The Stones Get Down to Earth

Keyboardist and environmentalist Chuck Leavell talks trees

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Although they might never admit it, the Rolling Stones' decision to do a free global-warming-awareness concert at Los Angeles' Staples Center on February 6th was influenced by a conservation-minded Georgia tree farmer.

That farmer is Chuck Leavell, the band's longtime keyboardist, whose resume also includes work with the Allman Brothers Band, Eric Clapton, George Harrison and the Black Crowes. Leavell's concern for better management of the earth's resources has spread to Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Charlie Watts, even if they rib him a bit about his passion for forestry and environmental issues.

Trees, of course, play a big role in converting harmful carbon emissions -- a major cause of global warming -- into breathable oxygen. They're also one of the earth's most important sustainable resources. Leavell has a long list of products made from wood harvested on his farm and wildlife preserve, from the obvious -- lumber and paper pulp products -- to cellulose derivatives used in food and photographic film.

"I would like to see the country join hands with the rest of the world and try to usher in some much-needed regulations and guidelines and rules that we can all follow in reducing these emissions," Leavell says. "I strongly believe that we need to get in there and do something."

Leavell has been growing pines and hardwoods for nearly two decades on Charlane Plantation, the 2,300-acre Dry Branch, Georgia, spread his wife inherited from her grandmother.

The veteran keyboardist studied forestry by correspondence while riding a tour bus with the Fabulous Thunderbirds in-between Stones gigs. (Hired in 1982 to play tunes the late Ian Stewart wouldn't touch, Leavell now acts as the band's de facto music director, drafting set lists, keeping track of arrangements and delivering onstage visual cues as needed.) Desperate for a non-labor-intensive, income-producing method to pay estate and property taxes on the former cattle and row-cropping farm, he turned to trees at his brother-in-law's suggestion.

He's since become what he calls a "conservation-minded forestry activist," one who is in demand as a conference speaker and who can grab the ear of key players in Congress when he wants. Leavell did a little lobbying -- and delivered a quick piano rendition of "Great Balls of Fire" -- during a Capitol Hill visit when the Stones played Fed Ex Field in Washington, D.C., in early October. And the Washington Times published his October 23rd op-ed piece, headlined, "As Congress Bickers, Forests Burn."

Leavell has also written a book, Forever Green: the History and Hope of the American Forest, because he felt a need to correct misinformation about the forestry industry, and to talk about what's been done wrong -- and right -- in public and private forest management.

"I believe in sound forestry management," he says. "I believe that man is part of this equation. And I believe that we are here to be good stewards of the land."

Leavell disagrees with hard-core environmentalists who say clear-cutting is always bad and that forest ecosystems should always be left alone. Forest fires, he says, are the result of doing nothing. Leavell endorses the Bush administration's Healthy Forest Initiative, a plan to manage national forests that includes some cutting to prevent out-of-control fires and restoration of areas recently ravaged by catastrophic fires. Parts of the plan still require congressional approval.

"The key word in all of this is 'balance,'" Leavell says. "If we enjoy using products that come from the forest, we need to face the fact that harvesting has to be done. On the other hand, do you want to preserve for aesthetic, wildlife and the future? Of course you do."

To Leavell, the bigger challenge is urban sprawl caused by population growth. "We can't have forests if we don't have room for them," he says. "Let's talk about building a strip mall and putting in an operation for fifteen years, shutting it down, and moving up the street and building another one: That's deforestation. It's real hard to get a tree to grow in concrete."

But he also believes the United States should be somewhat more supportive of international anti-global warming accords like the Kyoto Treaty, which the administration decided not to honor after it was signed during former President Clinton's administration. The United States is said to produce twenty-five percent of the world's climate-altering greenhouse gases, though it has only four percent of the planet's population.

Jagger, Richards, Watts and Wood are not U.S. citizens, but the European Union -- along with Canada, Japan and most other major industrialized nations except Australia -- has signed a revised version of the treaty (Russia is expected to do so). In order to take effect, the treaty must be signed by fifty-five countries, including the industrialized nations responsible for producing fifty-five percent of the world's greenhouse gases.

With or without a treaty, Leavell says we can do much more right now, such as converting more vehicles to run on electricity or alternative fuels such as vegetable oil-diesel mixes, not to mention increasing gas mileage. He blames auto industry lobbyists for hindering these steps. "We're all in this world together," he says. "You may be concerned about your bottom line and making money, but that ain't gonna amount to a hill of beans if you haven't got a world to live in."