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Forest health and ecosystem management.

Not long ago, a forester introducing an important study of the serious problems in the forests of the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon went to considerable length to explain that the study team had discarded the term "forest health" in favor of the term "ecosystem health" because they thought the former was too narrowly focused. I found that surprising, and somewhat bothersome. Are most of us still, in the 1990s, thinking of forests only as groups of trees? If we are, that may be one of the reasons we're having trouble communicating, about both forest health and ecosystem management.

A forest, in my vocabulary, is a very real area on a map, and includes everything within that area, and every process that goes on. But a map fails to do it full justice, because every forest is four-dimensional, with time as one critical dimension. Like any other very complex system, we see only a tiny portion of any forest at any time, and understand it in only the most rudimentary ways.

We may separate a forest's components--soils, waters, trees, animals--so we can study or talk about them more specifically, but when we try to understand and maintain the forest itself, we must consider all of these as integral, interrelating parts of the system, not as stand-alone units. And we must also be aware that humans have been integral parts of most forests for centuries, even though their actions may have changed significantly in recent history due to increased populations and changing technologies.

I'm gratified to see two new documents from the forestry community that seem to take these positions as a basic platform--"Healthy Forests for America's Future," the new Forest Service strategy document on forest health, and "Sustaining Long-Term Forest Health and Productivity," the report of a Task Force of the Society of American Foresters. Both are invaluable new aids in spurring debate as to just what forest health means, and how people might support healthy forests.

Every time the forest-health debate breaks out, the metaphor that springs to mind is human health. There seem to be many similarities. Doctors spent centuries identifying causes and cures for diseases. Increasingly sophisticated diagnostic techniques help pinpoint problems and indicate cures. But at the same time, increasing attention is being paid to lifestyles, and to "wellness" as a concept. People are asked to eat right, exercise more, and smoke less as a way to help prevent problems.

In forests, "problems" such as insect or disease outbreaks, wildfires, or soil erosion were characteristically linked to "cures" such as pesticide application, fire suppression, or erosion-control structures. Now managers are looking at some of the underlying factors that may make the forest more susceptible to such damage.

Just like a high cholesterol level suggests an increased risk of health problems, we are beginning to understand some of the measurable signals that can help forest managers see when risks are getting high. When we realize how to read these subtle signals well--and how to intervene to lower risks, prevent major problems, and help maintain a healthy flow of natural processes in the forest, we will be "ecosystem managers."

Obviously, that is a huge challenge. Though it may be easy to identify illness, and often to find "cures," it is much more challenging to define "wellness," and to understand how to help maintain it.

It seems clear that the goal of ecosystem management is to maintain a healthy, productive forest--whether the forest is in a mountain watershed or a city park. And the best measure of forest "wellness" may be found in the chemistry of its streams or the vigor of its soils. Just because the trees are the largest and most visible organisms in the forest doesn't mean they are the only (or even, perhaps, the best) indicators of forest health. Science has a lot to learn, and teach us, on that score.

In the meantime, it is important to continue the lively debate surrounding both ecosystem management and forest health. It may offer the best chance in many decades to renew public commitment to the wise and careful management and use of increasingly valuable natural resources. We invite your comments on the subject, at any time.
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Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Previous Article:Lansing Bennett, C.I.A.
Next Article:Camping with the arrow.

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