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A new forestry epoch?

As we have worked with the forest-health issue over the past few years, it has become clear that a new relationship between people and forests is rapidly emerging. Just how that new relationship will be translated into specific management actions on the land is a major focal point of today's debates.

If you have followed the recent writings in this magazine, you know we are convinced that the "new forestry" that emerges--by whatever name it is called--will be based on the "constant change" or "chaos" theory of ecology. In an over-generalized explanation, this means that people will be required to manage the forests for what they want and need, rather than relying on nature or natural cycles to keep forests in a condition they find desirable. In many ways, that idea throws a heavy burden on the public, as the ultimate decisionmakers in the matter, and on scientists, who are called upon to give the public good information about the most likely outcomes from different courses of action.

The starting point, however, must be a general "viewpoint" about what forests are for, what they can do, and how people want them to look and function. From that "central organizing principle" we must then use the sciences that are most available and useful in helping us achieve our general goals. This course change will undoubtedly occur at such magnitude that it merits discussion as a new forestry epoch.

It seems logical to characterize four major epochs in western forest management: two in the past, one still in operation but phasing out, and one in the future but beginning to be seen in many places. As we consider these separately, it is important to recognize how they interrelate. The lessons learned in one epoch become integrated into succeeding periods. There are few clear boundaries, in time, technologies, or scientific understanding. The differences between public and private land-management goals further blur the picture.

For Native Americans, history suggests that subsistence was the central principle of their relationship to the land. The basic sciences they employed would today be called biology and ecology--an intimate understanding of the environment in which they lived, the ways in which living things related to that environment and to each other, and how that environment and its non-human inhabitants could be harnessed to meet human needs. It should also be recognized as culture--in the sense of agriculture and silviculture--since each of the various native cultures very clearly "tuned" to the environment in which it developed. The fact that this "ethno-science" was not written in books that Europeans could study and understand made it no less valid, but helped it remain largely a mystery to the new immigrants.

How deliberately native cultures managed the forest environments in which they lived is increasingly documented. Fire was the main tool, used for a variety of purposes. No doubt natural lightning-set fires were as prevalent then as now, but whether they burned the same way is debatable. To the extent that the forests had been burned fairly regularly by intentional human actions, the fuels may have been very different in character than they are today, and thus the fires would have been different as well. We do know that the natives burned regularly for a variety of reasons, including the attraction of game to new pastures, the creation of "edge" effect and meadows, driving game for effective hunting, and clearing areas to protect villages or prepare fields for farming.

European settlers had a hard time understanding what they found in America. The natives, instead of living in fixed locations with a focus on accumulating material goods, tended to live with few possessions and move when necessary. Some cultures moved several times a year, following food sources. Others farmed in large settlements but moved the entire settlement every few years as fertility decline and other factors made a place less habitable.

Europeans, on the other hand, wanted permanent homes, farms, villages, and cities, as they had in Europe. Thus they had to bring resources from where they were produced (field, forest, river, etc.) to where they were needed. This meant an entirely new approach to forest management, one that could be called the "pioneer epoch." The central organizing theme was development, and engineering was probably the major scientific base. Huge forests of old, large trees were available to build and fuel the development of the young nation, and great energy and ingenuity were expended to build the railroads, sluiceways, splash dams, oxen roads, and other means by which logs could be moved from the forest to where they would be used. Forestry was largely a matter of devising better ways to access, harvest, and move logs out of the woods. Little thought was given to the depletion of the forests and their topsoils, or to the damage to rivers, lakes, or air quality that these pioneer practices created.

Out of this exploitation came public concern about a national "timber famine," and the launching of the conservation movement. People began looking at ways of injecting professional management into forestry, so the forests would last indefinitely and not "run out." One major debate that raged in the dry regions of the western states was the appropriate use of fire as a scientific management tool. Should fire be excluded to the extent possible, as it was in European forests, with the excess growth removed by human harvest? Or should the excess growth and production be periodically burned, as had been the native practice? In a huge debate that was "won" but never really settled, the proponents of fire exclusion had their way, and official Forest Service policy in the West rejected the "Paiute forestry" that featured use of intentional fire. Fire, with its tendency to consume trees that could otherwise be used for development, and its frightening ability to destroy human settlements and developments, was to be eliminated if possible.

Technological developments (many of which emerged in wartime) such as large tractors, airplanes, and other machinery led to the third era in forestry, which might be labeled the "industrial epoch." Here, the central organizing ideas were efficiency and productivity, and the underlying science that emerged was economics. Forests were managed under scientific principles based on biolog and ecology, but the driving factor was the "economic maturity" of the forest--when was it best to harvest the mature trees and establish a new forest, calculated on the peak of economically efficient growth of the species most valued for timber and other commercial products. Protection of commercial value meant reduction of the factors that could destroy value--wildfires, insects, and other pests--using more, efficient mechanical and chemical methods.

One outgrowth of that approach was even-aged management, as the ultimate way to control the forest for maximum productivity. The resulting clearcuts--along with the extensive road systems made possible by increasingly large machinery and relatively cheap energy prices--became a major source of controversy on the public forests, particularly as people became more concerned with the broad environmental impacts involved. That controversy, which has culminated in almost totally halting public timber harvest in some regions today, has occupied much of the forestry agenda for two decades, and seems likely to be a major driving force in the development of the new epoch we see coming into view.

Today, hazy outlines of that new forestry epoch are emerging, Clearly, its central organizing principle will be sustainability--the ability to meet today's needs without compromising the ability of future generation to meet theirs. Almost certainly, the major scientific underpinning will be ecology. The engineering and economic lessons learned earlier, and improved continuously, will be critical to achieving goals and measuring results, but understanding how systems respond to change and predicting how they will react to human impact will be the keystone challenges. In the process, interestingly

enough, many of the understandings of the early ecologists--native Americans--will be "re-discovered" and incorporated into modern practice.

It's fascinating, and challenging, to speculate on exactly what the forests of the future will look like, and act like. How will human actions differ from (and mirror) what other peoples have done in the past? If this new epoch blends the best features of the past epochs, avoids the worst practices, and meets the needs of a growing and increasingly demanding public, what will it look like on the land?

We're going to be thinking about that, and writing about it, in coming issues of this magazine. But we'd like to capture your ideas as well. Write and tell me what you think the new epoch will--or should--feature as its central qualities. AMERICAN FORESTS has been at the cutting edge of forest conservation and forestry innovation for over a century. With, your help and insight, we'll do it again--as we outline and describe the forests and forestry of the 21st century.

We're Sprucing Up

Please notice our new face! This issue features a complete redesign by our art-direction firm, Von Greaden Design. You'll see a more contemporary look and "feel" to our feature layouts, departmental opening pages, and contents page.

In the redesign, which includes new type faces for body copy and headlines, we have tried to mirror the forward-looking programs, policies, and action of today's AMERICAN FORESTS without forgetting the rich history of this organization and its century-old magazine.

What do you think? We welcome your input.
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:a new relationship between man and forests
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Previous Article:From "livable" to living legacy.
Next Article:Making a little difference.

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