Off Grid & All Sunshine by Ian Woofenden

Everyone has heroes. Jennifer and Lance Barker are some of mine. They've managed to do what my family has done—live without utility electricity for decades—but without relying on nonrenewable fuels for cooking, space heating, or backup electricity. Here's how these two postmodern pioneers meet their energy needs—using electricity solely from the sun.

Postmodern pioneers Jennifer and Lance Barker put the sun to work on their homestead. Left: A 5-kilowatt solar-electric array provides the homestead with electricity, as well as powers pumps that irrigate Lance and Jennifer's extensive vegetable gardens (above).

Postmodern pioneers Jennifer and Lance Barker put the sun to work on their homestead. Left: A 5-kilowatt solar-electric array provides the homestead with electricity, as well as powers pumps that irrigate Lance and Jennifer's extensive vegetable gardens (above).

Fossil-fuel generators and propane have long been "enablers" for off-gridders. Generators provide the convenience of abundant energy without having to spend a fortune upfront on renewable generation capacity, and they minimize the need to change energy use habits. But an off-grid "renewable energy" lifestyle has its contradictions when it can't be pulled off without the fossil-fuel crutch—after all, how much independence is really gained by getting off the electricity grid only to jump on the propane, gasoline, or diesel bandwagon?

When I first met Lance and Jennifer, and heard how they had gradually developed their rural, off-grid homestead without relying on a backup generator, I was intrigued—and envious. I remembered the thousands of dollars I'd spent on generators, fuel, and repairs. I remembered the hundreds of hours I'd spent dealing with noisy, smelly, stubborn generators. And I still wonder what my renewable energy (RE) systems would look like today if I'd invested all that time and money spent on generators, fuel, and maintenance into more renewable generation capacity instead.

Lance and Jennifer's homesteadand energysystems evolved over time in a thoughtful and organic way—a reflection of their life philosophy that has been very purposefully shaped around the sun, optimizing its usefulness, and maximizing their independence from fossil fuels. Their success spans not only their fossil-fuel-free energy supply, but also their ability to grow, process, and store the majority of their food, further reducing their reliance on the nonrenewable fuels required by conventional agriculture.

The Barkers' pole-mounted PV system has grown from one 32-watt module in 1979 to a 5,000-watt array using 44 modules today.


Lance first encountered solar electricity and the idea of renewable energy in high school science class, and was immediately captivated by the independence it offered. So when he struck out on his own, he searched specifically for off-grid property where he could establish a self-sufficient homestead. Inspired by his father, who restored worn-out Kansas farms to native grass pasture, Lance found 40 acres of overcut, overgrazed pine forest in the southern Blue Mountains, near Canyon City in Grant County, Oregon, and put his roots down.

With only 1.7 people per square mile, Grant County is the size of Connecticut in land area, but has only 8,000 people—so it's intensely rural. Lance picked this area for its clean land, air, and water, and for its solar potential—more than 250 days of sunshine per year. About ten families live in the Barkers' neighborhood, and they're evenly split between those who have punched the grid in, and those who live off grid. He watched his off-grid neighbors throw money and time at generators, and wasn't interested in the hassle or expense

Well-placed meters inside their home provide Lance and Jennifer with immediate feedback on the status of their PV system.

Well-placed meters inside their home provide Lance and Jennifer with immediate feedback on the status of their PV system.

Beyond PV

Lance and Jennifer dedicate their lives to using the sun and promoting its usefulness. Jennifer is founder and executive director of EORenew, a nonprofit organization that coordinates the annual SolWest Renewable Energy Fair in John Day and provides ongoing energy education in eastern Oregon. Lance designs and installs solar-electric systems for both on- and off-grid clients. A large and enjoyable part of his business is building small stand-alone PV power and control systems for fish screens. The solar-powered DC motors clean debris off the screens, which keep fish from entering stream-fed irrigation ditches.

As much as possible, Lance and Jennifer work from their home office and workshop, which allows them to keep their life centered on developing their self-sufficient homestead and reduces their reliance on fossil fuels for transportation. Lots of time at home enables them to use the sun's energy for more than just generating electricity for the household, pumping water, and growing their food. Jennifer is somewhat of a solar cooking guru, after years of solar cooking, teaching workshops, and publishing two cookbooks. Lance is just learning how to cook with the sun. "I find solar cooking is easier for inattentive cooks like me," he says, "because if the cooker is neglected, the sun goes by, and the dish cools down, instead of burning as it would on a conventional stove."

