Deterrents and obstacles
Lack of national and regional policy
The Northeast could benefit from comprehensive, integrated national, regional, and state policies that help inform the general public and private landowners about the value of older forest and that support voluntary approaches to older forest conservation. Such integration is lacking at present.
In the Great Lakes region, a lack of national and regional policy is a challenge to achieving a coherent conservation framework for older forests. Public agencies need to recognize that they have a unique opportunity to provide leadership in managing old growth, managing older forests on public lands, and demonstrating silvicultural techniques. States and other public entities have a lot of experience to share about old growth, but state and county jurisdictional boundaries limit the opportunity to facilitate regional discussions. Public agencies must work with private forest landowners to encourage regional old-growth restoration and conservation.
The Southeast needs policies that recognize regional benefits of older forests and encourage conservation to maximize those benefits. Although public agencies have subsidized reforestation of cutover private land in the Southeast for many years, there has been little or no effort to help private landowners sustain older forests. Policy-makers must consider economic tradeoffs as they develop strategies for conserving older forests.
The Pacific Northwest currently has no national or regional policy that protects all of the current old growth and produces sustainable levels of timber to support the economies of local communities. The Northwest Forest Plan allows cutting of old growth, but relatively little has been cut since the Plan was implemented. Consequently, timber production has been well below expected levels, and much timber is currently produced from thinning in plantations, not from cutting older forest. Once these plantations become too old (80 yrs) in about 30 years, the level of timber production will fall unless some older forest is cut or another strategy is used that meets the multiple demands on the federal forests more effectively.
National and regional policies are in place to support restoration of the ponderosa pine ecosystem of the Southwest, but they haven’t been tested, and they exist in a context of previous policies, decisions, and agency cultural traditions. The obstacles are the implementation and monitoring of projects. To address what it perceived as environmental review processes that slow and obstruct action, Congress and the agencies have changed the environmental review processes. Congressional hearings in the summer of 2006 revealed that those authorities are just beginning to be applied, and it is unclear how well the changes have achieved their objectives of reducing appeals and accelerating action. Congress should monitor application of the environmental review process to see if the anticipated goals are being achieved. Congress should provide funding for public outreach and planning to rebuild trust in federal agencies by interest groups.
Lack of social agreement
In the Northeast, a major challenge is how to balance public values associated with older forests across a region with such a diverse land-use history and ownership pattern. A question that hasn’t been answered or even proposed is whether, as a society, the people of the region want older forest relegated only to public lands, or whether they want private forest owners to help keep it well distributed throughout the region. As things stand now, they can expect to look increasingly to public lands for maintaining older forest and are relying on a few progressive private landowners willing to make modest financial sacrifices to contribute to the public good. Other landowners may follow suit if they see that such strategies are economically feasible, but for this to happen, there must be a strong consensus across society that it’s important.
In the Great Lakes region, the need to reintroduce fire into forests provides a good example of the need for social agreement. Reintroduction of fire is necessary to maintain pine and oak forests and help make those forests more resilient to change. Yet managers face severe constraints on the use of fire as a tool. Some of this is due to lack of ecological and silvicultural understanding about the roles of fire in various forest types, but lack of public acceptance is a serious constraint.
Many people have a deeply ingrained conviction that forest fires are always a bad thing, and some fear that they may get out of control and destroy houses and other property. These beliefs have a historical basis in the Great Lakes region, where the worst recorded wildfire in U.S. history, the Peshtigo fire of 1871, consumed 1,800 square miles of forest, destroyed twelve towns, and killed an estimated 1,500 people in Michigan and Wisconsin.
In the Southeast, apathy is first and foremost among many obstacles that stand in the way of conserving older forests. For society to commit to conserving older forests, the public must recognize and agree that they have value. But as older forests have declined in the region, fewer people understand what they are and why they are valuable. Because the southeastern landscape is so highly fragmented and there is so little public land, conservation of older forests from a regional or landscape perspective will require multi-ownership cooperation and coordination. Managers of public and private lands must develop synergistic approaches that integrate the small remaining remnants of older forests with younger forests that surround them and stands that have some older forest. This kind of comprehensive and integrated effort will require a level of social agreement that doesn’t exist in the region today.
The Pacific Northwest is relatively rich in older forests, but there are opportunities for improvement. On federal lands, they could include:
protecting all remaining old growth
increasing efforts to reduce risk of loss of remaining old growth from fire
increasing the area of forests treated to restore old-growth structures and processes; developing more effective long-term strategies to provide for old growth as well as other forest types and forest values, i.e. more sustainable approaches.
On state lands, improvements could include developing old-growth conservation goals and strategies. On private lands, they could involve protecting or restoring old-growth types that aren’t well represented on public lands, such as oak woodlands, and developing management strategies that include long rotations or higher retention levels of older forest elements.
A serious barrier to these improvements is lack of social agreement on how much old growth is desirable and where it should occur. Landowners in the Pacific Northwest have very diverse goals and, given the predominance of federal lands, it’s not clear how much they should contribute to old growth conservation.
Related social barriers include:
lack of understanding of what’s needed to maintain and restore old-growth diversity and processes in disturbance-prone landscapes that limits the willingness of the public and some managers to develop more effective long-term strategies
lack of trust in agencies that seek to manage actively in new ways to meet diverse goals
lack of public dialogue because debates often haven’t been civil nor really designed to reach agreement on how to manage forests.
In the Southwest, hands-off preservationist strategies that originated in the 1960s were effective when logging was the biggest threat to old growth in frequent-fire forests. However, this isn’t an effective approach to conserving older forests today—active restoration is needed. Agreement must be reached about such key questions as whether such active restoration will involve a one-time intervention or repetition over prescribed time frames and whether wildfire will be allowed to burn or prescribed burning will be used. This will require social agreement.
Public understanding of issues and proposed solutions is a necessary prerequisite for social agreement. A definition of old growth in the frequent-fire ecosystems of the Southwest is critical to such an understanding. Attempts to transfer definitions developed from experience with the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest to the semiarid ponderosa forests of the Southwest have confused forest managers, policymakers, and the public. This confusion must be dispelled to achieve the kind of social agreement that is needed for effective conservation and restoration of the region’s older forests.
This is a chapter from Beyond Old Growth (report).
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