A new way to oversee the public's forests?
Enter Ecosystem Management, a philosophy aimed at balancing the public's needs for resources, recreation, and cultural enrichment with the environmental conditions that maintain biodiversity. American Forests has asked both federal agencies to describe how they are working with this new philosophy. In this issue--the U.S. Forest Service.
Forest Service Chief Dale Robertson is committed to nurturing our national forests and grasslands under the banner of Ecosystem Management (EM).
In a June 1992 memo, the Chief stressed that the Forest Service will use an ecological approach in working toward multiple-use management of these lands. Public needs and environmental values will be blended to ensure that forests and grasslands are diverse, productive, and sustainable.
This approach was a part of agency thinking before Robertson issued his memo. But now as never before, managers and scientists are struggling to come to grips with EM. The concept has evolved over time, as scientific knowledge about forest management and an appreciation of the public's needs and values have grown. And yet, commitment to the idea represents a reformation of sorts.
"The mainstay of EM," says Chris Risbrudt, "is sustainability." Risbrudt is deputy regional forester in Region One, the Forest Service's Northern Region. "Forest managers will strive to keep within the land's capacity for multiple use, working to yield a balanced variety of resources while protecting the forest for future generations. Every project in our region considers EM. But the major idea is that we want to do it everywhere, not for just a few 'demonstration' projects."
The national forests and grasslands of Region One stretch from the prairies and badlands of the Dakotas, through eastern Montana's rolling hills and isolated ponderosa-pine woodlands, to the rugged mountaintops and steep, timbered canyons in western Montana and northern Idaho. Twenty-five million acres provide a multitude of uses. Here is a look at how this new ecological management is being implemented in the Northern Region.
DEERLODGE NATIONAL FOREST
Deerlodge Forest in southwestern Montana straddles the Continental Divide. Forest Service officials here have adopted a strategy for examining the land through a broader geographic lens.
"One of our challenges involves the question of scale," says John Joy, the forest ecologist for Deerlodge. "We've been trained to look at things from the stand-level approach--to break areas down into 20- or 40-acre parcels. But now we're looking at the whole landscape, the big picture."
The forest is divided into 28 landscape-analysis units of 50,000 to 150,000 acres. An interdisciplinary team will analyze each unit and compare existing conditions to what might have occurred naturally. They then will determine a course of action designed to achieve the goals of sustaining ecosystems and meeting public needs.
"We need to understand how these systems operated before Europeans accelerated the changes occurring here now," says Martin Prather, Region One's ecology program manager. "This doesn't mean we try to turn back the clock and change the land to the way it was then. But we'll search for clues on how to best manage forests by understanding how they operate."
The analysis in Deerlodge's North Flints Range has shown some interesting things. A near-century of fire suppression has altered markedly what once were open areas of widely spaced ponderosa pine.
Since 1908 the Forest Service has put out 72,000 lightning-caused fires in Region One. "As a result," says Prather, "we have acres upon acres ready to burn like the fires of 1988. This picture diverged considerably from the natural one."
Without the frequent, low-intensity ground fires that used to creep through these dry habitats, choked stands of younger Douglas-fir have surrounded North Flints' once-lonely pines. The ponderosa's thick bark makes it fire-resistant, but the smaller Douglas-fir can act as a ladder to carry flames up into the pine's canopy and kill it too.
"To my knowledge, the proposed French Gulch timber sale is the first on its scale designed to produce commercial timber while restoring ecological conditions," says John Joy. "The sale not only includes the harvesting of Douglas-firs, but it also brings prescribed burning into the understory that will enhance ponderosa pine and aspen, and create savannah-like stands for specialized species like the flammulated owl."
The desired result of the sale and burnings will be a structure resembling a forest in which fire occurs naturally, one that encourages greater biodiversity. For example, the seeds of Bicknell's geranium require a heat-treatment to germinate, and can't do so without a fire at least every 150 years. The black-backed woodpecker, whose plumage is close in color to a fire-burned forest, feeds on insects that move into trees after a blaze. By restoring stand structure and fire patterns similar to a natural setting, these species will be restored automatically.
FLATHEAD NATIONAL FOREST
In northwest Montana, the Flathead's rugged, glacial terrain embraces the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness complex. This 10,000-square-mile area--the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem--supports major populations of the endangered gray wolf and bald eagle and the threatened grizzly bear.
Forest-resource managers here, in conjunction with the public, recently completed a study analyzing conservation strategies to address managing old-growth forests for wildlife habitat. The study includes a description of wildlife-habitat needs, an inventory of existing vegetation conditions, and a depiction of these vegetative conditions before European settlement.
