Printer Friendly

New ecology, global change, and forest politics.

There's a lot of new information bouncing around in scientific and forestry circles these days, and not all of it fits together in ways that are reassuring. The following thoughts are stated in the most direct terms possible. That doesn't make these ideas any more right; it just makes this editorial fit within the limits of the magazine. I hope the directness doesn't offend my scientist friends, who understand that certainty in such matters is a sign of naivete.

NEW ECOLOGY

There is no such thing as "natural balance," a "balance of nature," or a "natural steady-state system." Ecosystems, whether affected by people or not, constantly change, and have always done so. Many of those changes dramatically affect the ability of forests to produce goods and services that people depend on.

Some ecosystem changes are caused by natural conditions that evolve at a very slow pace. Climate change, species evolution and migration, and soil formation are examples. Others occur in a relative instant. Disastrous wildfires, major storms, and volcanoes do their thing, and will continue to do so.

Forests don't always respond to gradual changes in gradual ways. A forest may tolerate a gradual shift in climatic conditions, or a change in nutrient input, with no perceptible impact on trees or other major species for many years. Any change is lost in the "noise" created by the fact that trees live and die, animal populations cycle up and down, and the weather varies from year to year. Significant change may be hidden for many years within the "normal" variation in the system.

But the forest may also pass through a "threshold" beyond which trees suddenly die. Again, cause and effect may be hard to identify. Drought, insects, disease--any or all may be present. But the real cause? That's sometimes hard to tell. And it may be the result of long-term, gradual shifts that we're still unable to clearly identify.

When trees in a forest suddenly die, whether from natural disaster or human intervention, there's no guarantee that the same species or species mix will return, or that the same forest ecosystem will emerge. The outcome may be more related to the conditions under which the trees died, and the environmental conditions for a decade or two following, than it is to the site involved. Even with the best seedlings and tree-planting techniques, for example, failures occur. This is consistent with the "chaos theory," which holds that many events in the environment occur in a random, unpredictable pattern, and that those random events sometimes are very important in influencing what happens in an ecosystem.

When a new forest is becoming established, small changes in environmental conditions tend to be magnified. It's like starting across the ocean on a slightly wrong bearing; by the time you reach the other shore, you'll be a long way from your intended destination. Likewise, a new forest that starts up with a different nutrient cycle or micro-climate regime may be vastly different from the forest that preceeded it.

GLOBAL CHANGE

The industrial age has resulted in a rapid and continuing buildup of atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and chlorofluorocarbons. Those gases trap heat in a somewhat similar manner to the glass on a greenhouse, thus the concern over "greenhouse gases" and the "greenhouse effect." Industrial processes also emit oxides of nitrogen and sulfur that change atmospheric chemistry and alter the nutrient input into natural and managed ecosystems.

Science has a hard time with these issues, because what's happening is different from anything in the past, and it is happening on a global scale, so there's no way to carve off a little piece, move it into the laboratory, and test it for certainty. We can't replicate events to prove cause and effect, so the debate rests on theories and models that, while absorbing the world's most sophisticated computers, are still, in the words of their operators, "very crude approximations" of reality.

In spite of the uncertainty, the likelihood of significant climate change is too high to ignore, primarily because the potential effects on human societies could be so enormously disruptive.

Natural forests face a hard time adjusting to the rate of climate change, which may be three to 10 times faster than species can migrate. Increased occurrence of major hurricanes and other windstorms is likely to increase the area of forest destroyed each year.

In the forest ecosystem where trees are removed or destroyed under rapid climate change, conditions may not return to their original state, even if we try to restore it. If the conditions for seedling survival and successful growth are not present, some other kind of system will probably emerge. That system may or may not be what people need or want.

FOREST POLITICS

All of the above brings new challenges to forest politics.

Trees are not a crop, like long-lived corn, and that fact becomes even more evident under climate-change conditions. Even in intensively managed forests, trees are part of a much more complex ecosystem than are most agricultural crops, and much more at risk from changes in ecosystem processes and environmental impacts. Crops that live and die in a year or two can be altered to meet new conditions; trees that live for 20 to 200 years provide far fewer opportunities.

