The Stones Get Down to Earth - Rolling Stone
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The Stones Get Down to Earth

Keyboardist and environmentalist Chuck Leavell talks trees

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

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

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.”

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