CORVALLIS - The frequent gridlock in forest management planning may not be broken until the increasingly important role of social values is brought into play, experts say, with approaches that recognize different opinions, reflect public attitudes and generate a consensus among widely varying groups.
A new book on this and related topics, titled "Two Paths Towards Sustainable Forests," examines the way that both the United States and Canada are wrestling with similar issues and sometimes finding similar approaches that actually work - often at a local level, where laws and regulations receive less emphasis, and people talk one-on-one or in small groups to work through their differences.
The book, by researchers at Oregon State University, the University of New Brunswick and the University of California-San Diego, is one of the first to examine the social and economic aspects of sustainable forestry and its impact on policies in the two nations, its authors say.
"Most people believe that we need programs for sustainable forest management, but the problem is in how to agree on the specific components we want to sustain," said Bruce Shindler, an associate professor of forest resources at OSU and co-author of the book. "What's very interesting is that there are some good success stories we can point to. But they seem to be working in spite of the governmental agencies and environmental interest groups, not because of them."
Real success is being found mostly in places where the traditional conflicts between regulators, courts, private industry and environmental advocacy groups have been set aside while resource agencies and citizens work at the local level to achieve a compromise everyone can live with, Shindler said.
"For example, here in Oregon community residents and forest managers on the Deschutes National Forest have crafted a workable plan for 12,000 acres in the Metolius Basin," Shindler said. "It's using prescribed fire and thinning projects to help improve forest health and create jobs. The plan was made possible by enlightened federal agency leaders and concerned citizens like the Friends of the Metolius, all coming together to forge an acceptable solution."
This type of consensus, he said, was neither easy nor quick. It took several years of working together where people expressed their concerns, groups on all sides felt they were genuinely listened to, and the varying concerns about the forest were understood by virtually all participants.
According to Shindler, this type of open, public interaction to develop plans has too often been the exception, rather than the rule, in the history of modern forest management in the U.S. and Canada.
Public agencies that were used to developing their own plans based on multiple use management and timber extraction were slow to understand the compelling public demand for a more meaningful role for citizens. Essentially, people want to be heard and understand how decisions are made, he said.
"The questions about forest management are not just about ecology or economics," Shindler said. "We live in a political era, and in the end these decisions are about people and the resources that are important to their livelihood and quality of life."
"Researchers have learned that any plan that does not adequately take into account public concerns is going to eventually fail," Shindler said. "Some agencies have resisted this level of public participation because it's time consuming and cumbersome, but others have found there is really no short cut. In the 1980s there were more than 1,200 forest plans developed across the U.S., and about 80 percent of them were appealed, usually because they did not adhere to laws about providing adequate public access to the planning process. It was a time when trust between agencies and citizens was substantially eroded and we've been living with contentious relations ever since."
Both the U.S. and Canada are struggling with many of the same issues in this area, the book authors said. And some changes are happening. One significant development in Canada is a system of 11 "model forests" where local citizens have more voice and control over forest management activities. Local watershed councils are blossoming across much of the western U.S. and citizens are taking greater responsibility for outcomes on public and private lands. In the case of managing wildfires, many partnerships are beginning to emerge between resource agencies and citizen groups for creating defensible spaces and reducing forest fuel.
The authors point to several broad needs that must be addressed:
- A reform of government institutions is needed to eliminate many of the barriers between the agencies responsible for economic development, recreational services and environmental protection.
- Planning and management activities must be more integrated, working to eventually eliminate the boundaries between departments that manage timber, wildlife, and other resources.
- More experimentation with new ideas is needed, such as certification of "green" wood products or other incentive-based programs that encourage voluntary, environmentally-sensitive behavior.
- Federal governments must recognize that land management is not a "one size fits all" concept, and allow for more regional or local systems of ecosystem management.
- Civic discourse and public input should be given a "seat at the table" on a par with conventional science and regulatory management, because ultimately society will determine what it wants from forest plans.
- Forest agencies must be willing to work across traditional boundaries and even share power if necessary.
"Across both countries a number of incremental steps have been taken toward creating institutional change," the authors write. "They may have been slow and tentative, but there is evidence we are lurching ahead in the right direction."