Going for the Brass Ring
by Jerry F. Franklin, College
of Forest Resources, University of Washington
federal forest and rangelands are one of the great treasures of this country.
They provide extraordinary opportunities and resources and, in many senses,
distinguish our society. Nevertheless, the management of these lands has been
extraordinarily contentious during the last 25 years, with struggles over the
relative emphasis on production of commodities and on amenities, including such
essential services as watershed protection. Unfortunately, I think that the
"dead hand" of the 20th century policy wars may be preventing many stakeholders
from seeing the immense changes that are occurring in both the context for and
the challenges of federal forest management in the 21st century.
The importance of federal forests
as a major supplier of critical environmental goods and services will certainly
increase in the 21st century with the expansion of our consumptive society.
These include: open space and recreational opportunities; habitat for native
wildlife, large and small; and services, such as sequestration of carbon.
However, production of high-quality, well-regulated supplies of water will
likely be the federal forests greatest contribution. Some goods supplied by
federal forests in the 20th century will be much less important—most
particularly, wood. At the national and global level, federal forests will not
be needed as a major source of wood. In fact, profitably marketing federal
timber will be difficult in the globalized wood products marketplace which
international corporations are developing to provide the bulk of the wood
products needed by the developed world.
As dictated by global competition,
wood production will move to where the lowest per unit costs of production can
be achieved—by fiber farming in southern temperate regions. The pluses and
minuses of the 21st century corporate approach can be debated, but not in this
short column; suffice it to say that a globalized wood products industry exists
and will likely dominate markets for the next 50 to 100 years. The loss of
markets for North American wood will contribute to difficulties in dealing with
our major 21st century management challenge on federal (as well as other)
forests, where production of wood can help accomplish essential stewardship.
Responsible stewardship is our greatest societal challenge on federal forests in
the 21st century.
Issues that must be dealt with to
keep these forests healthy and functioning are many and continuing, such as
reducing fuel loadings in forests currently at risk of uncharacteristically
intense wildfire as the result of past human activities, including fire
suppression. Complex forest structure needs to be restored on tens of thousands
of acres where plantations were substituted for natural forests and wildlife
habitat is now in short supply. Everywhere our forests are threatened by
increasing numbers of exotic pests and pathogens; in eastern hardwood forests
scarcely a tree species exists that does not now have a virulent imported
disease or insect. Active stewardship—human collaboration in and with the forest
ecosystems—is essential and will be increasingly so to achieving our "desired
These are the conditions that will
sustain outputs that are essential to our 21st century society including, most
particularly, the well-regulated, high-quality flows of water from the federal
lands. Much activity will be needed. Humans have created a very altered world
where we can’t simply leave it to nature—left to her own devices, nature will
make adjustments in the unstable ecosystems that we have created but this would
come with unacceptable losses of important values, such as water quality and
critical wildlife habitat. There are many challenges in carrying out the active
stewardship that is required.
How do we train and retain the
knowledgeable work force that is needed to plan and carry out the stewardship?
How do we expand the knowledge base that is needed, such as through scientific
research and sustained monitoring of forest functions and organisms? Where will
we get the adequate and sustained funding needed to carry out the stewardship?
However, the most critical challenge is creating broad societal support for
active management of the federal forests. Resource agencies and professionals
have lost much of their credibility and social license as a result of over 50
years of management emphasizing commercial wood production.
There are suspicions regarding the
real motivations behind such programs as the "Healthy Forests Initiative" and
this distrust has a historical basis. Regaining social trust of and a broad
commitment to active management of federal lands is the "brass ring" for which
all of us—and most particularly, this administration— need to be reaching. The
really important issue is and always has been the need for active management,
not clearcutting or commercial timber production. Short-cutting environmental
assessments and public participation will not build trust. Categorically taking
big, old trees and roadless areas off the table would be a big step in building
trust that "healthy forests" is really about stewardship and not commodities.
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