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A Brief History of Healthy Forest Newspeak PDF Print E-mail
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Tuesday, 06 December 2005 13:32
A Brief History of Healthy Forest Newspeak

Jeff Juel - The Forest Service (and other government agencies) used to be caught up in what author Paul Hirt termed a ?Conspiracy of Optimism? meaning the government expected to provide, from our forests, all things to all people. ?Multiple Use? became a buzzword. The result was forests like the Kootenai National Forest, located in the northwest corner of Montana. It is the most heavily roaded and logged national forest in the state of Montana. Unfortunately, most of the other national forests in the state are just as heavily logged and roaded in many areas.

A Brief History of Healthy Forest Newspeak
Jeff Juel

December 7, 2005

Things came to a head in the public eye in the late 1980s when the old-growth issue heated up in the Pacific Northwest. It had become debatable whether or not wildlife species that depend on old-growth forests, such as the northern spotted owl, would continue to exist on the planet. Up to that time, the timber industry and its representatives dominating the agency had largely viewed old growth as merely decadent, slow-growing and in need of ?regeneration.?

Grudgingly acknowledging the public?s new aesthetic, scientific, and spiritual values, the Forest Service was making statements in recognition of those values. Terms such as ?New Forestry? and eventually ?Ecosystem Management? became all the rage.

By the early 1990s, citizens and environmental groups had become adept at forcing the agencies to face up to their failures to provide all things to all people, and administrative appeals and litigation succeeded in dramatically reducing the cut, at least in the Inland Northwest.

The timber industry, and its supporters in the government, fought back with a slick public relations campaign that can be summed up in two words: ?Forest Health.? From that day forward, all timber sales were cloaked in the rhetoric of improving ?forest health.? The trouble with the whole thing was that the agency still wasn?t learning the science of ecosystems. Natural, vital ecosystem processes such as fires and native tree pathogens such as bark beetles and fungus began to be portrayed as ?catastrophic?, ?unhealthy? and so forth. Contrast that view with a quote from a 1994 paper by Forest Service research scientist Alan Harvey and others:

??Pests are a part of even the healthiest eastside ecosystems. Pest roles?such as the removal of poorly adapted individuals, accelerated decomposition, and reduced stand density?may be critical to rapid ecosystem adjustment.?In some areas ?the ecosystem has been altered, setting the stage for high pest activity? This increased activity does not mean that the ecosystem is broken or dying; rather, it is demonstrating functionality, as programmed during its developmental (evolutionary) history.?

?Although usually viewed as pests at the tree and stand scale, insects and disease organisms perform functions on a broader scale.?

Especially beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing to this day, the issue of fire was exploited as an opportunity to get people to accept more logging. Logging to prevent so called ?uncharacteristic? fires. The degree and intensity of fires may be higher now, whether from global warming or from fire suppression or both, it?s debatable. Also, logging as ?rehabilitation? of burned forests. Wait a minute not so fast. From University of Montana?s Richard Hutto, bird biologist, in a 1995 paper:

?Fires are clearly beneficial to numerous bird species, and are apparently necessary for some? immediately after a major disturbance event, I detected a large number of species in forests that had undergone stand-replacement fires?Several bird species seem to be relatively restricted in distribution to early post-fire conditions??

A common Forest Service claim to virtue is to attempt to reproduce, following decades of fire suppression, the forest structural conditions that it considers representative of the range of historical conditions. That is, using thinning and other types of logging, to bring the forest to a density of live and dead trees to look like what a forest might have looked like in, say, 1880. A quote from another renowned University of Montana bird biologist, Riley McClelland, from about 1980 goes as follows:

?The snags-per-acre approach is not a long-term answer because it concentrates on the products of ecosystem processes rather than the processes themselves. It does not address the most critical issue--long-term perpetuation of diverse forest habitats. The processes that produce suitable habitat must be retained or reinstated by managers. Snags are the result of these processes (fire, insects, disease, flooding, lightning, etc.).?

However, to this day, all-out fire suppression remains one of the highest priorities when fires start anywhere on public lands. Do you see how this operates? Fight fires to set up a condition where the forest is said to be no longer healthy, then substitute logging for the effects of fires to increase ?forest health.? Unfortunately what?s left out are the natural processes that McClelland talks about, the very things that drive evolutionary change and species adaptation.

Our government land managers have a world view dominated by what I call the ?Manipulate and Control Paradigm.? The don?t like wilderness because the land gets put out of reach of management. Just last week the Forest Supervisor of the Kootenai National Forest decided to eliminate recommended wilderness from the draft of its Revised Forest Plan!

Our land managers embrace, and attempt to engender further in our culture, fear of natural processes such as fire and insects?a fundamental distrust of the natural world itself.

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, stated earlier this year at a Congressional hearing in Spokane, in addressing possible changes to the National Environmental Policy Act:

?To assess forest health of the National Forests and Grasslands in the Northern Region, one need only drive Interstate-90.?

Kimbell goes on an on with quotes like these:

?As you climb out of Livingston, you start noting all the dead pine in amongst the very cool rocks on the pass. As you drive into Butte, you ? fervently hope a lightning bolt doesn?t strike anywhere near. Going further west, you?ll note acres and acres of burned forest. ?Keep driving I-90 down the Clark Fork River through Missoula and then on to Superior. There you will see pockets or hillsides of dead trees or trees exhibiting stress as you continue on up the pass. Perhaps the toughest sight is the big sign ?Welcome to Idaho? with the spectacular backdrop of extensive stands of dead trees. ?My point here is that the forest health issue is real and the impacts are extensive.?

The underlying message is not educational, not to teach us how to live amidst this wonderful, still somewhat wild forest we find here. No, the underlying message is, ?Be afraid. Don?t trust the natural word? and most importantly, ?We, the government, have the solution to these forest health problems.?

But when the doctor has proven to be a politically-compromised quack, isn?t it time to find another doctor? One that has a much more holistic world view?

I finish with a quote from scientists Chris Frissell and David Bayles (1996):

?Most philosophies and approaches for ecosystem management put forward to date are limited (perhaps doomed) by a failure to acknowledge and rationally address the overriding problems of uncertainty and ignorance about the mechanisms by which complex ecosystems respond to human actions. They lack humility and historical perspective about science and about our past failures in management. They still implicitly subscribe to the scientifically discredited illusion that humans are fully in control of an ecosystemic machine and can foresee and manipulate all the possible consequences of particular actions while deliberately altering the ecosystem to produce only predictable, optimized and socially desirable outputs. Moreover, despite our well-demonstrated inability to prescribe and forge institutional arrangements capable of successfully implementing the principles and practice of integrated ecosystem management over a sustained time frame an at sufficiently large spatial scales, would-be ecosystem managers have neglected to acknowledge and critically analyze past institutional and policy failures. They say we need ecosystem management because public opinion has changed, neglecting the obvious point that public opinion has been shaped by the glowing promises of past managers and by their clear and spectacular failure to deliver on such promises.?

Jeff Juel has been on staff with the Lands Council, served on their board of directors and on the board of the Friends of the Clearwater, and is in his fifteenth year with the Ecology Center based in Missoula, Montana. You can reach him at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or view the Ecology Center website at: http://www.wildrockies.org/teci/

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 December 2005 13:32

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