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Professional Ethics in Forestry - Serving People while Promoting a Land Ethic
Fred Clark
Image credit: Flickr user dbrandsma CC BY NC ND 2.0

Much like medicine, the professions of forestry and natural resource management bring technical knowledge and skills to the service of society. And, as in medicine, the moral and ethical dimensions that underpin professional practice are always present, even if their implications are not always completely clear.

An estimated 11 million private forest owners control 56% of the forestland in the United States. 92% of those owners are considered family forest owners who collectively control 62% of the country’s private forestland.1

Image credit: BLM CC BY 2.0 For most families forest ownership is a leisure-time pursuit focused around recreation and family-oriented activities. Although they may be very interested in the best outcomes for their lands, the skills, assets, and time required to manage forestland is simply beyond the ability of most forest owners to acquire.

In this environment, forest practitioners play an essential role as a source of trusted expertise. Much like an attorney, a country veterinarian, or a crop consultant, practitioners provide advice, guide owners in decision-making, estimate and project growth and income, navigate state and federal programs, and implement practices including timber harvests, tree planting, and silvicultural practices.

For those family forest owners committed to sustainable forest stewardship— to leaving the land better than when they found it—the role of the public service forester, industry procurement forester, and the private forest consultant are invaluable. And those professionals have a unique challenge in working with forests and owners with such varied relationships to land.

As in any profession, the engagement between practitioner and client has an important ethical dimension. A key question for any practitioner is: whose interest is being served? In medicine for example, professional societies such as the American Medical Association adopt and enforce codes of practice that protect both the interests of patients or clients and, by extension, the integrity of the profession.

The ethical dimensions of professional practice in private forestlands and family forests are multi-faceted and complex, and at times they can seem to be conflicting.

The sometimes complementary and sometimes competing interests around private forestland are driven in part by the employment and inherent obligations of professionals. Whose interests should take precedence often depends on the obligations, the relationships, and to some extent the personal ethics and values of the practitioner.

Federal and state agencies, like USDA NRCS and the Oregon Department of Forestry, can help family forest owners access the benefits of a consulting forester through technical and financial assistance programs. Image credit: Oregon Department of Forestry CC BY 2.0 Service foresters working for state or local governments provide valuable services to forest owners, however that service comes with strings—the obligation to protect the interest of taxpayers or the larger social benefits tied to the programs they administer. Likewise, foresters employed by the forest industry may assist owners with a range of activities such as wildlife management or tree planting. However, their obligation is fundamentally tied to the supply needs of a wood products business. