Many of you may have noticed that the new building on campus shares its name with perhaps the most-maligned forest products company in the world, Weyerhaeuser Corporation. The choice of name would seem to reinforce some confusion over where exactly the University stands on sustainability and whether our supposed observance of it is anything more than a cynical marketing ploy to attract applicants with environmental sympathies.
This is not an indictment of the actual people after whom the building is named; certain investments and holdings aside, our research indicates that they have not personally pillaged any forests. But the associations with the name Weyerhaeuser are unmistakable, and by honoring it, the University implicitly endorses the practices of industrial forestry.
Weyerhaeuser Corporation is the company most responsible for the clear-cutting of Washington’s old-growth forests. Admittedly, most of that took place over a century ago, though a litany of environmental and humanitarian indiscretions have followed, including significant or majority contributions to 26 EPA Superfund toxic cleanup sites, Tacoma’s own Commencement Bay among them.
The indigenous tribes of Canada’s Boreal Forest have accused the logging giant of ravaging their private land in defiance of an agreement that was intended to curb further use of Canadian timberlands. Weyerhaeuser Corp. remains the sole member of the multi-corporation Forest Products Association of Canada to continue timber harvesting on tribal lands without the consent of the Grassy Narrows, a first nation native to the area. The company also regularly exploits loopholes in Canadian law in order to skirt U.S. regulations such as the Endangered Species Act.
Like the University, Weyerhaeuser borrows heavily from the sustainability lexicon when representing itself. Their website touts the company’s “long-term vision to use the renewable natural resources [they] manage to deliver superior sustainable solutions.” Arguably, clear-cutting virgin temperate rainforests and replacing them with cyclically-harvested tree farms is sustainable, if your goal is to sell wood in the long run. Making token ‘green’ gestures while soliciting donations to improve facilities is sustainable if your goal is to attract more and more bright, idealistic applicants each year.
The uncomfortable fact underlying all of this is that without the logging industry, Tacoma itself, let alone the University, probably wouldn’t exist. The bedrock of the local economy is the practice of cutting down trees, processing them and shipping them from the port, and the University was founded to educate the children of the people who got rich making that happen. Yet these days, in order to compete for the best and brightest students, universities have no choice but to espouse environmentalist values, regardless of whatever inconvenient economic truths permit them to operate. This is especially true for schools in the Pacific Northwest, for whom the splendor of the landscape is a critical recruiting tool.
The building itself is a great symbol of this dissonance—it’s pretty, it’s LEED certified, and everyone gets a pat on the back for Making a Difference at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. But the underlying factors driving environmental degradation churn on undisturbed, and by pretending that such gestures make any real impact, we only congratulate ourselves for reinforcing the status quo. We Loggers will stroll through the monumental wooden entrance admiring its ‘sustainable design’ and ignoring the hypocrisy staring at us in the form of the large metallic letters mounted above our heads. It seems doubtful that those who bestowed the new designation on the former Center for Health Sciences were oblivious to the striking juxtaposition.
Even if you’re not interested in the moral stickiness of the situtation, the association is a bad idea from a branding perspective, something Puget Sound (not UPS) seems mightily preoccupied with these days. ‘Weyerhaeuser’ is the ideal bogeyman for all that is industrial, for-profit, rapacious and unsustainable. Your typical outdoor enthusiast probably isn’t proud to associate her or his academic building with the clear-cut farm-forests along the highways leading to what little remains of the old growth.