The forest is not as stable as it appears to be. People often feel that so long as the forest is left alone, it will stay as it is. That may be a poor bet. The dry forests of the West, for example, are falling apart in a matter of a few years, over a considerable area. Climate change may or may not be involved; it may or may not bring about the future impacts that have been predicted; that doesn't matter too much. Those forests need help. Letting "nature take its course" is an expensive, destructive course of action that most of the public will find unacceptable.

But that premise suggests that we're responsible for figuring out what is acceptable to people on those forests, and what we can do that is most consistent with the ecological realities and the pressures of global change that we face. To many in forest politics today, the answer is a different kind of management, based more on the preservation of ecosystem structures and processes than on the resulting quantity of products. That makes a lot of sense, but there are still many political debates ahead about how such management can be accomplished.

One problem that may emerge involves the growing fascination with the concept of "pre-settlement conditions" as a baseline for making ecosystem management decisions, as though those conditions had some magical quality. That idea must be approached with caution. Nothing is the way it was in the 18th century; the forests cannot be, either.

Wilderness setasides are fine so long as we recognize the fact that they, too, are going to change dramatically. But watching one system respond to one set of stresses--particularly when you know very little about how to measure either ecosystem change or environmental stress--may be interesting, but prove little. In managed systems, or in the next round of global changes, things will happen differently.

A basic premise of environmentalism has been that public forests (particularly the national forests) were captured by local interests (the industry) and the only way to break that hold was to "nationalize" these issues. By bringing forest issues to Congress, and appealing to the fact that these forests belonged to "all the people," the transition was successfully made. Now forest decisions are made in Washington. One result is NFMA (National Forest Management Act), FLPMA (Federal Land Policy and Management Act), NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act), ESA (Endangered Species Act), and a host of other alphabet-soup laws that dictate a complex and expensive process (with some elements at serious cross-purpose) that binds federal land managers. As a sad result, federal forests are now managed more by planners, lawyers, judges, and accountants than by resource specialists.

For example, we hear a lot about "below-cost" timber sales--a major reason they exist is that federal costs are significantly higher than private or state agency costs to do similar sales. But precious little of that extra cost is spent on evaluating and responding to the needs of the land; most is spent making sure that the plan is "lawyer-proof."

That situation is deadly for any type of ecosystem management, which is, at its heart, adaptive management.

Managers need to meet change; try to predict the onset of destructive events or thresholds and avoid them; and try to manipulate the vegetation in the system so that it is more resilient under the pressures of stress. That means decentralized, science-based management decision-making, flexible and able to respond to fast-changing conditions. It needs to involve the public, but that public must be local enough to see and understand what's actually happening in the forest. And it requires that the public be willing to trust professional managers to make reasonable decisions in the face of fast-changing situations.

All of that is impossible when decisions are dictated from headquarters, and when this year's forest conditions don't square with last year's legal prescriptions. When the ecosystem can change faster than the bureaucracy of the management agency, it's a serious problem.

That situation makes today's forest politics as interesting as they have ever been in history. The forests are changing--in some places faster than current policies can respond.

The policy solutions of the 1960s, like delineating wilderness areas and declaring them off-bounds to human intervention, and those of the 1980s, like declaring that all timber sales must return a cash profit to the management agency, may become relics of the past. New understandings of ecology and global change may force new ways of thinking about these situations. Will forest politics keep up, or will the political forces at work continue to be mired in the solutions of the past, increasingly frustrated with the fact that they seem less and less relevant to the challenges of the future?
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Forests
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:1674
Previous Article:Rx for Hawaii.
Next Article:Romancing the clone.
Topics:


Related Articles
BOOKS RECEIVED.
A Tree-Lined MEMORY LANE.
Changing the image of forestry: program aims to educate and promote careers in forestry. (Forestry: Special Report).
Long-term ecological research in Indonesia: achieving sustainable forest management. (Abstracts).
"Landscape and Ecological Engineering," "EcoHealth" and Metabolomics" from Springer.
Books received.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters