Times have changed. It used to be easy to talk about forest management. After all, we meant timber management — grow the best trees, with periodic thinnings to improve volume and value production, until they're ripe. Then, when the market is right, harvest and start over. We would say, "Sure, it takes time, but just think how rewarding it is to grow timber."
Well, it was never as simple as that. And yet we really did think: If you can't manage woodlands for timber, it's not worth much attention. In other words, we had lost sight of the forest for the trees. But times have changed.
Foresters have always known that woodlands are a complex mix of special organisms that require care and protection. Much of a forester's education is in the field of ecology. The secrets of our profession, guarded as tenaciously as other professions guard theirs, are knowing how to control disturbances in forests in such a way as to predict the outcome of a treatment while protecting the site from environmental degradation. The problem is we usually see only one resource—timber — and knowledge of the "right thing to do" is always tempered with market pressures. After all, how many owners will have work done on their land without the prospect of immediate income to offset the expense of professional services? Not many. Unfortunately, we value the services of foresters only to the extent their services yield income.
Another problem is that our science is imperfect. In spite of all we do know about forests, the sum of our knowledge is a sobering reminder of how much there is to know. We learn new things about forest processes at an arithmetic pace while the field of knowledge seems to grow at a geometric pace.
So what is new? Exactly how have times changed?
Finally we have begun to realize that maintaining the integrity of forest ecosystems is much more important than timber yields. The unfortunate term for this is "Ecosystem Management." What it means is this: an ecological approach to managing forests, an approach where timber yields are subordinate to ensuring a healthy, sustainable forest.
How is it done? Ironically, no one is quite sure. There are no guidelines. Nevertheless, most professionals who have been engaged in recent debates about ecosystem management agree on two things. First, it implies a movement toward holism, the idea that the forest is like an organism and the parts — from soil bacteria, to trees and animals — are interconnected in often subtle but important ways. Practices that change a part of the forest, like harvesting timber, have an impact on all organisms. Although we don't understand the exact nature of these relationships, a holistic approach means that we are at least mindful of them. It also means that, whenever possible, we try to protect other organisms from any negative impacts that may occur as a result of human actions.
Second, ecosystem management implies that humans are part of forest ecosystems. This is important because otherwise one could assume the best way to manage ecosystems is to leave them alone. We need forests as a source of wood, clean water, recreation, scenic beauty, inspiration, and, for some, a livelihood. In a sense, when we harvest timber from the forest, we are no different from other organisms that use the products of photosynthesis. The difference, of course, is we can understand the impacts of our activities and control them to minimize their effects on other organisms while maximizing human benefit. Stewardship is another word for almost the same idea.
What will change? Our state and local governments need to realize that taxing forestland as though it is held in inventory for development is a ridiculous and fatal policy. Then, and only then, will we succeed in convincing forest owners that owning land is not a sovereign right that confers a free hand to do with the land as they see fit. Much is said about landowner rights, when the debate should be about responsibilities. It is true we live in a great society that gives us rights to do most anything so long as it doesn't hurt others. The 'others' has traditionally meant people. But we have reached an age where we must recognize a larger responsibility to an "other" that means forest ecosystems—the biotic and environmental processes that define nature. In 1969, S.B. Hutchinson said, "Only when the abrahamic philosophy toward natural resources ceases to dominate the scene and the right to ownership is recognized as the right to careful use will completely adequate resource management be possible."
Finally, since ecosystems do not recognize property or political boundaries, cooperation is imperative. The well known writer and forester, Aldo Leopold, said in 1966, "[The] practice of conservation must spring from a conviction of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right only when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the community. The community includes the soil, waters, fauna and flora, as well as the people."
We all have a responsibility to know the forest as best we can and to work together to ensure that it remains healthy while continuing to provide human benefits.
Thom McEvoy is the University of Vermont extension forester.