The sun also provides energy for another important part of the Barkers' life—restoring the second-growth pine forests on their property to an old-growth ponderosa pine plant community. The Oregon Tree Farm System named them "Oregon Tree Farmer of the Year" in 2000, and the governor of Oregon cited their restoration project as one of Oregon's best examples of sustainable forestry.

of importing propane for cooking and heating either. From the start, Lance was committed to developing a system that would produce all of the homestead's energy on site, and to living within the energy "budget" that the sun provided.


Lance moved onto the property in 1979. In the late 1970s, residential solar-electric equipment was in its infancy, very expensive—and beyond Lance's budget. Connecting to the grid was expensive and outside of his scope for a self-sufficient homestead. So Lance chose to live with no electricity at all, until he saved enough money to buy his first Arco 32-watt (W) solar-electric (photovoltaic; PV) module. With this small system, he ran a single DC fluorescent light, and "never had to buy kerosene again for the lanterns."

Jennifer joined Lance on the land in 1991, after already spending some time living off-grid with a one-module DC system at her ski lodge in the Cascades. Over the years, they have slowly grown their solar-electric system. Living within the limits of the solar energy they could harvest gave them increased economic flexibility. They added to their system when the money was available, and during lean times, didn't put any money into it at all. Folks who rely on propane and generators don't generally have this option—they are dependent on continually purchasing fuel.

Along with increasing the capacity of their PV array, the Barkers also purchased newer, higher performance inverters and controllers as they became available. "Our system was pretty much built that way, one step at a time," says Lance. "Since I'm not an inventor, everything we do is with off-

As the PV array expanded, so did the Barkers' power center. Although some of their primary loads are DC, three inverters (left and below) also convert the PV array's output for standard AC appliances.

Left: Comfortable, efficient country living.

Below: Jennifer takes advantage of the sun's free energy to cook delicious meals in their solar ovens.

Left: Comfortable, efficient country living.

Below: Jennifer takes advantage of the sun's free energy to cook delicious meals in their solar ovens.

the-shelf equipment." Over 28 years, the system has slowly grown to 44 modules—and 5,000 watts (5 KW) of solar-electric independence.

For space and water heating, as well as cooking, Lance and Jennifer use wood they harvest from their sustainably managed woodlot. "Biomass accumulates here faster than it decomposes," says Lance. "This material is going to burn— and we get to choose how and when! So we have wood for ample thermal energy here, and that makes it easier for us to avoid using propane." Their modest-sized, passive solar home is built to take advantage of solar gain in winter and is well insulated. Plus, Jennifer says, "Any time I'm cooking on the woodstove, it's producing enough heat for our small house." A coil in a Pioneer Maid wood cookstove produces hot water for domestic use.


Lance and Jennifer took a hard line on having a generator— they just didn't do it! Instead, they invested all the money that they didn't spend on generators, generator sheds, fuel, and maintenance into expanding the PV system. The guiding principle they used to develop their RE system is in many ways 180 degrees from the standard design approach used for off-grid sites. "It's what we call production determination of a system," says Lance, "rather than load determination. You produce electricity, and that's how much you have available to use. It's not really a difficult concept, but it's very different from the normal North American way of doing things."

Lance sums up their basic philosophy: "We have adequate solar-electric capacity to support our base loads, and we add to those base loads only as we can afford to add to our array." The Barkers' base load (and dates of installation) consists of these individual energy uses: lighting (1981), water pumping (1982), refrigeration (1984), computers (1991), and a chest freezer (1994). These total 1.2 KWH per day, including losses from battery inefficiency. Over the years, the Barkers have been able to reduce their base load by switching from an AC

Vestfrost to a DC SunDanzer freezer that uses less energy and doesn't incur additional inverter conversion losses. Beyond the base loads, Lance says, "All other electrical loads—of which we have many—are discretionary, depending on energy availability. That philosophy has remained the same, even though our system has expanded in ways that were unimaginable in the beginning, because the hardware simply did not exist."

