Nov Dec, 2003





Going for the Brass Ring

by Jerry F. Franklin, College of Forest Resources, University of Washington

Our 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 future conditions".

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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