On the importance of storytelling for effective nature based solutions: in conversation with MaryKate Bullen

In conversation with advisory board member MaryKate Bullen, an ESG and impact investing professional with 15 years of experience in forestry, climate, and conservation consulting and asset management.

MaryKate Bullen for Upstream Tech. Photo credit: M. Estrada
Jul 27, 2023
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At only 9 years of age, MaryKate Bullen knew exactly what, and who, she wanted to be: renowned primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall. The stories Dr. Goodall told were interwoven and intricate, depicting a complex ecosystem full of high stakes and fascinating megafauna. When she spoke of her work, there was an intimacy to it: she was as fascinated with primates as she was with the forests they inhabited, the people they interacted with, and the important relationship between public narrative and scientific study. MaryKate didn’t particularly have an outdoorsy childhood or parents that got her into it. Instead, it was these full, sweeping stories that left a deep imprint on her. 

There was a thriving, interconnected world out there, and she was eager to take part.

When MaryKate later graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Anthropological Studies, her own anecdote stuck with her. Jane Goodall hadn’t just done the work; she’d learned how to effectively communicate a powerful story to a broader audience about it. Indeed, one that reached her as a perceptive kid, and set her down the path to where she is today.

MaryKate is now the Director of ESG and Sustainability at Forest Investment Associates, with over 15 years in the fields of forestry, communications, and conservation consulting and asset management. Her work is one of stories relationships: relationships between people, forest, and interwoven ecosystems, and relating respective stories to the stakeholders in charge of making decisions about forests.

On a warm, rainy day in Atlanta, MaryKate recounts to us the importance of the narratives we tell around our forests, what diverse perspectives mean for a more holistic approach to forestry, and what she’s hopeful for when it comes to data and telling a more powerful story.

This interview has been written and condensed from an in-person conversation with MaryKate Bullen, with support from Alexis Clemons.

So tell us who you are, how’d you get into working with forests?

I currently work at Forest Investment Associates. I am the first ever Director of ESG and Sustainability for our business. For the past 15 years, I’ve focused on ESG, specifically in forestry and conservation finance. ESG stands for Environmental Social Governance and is part of a movement across industries to bring sustainability and societal needs into business practices. 

I grew up in the suburbs of northern Indiana; I didn’t grow up outdoorsy at all. I never went camping or hiking. But after my sophomore year of college I spent the summer doing ecological research in the Peruvian Amazon, and it really opened my eyes to how complex forest ecosystems are. I was fortunate enough to learn from the guides, many of which were native community members, and hear how much knowledge they understood about the ecosystems around them. It was inspiring to see.

As a teenager, I didn’t know jobs like mine existed. I didn’t know much about forestry at all.  Now, it’s funny to think about how big the forest sector is, how important it is to our lives, and yet how little people think about it. My first major job out of college was for a forestry investment company based in Australia and I got to eventually live and travel around there and Southeast Asia. I saw up close all of the interesting connections between the forests in different places and their surrounding communities. One thing I love about working in forest investments now is that it’s totally global. People have an understanding of what forests are and ideas of what they mean to them, anywhere in the world. Wood products are a part of everyone’s lives. Traveling to forests around the world has been very transformative for me.

The piece of the value chain that I often work in is not talked about as often in conservation or climate. What are called 'private working forests' are actually a huge part of the US supply chain and environment. My career has been focused on providing value to forests like these and the environment financially but also focusing on what value it provides to the surrounding community and society.

Forestry, specifically within the history of the US, hasn’t been very inclusive. What would you recommend to someone getting into this space?

Now more than ever, the field is changing and has many entrance points. Don’t be tied down by your original background or education; look for transferable skills. All land management needs to have a clear objective. Today, a big objective in forestry is mitigating climate change. When we look at a forestry asset now, we ask: what is its potential? When you think about that, there’s lots of backgrounds that are helpful: biology, communication, finance and accounting – we get a lot of MBA’s. Half of us at FIA aren’t foresters and it makes us a much richer community for it. I studied Anthropological Studies, or more specifically, ecological anthropology, how people relate to their environment, and it’s useful in my job today.

While being in this space, I’ve also come across so many who are doing important work to broaden the conversation around what forestry can entail, and the ideas we incorporate into our work. <span class="term" data-def="In short, tree equity refers to ensuring that trees exist in parts of all cities throughout all cities in the US. It can also refer to the Tree Equity Score (TES): ‘a Tree Equity Score is a metric that helps cities assess how well they are delivering equitable tree canopy cover to all residents. The score combines measures of tree canopy cover need and priority for trees in urban neighborhoods (defined as Census Block Groups)’ TES definition via American Forests">Tree equity</span>, for example, is recognized as important not just for all of its social benefits but as a way to tackle climate change. I also sit on the steering committee for the Women’s Forest Congress, where the mission is focused on inclusivity and including perspectives that shift how forestry is done, or what even counts as forestry.

How have you seen broader perspectives influence the direction of forestry, or ESG at large?

People who come from different backgrounds and disciplines offer so much to the field, including indigenous communities with long-held knowledge of ecosystems. There’s <span class="term" data-def="From the National Park Service: 'Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is the on-going accumulation of knowledge, practice and belief about relationships between living beings in a specific ecosystem that is acquired by indigenous people over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment, handed down through generations, and used for life-sustaining ways. This knowledge includes the relationships between people, plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes, and timing of events for activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. It encompasses the world view of a people, which includes ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships, and more.'">Traditional Ecological Knowledge</span> (TEK), and there’s also <span class="term" data-def="From the Climate Smart Forestry website: Climate Smart Forestry is a collection of strategies and management actions that increase the carbon storage benefits from forests and the forest sector, in a way that also supports ecosystem services and cultural values. It 1) reduces carbon emissions, 2) increases forest resilience to climate change, and 3) supports forest economies by increasing forest productivity and incomes.">climate smart forestry</span>, a big new term that’s taken hold. With the benefit of broader perspectives, we see now that our forests need a more well-rounded approach that not only takes into account the economic value of working forests, but also the cultural value and the importance of supporting local communities. We can’t afford to approach forest management only from one angle.