At critical junctures in their equipment upgrades, Lance and Jennifer had to examine the future of the system. They knew that most modern off-grid systems exclusively use AC appliances due to the wide selection of models available and to simplify home wiring during


System type: Off-grid, battery-based solar-electric Location: Near Canyon City, Oregon Solar resource: 5 average daily peak sun-hours Production: 560 AC KWH per month average


Modules: Forty-four BP 80s, 85s, and 170s; 80, 85, and 170 W STC; 12 or 24 VDC nominal, depending on module

Array: Fifteen, 2- or 4-module series strings (depending on module voltage), 5,000 W STC total, 48 VDC nominal

Array installation: UniRac, General Specialties, and home-made pole mounts; seasonal tilt: 55 degrees in summer, 90 degrees in winter

Energy Storage

Batteries: Single string of 12 Concorde PVX-6480T, 2 VDC nominal, 640 AH at 20-hour rate, sealed AGM

Battery bank: 24 VDC nominal, 640 AH total

Balance of System

Charge controllers: Two networked Apollo T80s, 80 A, MPPT, 48 VDC nominal input, 24 VDC nominal output

Inverters: OutBack VFX3524, Trace SW4024, Magnum MagnaSine, 24 VDC nominal input, 120 VAC output

System performance metering: E-Meter battery monitor and 9 analog meters construction. But Lance says, "When we examined this carefully, we came to the conclusion that running DC loads for lights, refrigeration, and fans cuts the daily electric use significantly by eliminating the inverter losses, which may be 10 to 15 percent, or even more than 50 percent on a very small load like a single light." Using DC loads instead of AC ones saves Lance and Jennifer more than 200 watt-hours per day. In a generator-free, off-grid PV system, every watt-hour counts. Minimizing the base load is essential to ensuring an adequate electricity supply through cloudy stretches of weather. Lance points out that "because straight AC systems are the 'modern' method of having an off-grid system, we call our system 'post-modern,' because we are aiming for the future, not the past."

In his business as an RE consultant, Lance uses standard load analysis and sizing methods when he designs systems for off-grid customers. But his personal conclusions and lifestyle are different. "By setting limits to what Jennifer and I are able to consume, and living within these limits, we get a closer feel for what we are doing with our lives. It helps give our life purpose and meaning, and it helps make us happy. Our system is often called 'pure' or 'purist.' I see it as pure, all right—purely practical."


Running a system like Lance and Jennifer's takes tools. Lance says, "Our most important tools for making our system work are our brains! Sometimes visitors look at what we do and say, 'I wouldn't want to have to think about it.' Well, we do want to have the opportunity to think about it and apply ourselves accordingly. Living without a generator gives us a close personal relationship with our energy use—how much energy is coming in and how much we are using."

Another essential tool is a battery state-of-charge monitor (amp-hour meter), which provides cumulative and net battery charge data. It is installed where Lance can see it when sitting in his easy chair. Along with the amp-hour meter, they also have analog ammeters so they can see at a glance how the system is running throughout the day.

When Lance and Jennifer replaced their more than 20-year-old battery bank four years ago, they found that their battery sizing philosophy had changed because of their previous investment in increased PV capacity. As more modules are added to an array with maximum power point tracking (MPPT), more electricity is generated during low-light, overcast, or partly sunny weather. The result is that even with the sun's limited availability on mostly cloudy days, the system's batteries often still receive a full charge. By watching their battery monitor over the years, Lance and Jennifer determined that they really didn't need the 800 amp-hour (AH) battery bank capacity they originally had (about 10 KWH of usable storage at 50 percent depth of discharge), and replaced it with a 640 AH bank, for about 8 KWH of storage (at 50 percent DOD).


The combination of a small base load, large PV array, and a very sunny location has enabled Lance and Jennifer to live off grid for close to three decades without any fossil-fuel-based backup energy source. During the winter months, this approach has continually provided them with ample electricity, when most off-grid system users would have to resort to firing up the engine generator to keep the batteries from being too deeply discharged. During the non-winter months, the PV array produces significant amounts of energy beyond what the base loads require.

When asked about managing the additional energy available during many months of the year, Lance responds, "For a long time, I thought that we would be able to buy off-the-shelf hardware to electrolyze water with our extra energy. Then we'd have hydrogen for instantaneous water heating and for summer cooking. It hasn't happened yet, but I try to remain hopeful that the equipment will someday become available."

