for the National Forest Protection Alliance, was busy celebrating the successful end to a consumer campaign against office supply giant, Staples Inc. After two years of picket lines and other public protests by the alliance, the Massachusetts-based company announced it would phase out paper products made with wood from endangered forests--including old-growth forests and national parklands. Staples also promised to increase the amount of recycled paper used in products sold on its shelves, and to set up an "environmental affairs division" to report on the company's tree-friendly practices.

The forest alliance hopes other big office supply chains will quickly fall into line. "We hope to see a domino effect for other companies," says George, the national campaign coordinator. "We're already seeing some of these companies like Office Depot and Office Max scrambling to avoid protests."

Mike Weisbarth, a spokesman for Office Max, says the company will continue to work with "organizations within the office products superstore industry, as well as some of industry trade groups that are out there, to come up with an industry standard that works for all of the parties that are involved in the paper procurement issue."

The stakes are high--especially in the southeast. As paper companies have cut back on logging in the Pacific Northwest, George says, they've expanded in the South. Southern forests are now the world's leading producer of paper fiber--including trees on public lands. In North Carolina's Uwharrie National Forest, for example, the Roberdo Timber Sale proposes to log more than 1,793 acres for pulpwood.

Another concern is the growth of mechanized chip mills that can chew up thousands of acres of trees in a relatively short time. In 1999, the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research reported that the number of chip mills operating in the state rose from two to 18 since 1980. Each mill has a capacity to "process" 2,600 acres of trees a year. The center's report recommended that the General Assembly eliminate tax credits given to companies that export woods chips, and take steps to improve forest management practices that now lag far behind other states.

Why aren't activists going after the logging and paper companies directly? George says that's hard to do and only promises to get harder. "While we have actually shut down logging on public lands dramatically over the last 20 years, as far as achieving some permanent end-game, it's just continually slipped out of our grasp," he says. "Right now, with the Bush administration dismantling the rules by which public lands are managed, we're investing energy in new approaches."

The Staples campaign involved 600 protests at stores across the country, including one on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Volunteers also wrote letters and made calls to company shareholders and CEOs. George says consumer drives hit companies where they're most vulnerable: in their public image. And they inform and activate citizens who might not otherwise be drawn to complex legal and legislative battles to save rare forests.

In announcing its new policies, Staples executives noted that upping the use of recycled paper won't hurt the company's bottom line. One unspoken reason is that recycled paper is generally sold at higher prices than paper made with pure pulp.

Members of the national Paper Campaign--which includes groups like the Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance, Earth First!, The Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Student Environmental Action Coalition--hope that pricing will change if customers start demanding more recycled products.

The campaign Web site includes suggestions for where to find recycled paper at reasonable cost. Visit www.ThePaperCampaign.com.

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