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Q and A with Shannon Binns

by Mark Peres

May 8,2009

Shannon Binns has called Charlotte home since late 2007 and discovers something fantastic about the city nearly everyday. He came here by way of New York City, Seattle, Senegal, Thailand and Prague. Each day he seeks wisdom and beauty in what he encounters and attempts to capture his discoveries in photos and words to share with others.

You’re Program Manager for the Green Press Initiative. What is the Green Press Initiative?

The Green Press Initiative is a nonprofit organization that helps book and newspaper publishers reduce their impacts on forests, indigenous communities, and the Earth's climate. We do this by raising awareness of these impacts and offering solutions for reducing them. I manage our work in the newspaper sector. And although the newspaper industry is using less newsprint each year as more readers access their news online, newspapers still have a massive impact on our climate and our forests. Last year US newspapers used seven million tons of paper, which consumed 80 million trees. And while we don’t believe it is reasonable or desirable for our newspapers to go away – they are important to an informed democracy – newspapers can use more recycled fiber, fiber from sustainably harvested forests and other strategies to significantly reduce their environmental impacts. 

Why is deforestation of concern?

Retaining our natural forests has profound consequences for all of us, and is of incalculable environmental and economic value. Forests provide us many ecosystem services such as water filtration and carbon storage, which helps maintain our climate. They also provide critical habitat for other species, which is integral to maintaining our planet’s biodiversity. Although trees are renewable, our current rate of harvesting them is unsustainable. In fact here in the Southeast, we live in the primary region for newsprint production in the US, yet we are also home to the most biologically diverse forests in North America. To achieve our status as the world’s leading producer of paper, it is estimated that over five million acres are logged here by the paper industry each year, and over 75 percent of the harvest is from natural forests. The practice of clear-cutting the forest and replacing it with single-species pine plantations is widespread and has significant ecological consequences: the Southeast now has the highest number of endangered ecosystems of any region in the country, and yet by 2040 one in every four acres is expected to be a pine plantation – if the current rate of conversion from forests to plantations continues. 

What brought you to Charlotte? 

After I received my MPA from Columbia University in 2007, and after having lived in a number of places across the US and abroad, I was drawn to family. My sisters and my mother had migrated to the Carolinas area over the years. I didn’t expect to stay here long as I had certain perceptions and stereotypes of the South. Those stereotypes were surprisingly inaccurate. I’ve been fortunate to tap into the progressive intelligence here. Charlotte has the amenities of bigger cities, but doesn’t have a lot of the problems that come with size, and is far more intimate, and inviting. 

What opportunities do you see in Charlotte? 

One critical opportunity is to preserve our tree canopy now. I remember shortly after arriving here, I read a cover story in The Charlotte Observer about how one out of four trees in Charlotte has been lost over the last 20-25 years. The period coincides with the region’s economic boom, but the rate of tree loss is unsustainable and has wide-ranging environmental and economic consequences. It reminded me that deforestation is not just a global and regional problem, but also a local problem. The current tree ordinance, which requires developers to retain only one out of ten trees when developing land for residential or commercial use, is not grounded in science and is likely not being monitored and enforced adequately. When we destroy our trees and vegetative cover, we not only lose our beautiful canopy, but we also have to pay millions of dollars to artificially filter our air and water. Currently, because of tree loss, use of SUVs and driving patterns, Charlotte has one of the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita of any city in the U.S. Our city is beautiful, but the beauty is deceptive, as the air and water in Charlotte are amongst the dirtiest in the nation for a city our size. 

What can citizens do? 

There is strength in numbers. Many local neighborhood associations are concerned about the loss of trees on their streets, but these organizations do not often work together or speak with one voice. There is an opportunity for a broad coalition of citizens across neighborhoods to participate actively in local politics and to serve as a counterweight to developers who are less concerned about the long-term environmental and economic costs to the residents of Charlotte. Citizens also need to understand the real economic value of each tree, and insist on using science to inform public policies such as the city’s tree ordinance. I also encourage citizens to contact me directly at shannon@greenpressinitiative.org to learn more about what they can do.

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