A coalition of timber companies, government agencies, universities and conservation groups launched a website, Walk in the Woods, earlier this month to share stories about sustainable forestry.
The North American Forest Partnership said its research showed that Americans are tired of hearing from policy makers and industry spokesmen, so the new site will provide personal stories from people who work in forestry and conservation.
But the website’s debut was marred when several inauthentic stories were published, and subsequently removed while the coalition’s leadership establishes publication guidelines and procedures for the site.
Some of the personal stories initially published on Walk in the Woods were not written by the credited authors. In two instances, the stories were changed from third person to first person, and some of the credited authors didn’t know that their stories were on the website until they were contacted by a Treesource reporter.
The website presented these stories as authentic dispatches from people working in the forest sector.
In all, the North American Forest Partnership removed three stories from Walk in the Woods because of questions about their authenticity. Will Novy-Hildesley, the group’s executive director, said he and others will take a close look at how those stories got onto the website without sufficient scrutiny or approval.
“Trust is something you build step by step based on the actions you take,” Novy-Hildesley said. “Every story that goes up on the NAFP site, every discussion that happens on our social media is either going to help build credibility or take away from our credibility.”
The partnership wants to establish Walk in the Woods as a reliable source of information about forestry, he said.
While the participation of timber companies and forest industry trade groups opens the door to potential conflicts of interest, Novy-Hildesley said he’s certain the participating universities, state agencies and nonprofit organizations will hold industry groups accountable.
The uncommon partnership between the timber industry and conservation groups tests whether audiences will view this type of communication as trustworthy information.
The debut of Walk in the Woods comes at a time when several natural resource extraction industries have launched controversial communication efforts to advance their interests.
In 2017, the Western Energy Alliance, a regional oil and gas trade group, started a publication called Western Wire. The website looks like a legitimate news outlet, but aims to promote the oil and gas industry in the West.
In 2014, Peabody Energy, a multinational coal company, launched a public relations campaign presenting coal as the solution to global poverty. Later that year, the United Kingdom Advertising Standards Authority asked Peabody to stop the misleading advertisement.
In 2012, Steve Schwarze, a communications researcher at the University of Montana, and his colleagues began analyzing a website created by FACES of Coal, a front group for the West Virginia Coal Association. The website used personal stories of firefighters, teachers and artists living in Appalachia to create the impression of grassroots support for the coal industry.
But journalists quickly discovered that FACES of Coal used stock photos on the website rather than photos of people who actually benefited from the coal industry. FACES of Coal eventually revised the website, and now the domain automatically redirects to a website called Count on Coal.
Schwarze calls this “corporate ventriloquism,” a strategy that uses the voices of regular people to communicate industry messages. He cautioned readers to ask about the underlying interests of the organizations supporting Walk in the Woods.
“It’s not to say that they’re wrong. It’s to say that they’re partial,” Schwarze said. “There may be differences of opinion or conflicts within the timber industry or within state agencies and you don’t get to see that.”
The North American Forest Partnership has more than 100 member organizations. More than half of the groups are timber companies, timber product trade groups or investment firms. But the partnership also includes 24 government agencies, 10 universities and 19 nonprofit groups supporting sustainable forestry, recreation and conservation.
Novy-Hildesley, who started work as the partnership’s executive director earlier this year, said this diverse membership differentiates Walk in the Woods from other industry-funded websites.
Schwarze, though, said taking stories from other publications and changing them into first person makes it seem like Walk in the Woods is using the same tactics as FACES of Coal.
Laura Eve-Cowles and her family have operated a tree farm in Massachusetts since 1973, and three generations now work on the farm. In a section titled “Forest Voices,” Walk in the Woods published a story about the Eve-Cowles farm, crediting it to Laura Eve-Cowles.
She did not write the story, and was shocked to see it on the site. The story has since been removed.
“I just don’t want my name associated with something I didn’t write,” Eve-Cowles said.
An employee from the American Forest Foundation originally wrote a story about the family’s tree farm for one of that organization’s publications. The employee later asked Laura Eve-Cowles for permission to share the story with the North American Forest Partnership.
Eve-Cowles gave the organization permission to use the story, but didn’t know she would be listed as the author or that the story would be changed to a first-person perspective.
Eve-Cowles is a professional grant writer and an advocate for sustainable forestry. If someone from the website had asked her to write a story about the family tree farm, she would have agreed.
“I can pull something like that off in an afternoon,” she said. “And it would have been accurate, and it would have been in my own voice and it would have promoted their mission. That’s what I do.”
After the story was removed from the site, the American Forest Foundation contacted Laura Eve-Cowles and she offered to rewrite the story in her own words.
Another of the site’s initial stories described how Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest timber companies in the U.S., allows sportsmen to hunt on the company’s land. The story was written by a Weyerhaeuser employee and comes from an internal company website.
The article was written in the third person for the company site, but was changed to a first-person perspective for the Walk in the Woods website. The story has since been removed.
The website also listed the wrong author for a third story about the compatibility of timber harvesting and recreation. It, too, is gone from the site.
The shaky launch also prompted concerns from some members who believe their organizations don’t have an equal voice in either the partnership or the website.
Novy-Hildesley said organizations that contribute more money to the North American Forest Partnership receive more attention, but he wouldn’t reveal how much each organization has contributed.
Paul Vanderford, the green business program director at Sustainable Northwest, said his organization — a nonprofit that promotes sustainable timber harvesting in rural communities — feels uncomfortable with a video about clearcutting that appears on Walk in the Woods.
Sustainable Northwest decided to join the North American Forest Partnership to hold industry groups accountable, Vanderford said. But if the voices of conservation organizations aren’t included on Walk in the Woods, the website is in danger of using nonprofit groups as a seal of approval on a public relations campaign for the timber industry.
Novy-Hildesley said the partnership is taking the complaints and mistakes seriously, not only by removing the inauthentic stories but by putting into place new policies that will ensure higher-quality stories backed by established publication guidelines and procedures.
Matt Blois is a Missoula, Montana-based freelance reporter working on his master’s degree in journalism at the University of Montana.