For now, they use a different approach. During the growing season, once the batteries are charged, solar energy is used to pump a large daily volume of water to their extensive vegetable gardens and tree seedlings. Lance's irrigation setup pumps 1 gallon of well water for crops with each watt-hour of energy the PV system generates. Considering that the average meal in the United States travels about 1,500 miles before it hits the dinner table, both Lance and Jennifer are quick to point out that growing as much of their own food as possible has a huge impact on the amount of petroleum they use. Having ample solar energy for water pumping makes this possible.

Their 40-acre Morning Hill Forest Farm produces much of their food and all the wood needed to heat their home and outbuildings. Lance says, "Our garden produces as many vegetables as we can possibly eat year-round, a large amount of the seed for replanting, and an increasing amount of our fruit. Our food storage includes some canning—jam, tomatoes, pickles, and salsa—but most foods are stored in the freezer or root cellar. By summer's end, Jennifer has our 8-cubic-foot freezer packed into a nearly solid cube of frozen vegetables and fruit! The more water we are able to pump, the more food we are able to grow, and the less dependent we are on oil-intensive agriculture, shipping, and food storage."


Since most off-grid folks do not have enough RE generation capacity to get them through sunless or windless periods, living with an engine generator has more often than not become a fact of life. But it doesn't have to be that way. When asked about renewable energy droughts, Lance responds, "It's back to that question that folks always ask us, 'What happens when you run out of electricity?' Well, we don't run out of electricity—we never have! I reset the battery monitor when I installed the new set of Concorde AGM batteries four years ago, and the cumulative data shows they've never been drawn below 75 percent of full charge. So our hands-on, base-load-plus-discretionary-load management system works well.

"In more than 25 years now, we have never had an unplanned outage," says Lance. "I have shut down the system for work and maintenance, but it never—and I do mean never—has just gone out. By accepting that we have limitations, we build reliability into our systems." A reliable system, and a lifestyle focused on sustainability, self-reliance, and independence, is exactly what Lance and Jennifer have built.


Ian Woofenden, PO Box 1001, Anacortes, WA 98221 • [email protected]

Lance & Jennifer Barker, 15013 Geary Crk. Rd., Canyon City, OR 97820 • 541-542-2525 • [email protected]

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Bogart Engineering • 831-338-0616 • • TriMetric battery monitor

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General Specialties • 208-265-5244 • PV racks

Magnum Energy • 425-353-8833 • • Inverter

MidNite Solar Inc. • 425-374-9060 • • E-Panel

OutBack Power Systems • 360-435-6030 • • Inverter

RCH Fan Works • 509-685-0535 • • DC ceiling fans

SunDanzer • 915-821-0042 • • DC freezer

UniRac Inc. • 505-242-6411 • • PV racks

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Above: A healthy second-growth forest. Below: A recent clear-cut.

Forest-Friendly Lumber for Greener Buildin by Erin Moore Bean

Do you know how much wood is in your home? According to the National Association of Home Builders, the amount of framing lumber in an average (2,085 ft2) home is equivalent to a 15,000-foot-long 2 by 4. That's long enough to stretch from sea level to the height of Mt. Rainier. Add in the sheathing, trusses, doors, trim, and cabinetry, and you'll realize the majority of your home grew from trees.

Then imagine following a 2 by 4 back beyond the lumberyard, before the sawmill, to when it was a tree. Perhaps that stick of lumber came from a tree felled in a swath of clear-cutting that left the forest's floor vulnerable to erosion, and its streams' fish-spawning beds full of silt. Perhaps it grew on the traditional land of a native tribe, and was logged without consent or consideration for cultural value.

Our appetite for wood has effects beyond felled woodlands—forests from the tropics to the far latitudes transform the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) into oxygen (through photosynthesis), and they are rapidly disappearing. "We've lost well over 80 percent, globally, of the earth's original forest," says Brant Olson, old-growth campaign director for the Rainforest Action Network. "The 20 percent that remains is largely in fragmented habitats." Only five percent of the United States' original old-growth forests remain intact, says Olson.

