My friend Ehrhard Frost, who is on the Membership and Policy Council of The Forest Guild and a practicing Guild forester in Vermont, recently posed a question that gets to the heart of what ecological forestry is all about:
"What can or should we extract from the forest and still maintain those functions, processes, and critical interrelations that make up the forest ecosystem?"
It's an interesting question because the answer depends on our own values as much as on our understanding of ecological terms and forestry practices. In fact, it can't really be answered at all until those values are examined alongside each other, and the intersection itself between markets and meaningful environmental outcomes becomes a shared value.
We can extract a great deal from our forests - biomass for biofuels, low and high value timber and finished wood products, non-forestry resources like medicinal herbs and game - but within limits and not necessarily all at the same site if we value the forest's other significant attributes. Carbon sequestration; surface and ground water filtration; a full expression of healthy native forest habitats from vernal pools to wilderness; scenic and recreational qualities; and our own spiritual renewal are among the many forest values that may never end up in a forester's cutting plan or addressed at appropriate scales to be sustained over time.
Those committed to ecological forestry believe that both economic and ecological values can be mutually encouraged through best management practices that address the whole forest and not just in terms of marketable board feet of timber, but we have a long way to go before these values become mainstream. Most of us have a hard time even seeing the forest for what it is and recognizing the range of values that ecological forestry can provide. We either see the scars of skid trails and stumps or we see short-term gains and profit; there is not much in between these opposing perspectives.
In southern New England where I live and work, the number of forest land owners has doubled yet we now lose more forest cover to development than we replace through succession. This means that larger parcels get divided into smaller units, now averaging less than 40 acres in size. Few landowners interested in active forestry are willing to wait for 80 -130 years to grow the highest value trees. Many have purchased land that already has mature hardwoods and white pine that are worth enough to harvest now, and some unscrupulous foresters and loggers are more than willing to part these landowners from their timber at a fraction of its value and leaving little for the future forest.
The sustainable forestry practices employed in ecological forestry place value on more than the commodification and availability of forest resources. They consider them more than just crops. They include setting aside some large forested areas as ecological reserves where little or no commercial forestry will take place to develop characteristics only found in older growth areas. They often mimic natural processes and disturbance regimes. In the oak/hickory, transitional and northern hardwood forests of the Litchfield Hills, they emphasize diversity in tree species' composition and structure, habitat connectivity and the dynamics of forest succession. They recognize the need to diversify forest products and expand their markets as an important goal but not the only bottom line.
With multiple values come trade-offs, and yet often it is possible to meet shared objectives. The key - and this is a critical and difficult step - is to build consensus around desired outcomes. Which forest values are shared, what is their relative contribution to shared goals, and how they can be promoted sustainably? A forester does not often get the chance to have this conversation with all the landowners who share a forest system, nor do forest landowners often have the opportunity to see their trees in the context of the larger forest system that extends across property lines. It is a virtual certainty in this situation that short-term economic considerations will trump the other values promoted by ecological forestry; 30% of all cutting plans in Massachusetts are "short-term" harvests, even after a concerted effort on the part of the Commonwealth to dissuade landowners from this practice.
Community forests can play an important role in defining these shared goals and promoting the dual bottom line of economic and ecological benefits. Assets owned by towns and stewarded for the benefit of the community and what it values, they can become models of ecological forestry. State forest lands - 500,000 acres in Massachusetts - can and should reflect the highest standards of environmental stewardship and high quality silviculture. Not in every park and parcel, but as part of a statewide forest management plan, it is possible for values based forestry to grow to its full potential.