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Ecosystem management: a leap ahead.

Every organization needs an "organizing principle" around which it focuses its activities. This is different from a "mission statement" in that it is often more of a concept that continually affects how the organization handles the opportunities and challenges that come to it while it is trying to achieve its mission.

Our operating principle--though it has not been articulated in words polished by our strategic planning process and our membership--has to be something like "through helping people understand why and how to manage trees and forests so that they are continually healthy and productive." In other words, for over a century, AMERICAN FORESTS has focused on how people and societies interact with trees and forests. Our members, and our leaders, believe that forests, like every other ecosystem, have human components. We believe that people do not stand apart from the natural world but are a part of it. We believe that where people play their part in a constructive, caring, skillful way, both the natural resources and the human condition are better as a result.

This principle is vastly different from one that believes people to be something different from the natural world, and that thinks saving nature is best accomplished by locking people and their activities out of special places. We believe that this is what separates the "conservationists" from the "preservationists."

But it gets a whole lot more complicated. Conservationists believe that some areas ought to be set aside as places where human intervention and impact are as absent as we can achieve. Those places give us benchmarks and study areas where we can better understand what nature does, and how human impacts affect these systems. But if you think about it, that goal can be a contradiction in itself, if it is stated too starkly. We'll never understand wilderness and natural events unless we go to those places and study them. When we go, we bring human impact.

The really important challenge, it seems, is to focus our efforts not on whether people affect the earth, but how they affect it. Conservationists believe that what may be the right thing to do in one place, under one set of circumstances--harvesting trees for timber, for example--is not the thing that should be done in another place, under other circumstances.

Unfortunately, when these issues get argued, particularly in the public media, the "sound bites" begin to boil down into "cutting trees is good" versus "cutting trees is bad." Those simplistic verbal battles often serve to miseducate people about responsible forest conservation and stewardship. Our goal, as an organization dedicated to educating people and helping them take action to improve, protect, manage, and use trees and forests, must be to guide some kind of a course between those kinds of polarized, simplified arguments.

We think such an opportunity presents itself today as the practice of forestry undergoes enormous self-evaluation and change. The names vary, depending on the source, and include "Ecosystem Management," "Total Forest Management," "Forest Stewardship," "New Forestry," "Sustainable Forestry," and others. Behind the search for labels, however, some critically important ideas are beginning to be more clearly articulated, and these ideas are going to be hugely important in the future as they affect the way people think about what to do with the trees and forests that are part of their lives.

A major idea is that trees, though they may be the most visible, dominant, and economically important organisms that inhabit a forest, are far from being all that is there. From the largest tree to the swiftest animal to the tiniest soil micro-organism, thousands of species coexist in the forest, and each may play a role that is essential to the forest's continued well-being.

In some cases, science simply doesn't know whether this little plant or that bug is important. In some cases, the scientists haven't figured out exactly what the thing does; in a few, they haven't even seen the organism before or named it. When you're not certain, wisdom says you don't destroy anything that might turn out to be valuable or essential. Intelligent tinkering, the saying goes, requires that one save all the pieces.

Ecosystem management by whatever name is neither new nor terribly revolutionary. But it is different in many ways from the more "mechanistic" forms of management that science and industry have developed since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Now it is time to face those differences. This is not a "return to the old ways;" it is a major leap forward, into a new era of management that challenges scientists, ethicists, and practitioners as never before. By the time the 21st century is one generation old, people will be managing trees and forests much more actively, much more knowledgeably, and, we hope, with better results, both for the forests and for the people who rely on them.

To help our members and the general public understand this transition and help give it a foundation of the best information and science available, AMERICAN FORESTS is launching an all-out effort to focus attention on the emerging ideas, facts, myths, theories, and practice of ecosystem management. We'll look for examples in which people are leading the way in management that protects the entire forest ecosystem and its essential functions. We already have found some--in city neighborhoods, on private tree farms, in industrial production forests, and on a variety of public lands. We'll share those with our members, readers, and the general public.

But this is not a "done deal"--it is a learning experience. We intend to learn a lot as we go, and we invite you to go along with us. If you know of an example that we should understand or publicize, let us know. If you hold firm opinions about "how it ought to be done," hold your judgments a bit. Look into some of these new ideas. We think that by working together we can help frame the ideas that will govern the stewardship of trees and forests for the next generation or two of people. AMERICAN FORESTS has been at that task since 1875, but the excitement in that challenge is as fresh as ever.
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Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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