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Will "new forestry" save old forests?

Today, almost two years after New Forestry began blooming in the public arena, its detractors and supporters agree about little except perhaps that the brainchild of Jerry Franklin and his colleagues was not intended to save old-growth forests. Thus the question posed in this article's title may be the wrong one, but coming to understand why it is being asked offers an instructive lesson in science and politics.

In the face of increasing public distrust of those in carge of the nation's forest resources, and in the face of internal rebellion among Forest Service employees, several things seemed to happen almost at once. The chain of change started with the new Resources Planning Act (RPA) program and moved on to New Forestry and what is commonly perceived to be its spinoff, New Perspectives.

Ironically, because congressional constituencies include both timber interests and anti-timber interests, Congress in its directives often works against itself. Thus even as the legislators were busy enacting laws like the Wilderness Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Forest Planning Act, in their annual budget hearings they were forcing higher allowable cuts than forest supervisors knew were sustainable.

In reaction, the Resources Planning Act program, long a strawman expression of professional forester wishes regularly disregarded by Congress, was redesigned in stealth fashion to better withstand congressional scuds. Instead of offering a smorgasbord of easily jettisoned piecemeal solutions, the new document spoke of maintaining long-term options based upon principles that lead not just to sustainable forest management, but also to healthy ecosystems. The unabashed goal was no less than to change the way the U.S. Forest Service does business.

Tom Mills, the Forest Service's associate deputy chief for programs and legislation and one of the driving forces behind the new RPA program, maintains that the time has come to make some choices. Back when there were fewer demands, the tendency was to think that forest managers could meet almost all needs, but today some hard decisions have to be made and tradeoff s accepted. For a long time there was this search for a silver bullet that would fix everything, but now we know that there isn't one. What we do have in the new RPA program is an approach that will maintain more options, but important value choices will have to be made by the public. "

In the Forest Service's Blue River, Oregon, research center, Jerry Franklin, Chris Maser, Steve Eubanks, Fred Swanson, and others working with the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest put together what has come to be known as New Forestry (see AMERICAN Forests, November/December 1989). Still somewhat amorphous in the eyes of many who did not have a hand in its development, New Forestry is nevertheless being tested now at various locations around the country.

Coming to public light at the same time and confusingly similar in its objectives was New Perspectives. This Forest Service program began with a New Forestry understanding of the interdependency of forest systems and was aimed at giving the Forest Service employee in the field some practical guidelines in decision-making situations. New Perspectives is the on-the-ground implementation of the philosophies of the RPA program and the principles of New Forestry. It was designed to support employees in their efforts to deal with change and to encourage continuing dialogue and experimentation.

Although this impressive three-pronged attempt to save the forest (and the Forest Service) is viewed cynically by some as face-saving public relations, there is little denying that change is taking place. In order to better understand what form these changes will take and the effects they will have, it is necessary to listen carefully to the progenitors of these three major evolutionary forces.

Steve Eubanks, one of Franklin's Blue River/Andrews group and now the Forest Service's recreation strategy leader, avers that simply saving old-growth and owls was not the group's primary motivation. "Granted, there were a lot of detractors of harvesting in old-growth forests, and we did hope to mollify some of those critics by meeting their concerns," he says. "But our primary motivation was to perpetuate a healthy ecosystem that could provide products as well as all the benefits, beyond products, that a healthy ecosystem provides. It would be nice if we could satisfy some public concerns, but our first consideration as scientific land managers was to maintain the productive capacity of the land."

Eubanks recalls the time when the group was sitting around trying to decide what to call New Forestry, and he notes that of the many possibilities the name they actually preferred was "Ecosystem Management." But it was the other one that stuck. He says a negative result has been the message many foresters perceived that what they had been doing for so many years was wrong. For others, the word new seemed to deny that old practices are a part of New Forestry.

Eubanks refers to a management strategy proposed by Chris Maser, another member of the group, that calls for two short rotations and then a 300-year rotation. Eubanks suggests that an alternative would be more moderate rotations of 80 to 120 years, which he feels would 'still perpetuate those characteristics of the ecosystem we feel are important."

However radical in terms of traditional harvesting some New Forestry practices may seem, Chris Maser--now a writer (best known for The Redesigned Forest) and consultant -feels they don't go far enough. Maser is at pains to put some distance between himself and "the answer" he thinks others, including Jerry Franklin, see in New Forestry. Calling it "not the answer but just a new look at old forestry," he says that New Forestry is still too commodity oriented and will not really take us much farther down the road.

Maser says the problem lies with not asking the right questions. "The great need in America today is to find a way to balance our material desires with nature," he says. "We need to find a balance between the two, but we will not find that until we go beyond commodity thinking. In New Forestry the product is still more important than the process, and we are still trying to manage nature rather than work in harmony with it. In reality we have no answers, and are still groping for the right questions. " He endorses the vision from which New Forestry sprang, but not New Forestry as it is being practiced now.

On the subject of RPA and New Perspectives, Maser is more positive. "New Perspectives is much more important than New Forestry will ever be," he says, because it attempts to free up the thinking of Forest Service decision-makers and allows them to address the changes that Maser feels are both necessary and inevitable. Like Eubanks with New Forestry, he wishes the Forest Service had eschewed the word new and would rename the program Changing Perspectives to prevent what is new today from becoming sacred tomorrow.

Change is the only thing we can count on, and we are still choosing where that will take us,- he adds.