When building your home, you could avoid these issues by selectively harvesting the wood yourself from your property, but for most, that's not an option. There are alternatives to wood, like steel or composite materials, but these options carry different environmental costs. Lumber is a renewable resource—as long as the forest is managed correctly.

Certifying Wood

Several groups provide third-party certification for wood products, and rigorous standards have been established to ensure that their timber is grown equitably and sustainably, protecting forests and consumers.

Forest Stewardship Council is an international organization that brings people together to find solutions to the problems created by bad forestry practices and to reward good forest management.

The nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the global accreditation organization for green forest certification, and it's supported by major environmental organizations worldwide. Forest managers voluntarily meet the FSC's standards and agree to a five-year contract. An FSC representative audits the certified forest at least once a year, to be sure the agreement is being upheld.

Left: A logger cuts into an old-growth Douglas fir. Clear-cutting practices and their negative impacts on plant and animal life, as well as stream health, have remained controversial, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Below: The FSC-certified stamp is an assurance that the lumber you're buying comes from sustainably managed forests.

Left: A logger cuts into an old-growth Douglas fir. Clear-cutting practices and their negative impacts on plant and animal life, as well as stream health, have remained controversial, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Below: The FSC-certified stamp is an assurance that the lumber you're buying comes from sustainably managed forests.

There are three main areas of concern for certification; the first being ecological impact. The manager of a certified forest must create management plans following FSC standards for controlling erosion, minimizing forest damage during harvesting and road construction, and protecting the forest's water quality. The FSC prohibits use of pesticides that may accumulate in the food chain, and requires forest managers to promote non-chemical methods of pest management. Genetically modified organisms of any kind are not allowed, and exotic species are only permitted if they are carefully controlled and actively monitored.

The FSC requires sustainable harvesting practices. Rather than clear-cutting across entire swaths of land, forest managers generally use "selective harvesting," which removes some trees but leaves some older specimens for reseeding. Whereas industrial clear-cutting inhibits biodiversity and leaves forest soil prone to erosion and flooding, selective harvesting leaves the forest looking and functioning like a forest should.

FSC certification also includes standards to protect indigenous rights. If a group has legal or customary rights to the land, their control must be respected. If there are substantial disputes about ownership of the land, the FSC will not certify its wood. Any sites within the forest that

New Douglas fir seedlings are planted for future harvesting at this tree farm.

Because they use wood from small trees or lower-grade species, instead of from old-growth forests, many engineered wood products are considered "forest friendly."

are of special cultural significance must be recognized and protected by forest managers.

Finally, FSC certification requires that forest management activities enhance the economic well-being of forest workers and local communities. Managers are required to meet or exceed laws regarding the health and safety of workers, and the workers must be allowed to organize and voluntarily negotiate with employers. The FSC emphasizes that forests

Binders in Engineered Wood

Composite wood products are uniform and reduce waste, but they're not problem-free. Every engineered wood product uses adhesive to bind together its wood particles, and these binding agents can off-gas (emit) toxins into your home. Phenol formaldehyde (PF) is a probable carcinogen found in the majority of engineered wood products. Luckily, off-gassing will decrease over time, especially in well-ventilated areas, but it's a good idea to allow these products to "air out" before you occupy your new home.

Be alert for products that contain urea formaldehyde (UF), which off-gases at a higher rate than its cousin PF. UF is found in many pressed wood products made for indoor use, like particleboard or medium-density fiberboard. To avoid this more noxious binder, use exterior-grade plywood, even indoors, because it typically will contain the more benign PF.

Formaldehyde-free options are becoming available. PMDI is a waterproof, polyurethane-type binder that's moving into the marketplace. Although it's an attractive option in terms of off-gassing, the adhesive is quite toxic until it cures, posing a threat to factory workers' health.

must be economically sustainable as well as ecologically sustainable over the long term, so managers are discouraged from depending on a single forest product or from overharvesting at the expense of future yields.

FSC-certified wood is stamped with their green logo, and is available for purchase at many big-box home improvement stores and local lumberyards alike. Thanks to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, which sets standardized goals for green architecture, builders frequently request certified products, which has helped increase availability nationwide.

As with all labels, you'll need to read the fine print to glean the details of the wood's origin, especially when choosing composite products. Woods from 100 percent FSC-certified sources will be marked "100 percent from well-managed forests." If a product is not entirely from well-managed forests, its label will identify it as containing wood from controlled sources, which meet a less stringent set of standards, but "exclude illegally harvested lumber, forests where conservation values are threatened, genetically modified organisms, violation of people's civil and traditional rights, and wood from forests harvested for the purpose of converting the land to plantations or other nonforest use."

Engineered Lumber

Anyone who's sorted through a stack of 2 by 4s knows that dimensional lumber can be knotty and not always straight, with some pieces being downright unusable. Engineered products are more precise, and manufactured by binding wood fibers, particles, or veneers with adhesives. They are "forest friendly" because they use wood from relatively small trees or from low-grade species such as aspen or soft maple, reducing demand for harvesting larger trees from mature forests.

Efficient Building Techniques

Optimum value engineering (OVE) strategies can help reduce your wood use in building projects. The most obvious strategy is to think small. The smaller and simpler your building's design, the fewer materials you'll consume in construction. Keep in mind that some dimensions are better than others—24 inches is the magic number in OVE. For example, most sheet goods come in dimensions with multiples of 2 feet, so planning a building's length, width, and roof pitch for 2-foot increments will reduce wood waste.

The magic number applies to framing as well. In many cases, you can increase your stud spacing from 16 to 24 inches on center. If you're building a two-story structure, and you're framing with 2 by 6s, you can use 24-inch spacing throughout the home.

If your wall studs are spaced 24 inches, you can save more wood by aligning roof trusses and floor beams with the wall studs to distribute weight evenly throughout the structure, and eliminate the need for double top plates.

Rigid Insulation

Rigid Insulation


2x2 Nailer: Added to outside and flush to the exterior of window opening to provide nailing surface for siding and window trim


2x2 Nailer: Added to outside and flush to the exterior of window opening to provide nailing surface for siding and window trim

Your home's corners are another easy place to save on dimensional lumber. Conventionally framed corners use the three-stud method: three studs nailed together with a perpendicular fourth stud for attaching drywall. This creates beefy corners, but it's also woodintensive and susceptible to thermal bridging (allowing heat to conduct through the studs). A less lumber-intensive method for corner framing uses just two studs and drywall clips, which screw into the interior stud and support drywall without extra wood. This method provides increased insulation space and minimizes thermal bridging.

Consult local building officials early in your design process to make sure OVE techniques are allowed in your area—some localities mandate other building techniques to withstand high winds or potential seismic events.

The most familiar composite woods are sheet products such as particleboard, plywood, and oriented strand board (OSB). Engineered replacements for dimensional lumber are also available. Laminated veneer lumber (LVL), composed of multiple layers of thin veneers bonded together, is often used for beams or headers. I-joists, which are composed of two flanges supported by composite webbing, make for straight, reliable floor joists and rafters.

But engineered products may contain wood from poorly managed forests. Clear-cutting a stand of aspens for particleboard is just as harmful as felling a swath of white pine—perhaps even more so, because aspen forests would naturally transform into more diverse ecosystems with higher-value trees. As with dimensional lumber, you can buy engineered products that are FSC-certified, with the percentage of certified content stamped onto the product.

Beyond Certification

Certification is just one piece of the sustainability puzzle. Although these products are grown in more sustainably managed forests, they may also travel to your door from the other side of the country or even from across the ocean, increasing embodied energy—the amount of energy used to grow, harvest, mill, and then ship the product to you. If embodied energy is a concern, you might choose to buy from a local sawmill—but unless the wood comes from an FSC-certified forest, you can't be sure of the circumstances surrounding its origin.

Engineered wood products carry additional embodied energy. Besides the energy used to grow, harvest, and ship the timber, these products require heat and more machining in their manufacture.

Vote With Your Wallet

While engineered and certified woods both take pressure off the world's forests, and locally milled lumber has low embodied energy, a truly sustainable forest product would combine the best of all worlds.

The optimal way to make sure sustainable lumber is available is to create a demand for it by using your money to vote for sustainable choices. As more consumers decide to make sustainability a priority, the closer we'll get to the goal of a world of truly good wood.


Erin Moore Bean • [email protected]

Forest Stewardship Council U.S. • 202-342-0413 •

Rainforest Action Network • 415-398-4404 •

Advanced framing techniques •



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