How do these approaches signal a shift from how things were done in the past?

Historically, forestry’s objective was to supply timber and wood for goods. Of course, there was usually a land stewardship ethic. But that was the goal. Now, we’re increasingly needing everything we do to address the climate crisis and social inequality. I believe these approaches to forestry can solve these problems.

MaryKate with a recently planted eucalyptus tree in a reforested commercial plantation in Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil. Photo courtesy of MaryKate Bullen.

There’s a recent assessment1 that stated that 37% of climate mitigation until 2030 can come from nature-based solutions, or solutions that come from what nature already does on its own, if we let it. That’s a big number. What comes next, what’s the story that needs telling?

There’s a mass education that needs to happen, and we need easy-to-understand data that can help us tell that story. I love Upstream Tech and Lens because they’re making data approachable and easy to understand. We’re not all wildlife biologists or foresters, but we can go on Lens and see what things look like in the real world, not just data points. When paired with on the ground, local knowledge, we get robust approaches to how we interact with forests.

When you go to the store and they ask you “paper or plastic?”, we know that paper is a better option but we can’t always articulate why. How do we tell stories about what forests give us, and how do we see forestry as more than a 'Paul Bunyan' situation? 

Forests are also incredibly connected to other parts of our lives that often go overlooked. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, commercial forestry has a lot of overlap with the salmon fishing industry. You might think, why is forestry relevant to fishing? Well, it’s important that the rivers and streams are managed properly as well as the forests around them because they’re all part of the same ecosystem, and the salmon population and fishing industry need clean, healthy waters with good habitat. This shows how we have so many stakeholders that need to be considered and included, and stories and knowledge that need to be taken into account when making decisions about managing forests.

Earlier you mentioned how private working forests are not often considered in the work of climate change and mitigation. How does private working land work fit into climate mitigation, or as a nature-based solution? 

At a high level, a lot of folks have an understanding that taking care of forests and nature means leaving them alone. That’s often true for intact, untouched forests, but where there’s already been human interaction, it’s important to manage them to ensure their future. 

We need food, fiber and fuel and the big question now is: how do we get that sustainably?

For a while, the general US forest and timber sector was hesitant around carbon markets because they viewed it as black and white: forests were either for timber or for storing carbon. Now there’s a better understanding that it’s not binary, and effective management can lead to both end uses.

For example: take forests that are on hard-to-reach land. You can harvest less and let trees grow longer in those areas, thereby storing carbon, while efficiently harvesting later on (as much as 20 years or more down the road). There’s a time value of carbon, similar to the time value of money. If we can keep trees in the forest for an extra 20 to 30 years, then that’s a lot of extra stored carbon. That’s a win for the atmosphere, climate, and approaching forests from a broader perspective.

I would add that “use” is an important part of the message of nature based solutions. Protect, manage, store, and use nature wisely. The use part means that the land becomes more valuable for providing goods; then you don’t have to rely on philanthropy as much, because the value is clear in the land. We haven’t valued land properly to date, because we overlook so many of the goods and services that forests and land provide. <span class="term" data-def="Natural capital accounting is the process of calculating the total stocks and flows of natural resources and services in a given ecosystem or region.">Natural capital accounting</span> is an attempt to value them so we can better manage them.

Part of Upstream Tech’s mission is to increase access to environmental data. How can better access to data push us toward making bigger advancements in the areas of sustainability, forest management, carbon (sequestration)?

We need to remove carbon from the atmosphere and forestry is the key scaled, reliable way to do that right now. There are other solutions people are working on, like <span class="term" data-def="Direct air capture (DAC) is the use of chemical or physical processes to extract carbon dioxide directly from the ambient air.">direct air capture</span>, but those are still expensive and lack scale. If we can manage forests better and move toward more renewable options, it’s an incredibly viable solution. But as we’ve seen, it isn’t always easy to make that connection. We want the benefits of working forests without needing to cut new forests down. How do we prove that the work is working? 

Transparency in supply chains can be tremendously hard and is a major focus for many companies and their customers today. In the European Union, there’s a new deforestation regulation that makes it really hard to prove or demonstrate that timber didn’t come from areas that were deforested. We need solutions that show proof in new ways. An evidence-based solution that says, “Hey this wood came from here”. It’s radical transparency. Tools like Lens that make satellite data interpretable are going to be vital for these types of regulations.

What are your hopes for this field in the future?

My job is ultimately about storytelling; because forests supply such a wide range of goods and services and forest stakeholders have diverse needs, there are multiple stories we can share and layers to understand. There is a story with every single forest: the best thing is to get out into the field and learn how we manage it, and translate the story of that forest to everyone who is a stakeholder. 

I’m hopeful that we’re moving in a direction where more and more people will understand what good forestry means, and how it’s a part of a healthier future, crucial for biodiversity, a net zero future, while also giving us the goods we need. And I want, hopefully, that little kids will understand both that planting and growing trees is good, but also knowing a more well-rounded narrative that includes the perspectives of everyone who works closely with forests.

Further reading

Thanks for tuning in for our conversation with MaryKate Bullen. To read more about things we covered in the discussion, check out some of these links below:

  1. Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services 2019
  2. More information on nature-based solutions and their potential
  3. Tree equity score from American Forests

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