Although Maser says that New Forestry is still stuck in the old paradigm, he feels we do know enough now to manage old-growth forests. But he decries some of the new research, including use of more moderate rotations because he says they will not allow time for old-growth processes to re-create themselves. He says we can always grow big trees, but what you will have is simply a new form of tree plantation. "In order to perpetuate real old-growth, you need extended rotations on the order of 200 to 400 years. In the meantime, we need to maintain enough of the present old-growth as a parts catalog and blueprint we can study before it dies.'

Bill Atkinson, professor of forest engineering at Oregon State, has been labeled a let's-don'tchange" critic of New Forestry even as Jerry Franklin has been labeled as his opposite. But the views of both are much more complex than the media stereotypes indicate.

Atkinson is concerned about what he considers the loose definition of New Forestry-what it is and exactly what it can do. Over the course of the past year, he and Jerry Franklin have participated in a series of discussions about the implications of New Forestry, and although much has been made of their differences, Atkinson thinks they have moved much closer during that time.

Chiefly, Atkinson has said that New Forestry is in many instances some very old forestry already tried and found wanting. As for New Perspectives, he sees it as somewhat confusing, particularly when it comes to figuring out how it is related to New Forestry.

What is his scientific assessment of New Forestry? "There is a broad recognition in the Forest Service that traditional harvesting methods, particularly clear-cutting, are no longer acceptable options," he says. As an alternative, New Forestry "could be a more biologically sound method of management, although the jury is still out."

He believes that New Forestry was intended as a way of maintaining some kind of harvesting program in old-growth, but he does not agree with Jerry Franklin's belief that New Forestry will permit that to happen.

He adds that a fairly common view in Oregon today is that "basically, the Forest Service is getting out of the timber-production business, at least on the west side of the Cascades and probably in the West in general, and that New Forestry is just a kind of blip in history, that it's going to fade and that we are going to be locking up a lot of our old-growth stands. " So one view he identifies sees the Forest Service as so changed that it will leave timber production to the private sector.

Atkinson himself believes that when it all shakes down, significant harvest will still occur on public lands managed by the Forest Service. Although current logging levels have fallen more than 80 percent, he expects that once the owl problem is worked out, the harvest may be "something like half of what it has been, but it is still going to play a role in the timber supply."

Atkinson notes that a number of researchers are working on ways to perpetuate old-growth forests, because a general agreement exists among scientists that our present old-growth forests are going to die someday-in the sense that they will not regenerate into more old-growth since in many cases they are not the climax species, and will not perpetuate themselves. "You can lock them up, but that won't save them, despite the public's perception," he says.

"So we are working on whether we can grow some habitat for spotted owls. Much of this work is still in the formative stage; we are trying to figure out just what these critters really need. We think as foresters we can grow just about any kind of forest we want, but right now we don't know what we want. We know we find owls in a lot of places besides old-growth.

"I think it will move well beyond owls and old-growth to some kind of overall harmony between humans and nature, and I think we are going to have a forestry that is going to do a pretty good job of that. But we are going through some pretty tough changes right now. It has hit us too fast. If we had 30 or 40 more years to figure out how to do this

But where public lands are concerned, there isn't more time. And if the cut is drastically reduced on public lands in the Northwest, the pressure on private lands will increase tremendously.

Says Atkinson, "We're seeing forests cut at fairly early ages; it's getting more like the South. What kind of restrictions are we going to place on private forest practices? Make loggers do partial cuts? Private lands are already included in a lot of the owl lock-ups. Forest-practice rules have always been very tight here in the West. You know what it is like in California ... dictating right down to the stand level. "

He notes that the effect is to make it tough to maintain the health of the timber industry. The next round, he says, will be a battle over restrictions on private land. "I have kind of given up on the New Forestry battle. The Forest Service is going to do what it's going to do, and maybe it's the right thing, but there are an awful lot of people who would like to apply that kind of restriction to private forests, and I don't see the economics of that working out. A second issue is that people want to tie up the logging supply in old-growth and then propose to give it back through banning exports from private lands, so the idea makes a neat-sounding political solution."

Atkinson offers another prediction of what could happen: that the reduction of logging in the national forests will result in a major layoff of Forest Service personnel-the cadre of trained employees whose job it is to lay out timber sales and roads. He points out that much of the agency's other work-silviculture and wildlife -has been paid for by timber receipts. As those revenues disappear, silviculture and wildlife management will either have to find another source of funding or go out of business. "So what does that do to the job picture in forestry," he concludes, "and what does it mean for schools like ours?"

He notes that these are major considerations, "more important to forestry out here than anything that has happened in I-don't-know-when. We have the sense here that we are losing control over the local forest, that the control is passing to others, although you can argue that they have every right to speak. You can be cynical about it or say, Well, that's the democratic way.' It's pretty hard on us, but if you look at it in the context of, say, the closing of American military bases, this is pretty small potatoes compared to what other regions of the country are suffering. So we aren't going to win any battles based on closing down some timber towns, because the scale is relatively small.

"But this timber supply isn't small; it is a major source of wood for the country, and when that is shut off, there will be all kinds of other ripples--where else are we going to get that wood and what's going to happen in the process?"

Clearly, some splitting in the ranks is going on within New Forestry, and some softening of the opposition is occurring on the outside. Clearly also, there is a great deal of "old" in New Forestry, and its practice, still in flux, is yet unproven. But coupled as it is with the new RPA program and New Perspectives, New Forestry is a powerful force for change. The effects are already being felt.

As for the impact of New Forestry on old-growth forests, your guess is as good as mine at this point.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Gregg, N. Taylor
Publication:American Forests
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:2498
Previous Article:How much old-growth is left?
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