As part of the study, Flathead specialists resurrected U.S. Geological Surveys, conducted by A.B. Ayers in the late 1890s, on what is now the Spotted Bear Ranger District. In comparing Ayers's timber graphs to present-day maps, they found striking contrasts. Old-growth forests in the district are not only more abundant today than during Ayers' inventory but are also found in new locations.
Initial indications are that this is again due to fire-suppression activities over the last century. Scientists and managers are examining this situation; the results of their study will have implications on future management actions.
Flathead and neighboring Lolo National Forest are doing a landscape assessment of the Seeley-Swan drainage in collaboration with the University of Montana, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Montana Department of State Lands, private residents, and industrial timberland owners.
This collaboration was triggered in part by concern over two grizzly-bear populations separated by the drainage, one in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the other in the Mission Mountains. Biologists feel the bears require a route between these areas to ensure genetically healthy populations and continued viability. But the area separating the populations is undergoing residential development and timber harvest.
Wildlife biologist Nancy Warren says, "A broadscale ecosystem-management look is necessary for species like the grizzly, which roams over thousands of acres during daily activities." Grizzlies, which often travel many miles during their seasonal movements, are distributed throughout the northern Rockies in somewhat small, often widely segregated populations. The study is looking for a multi-ownership solution that allows the bears safe passage.
HELENA NATIONAL FOREST
Officials at southwestern Montana's Helena National Forest also are looking at larger landscapes.
"We recently completed a landscape analysis for the Elkhorn Mountains," notes Elkhorn Coordinator Jodie Canfield. "It graphically illustrates how pieces of the landscape can interact to provide food, water, and shelter for thousands of wildlife species while also providing resources for the public's enjoyment."
The forest is divided into four landscape-analysis areas ranging from 130,000 to 300,000 acres. Each focuses on natural-resource needs as well as social and economic concerns. This broader landscape approach has also revealed some of the ecological transformations that have occurred since European settlement. Conifers and shrubs were more abundant in areas that were formerly grasslands, again due to fire suppression. These changes likely are affecting the wildlife species that live there.
Helena offers a host of recreational uses--from backpacking, photography, and elk hunting to cross-country skiing and mountain biking. "Our emphasis will be on wildlife and recreation," says Canfield. "Fire will be reintroduced as a tool to help recycle soil nutrients and restore more open, park-like conditions of some forested areas. We'll also use fire to reclaim areas overgrown by woody vegetation and make them productive grassland ecosystems for wildlife species that depend on 'natural' conditions."
CUSTER NATIONAL FOREST
The habitat here is different: rolling grasslands of the northern Great Plains, rugged badlands, and densely wooded forests.
"The Custer will use an ecosystem approach for management and restoration of the tall-grass prairie ecosystem on the Sheyenne National Grassland," says Forest Range Conservationist Jeff DiBenedetto.
This grassland is a western extension of the tall-grass prairie. Conversion to agricultural lands has reduced this ecosystem--which once supported bluestem and sand-reed grasses growing as high as seven feet--from its historical range stretching as far east as Illinois down to a system of remnants, including those on the Sheyenne. An ecological classification inventory will be developed to characterize the current status of the ecosystem as it relates to historic processes and ecosystem capabilities.
The broader-scale examination of natural ecological patterns requires the use of modern sophisticated scientific techniques. The Custer, in cooperation with Montana State University, is using satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to help map the existing vegetation of the mixed, tall-grass prairie ecosystems.
NEZ PERCE NATIONAL FOREST
In the heart of north-central Idaho, streams are the lifeblood of the landscape. Events that occur in the mountains of Idaho, such as snow-melt and salmon migrations, move through the river system to the ocean.
On the Nez Perce Forest, where the chinook salmon has recently been listed as a threatened species, EM is an urgently needed approach.
"It offers the best hope for restoring the variety and abundance of the fisheries this landscape has historically supported," maintains fisheries biologist Scott Russell.
Fisheries biologists now use the combined skills of plant ecologists, hydrologists, soil scientists, statisticians, and computer programmers. This cooperative effort describes how streams and fish populations respond to changes in climate, soils, land forms, surrounding plant communities, and disturbances like wildfire and flooding.
According to forest ecologist Pat Green, "Classifying and inventorying ecosystems helps us find the undisturbed reference streams and describe how they work. Then we can look at similar but impacted streams and know what needs fixing."
EM is still relatively new as a working entity, but in Region One it is working indeed. Two elements are critical to its continued success: the involvement and cooperation of managers, researchers, and landowners across administrative boundaries; and an equal disregard for barriers of expertise.
Madelyn Kempf is a public affairs specialist from the Bitterroot National Forest. Michael Hopps, a former National Geographic researcher, is a freelance environmental writer.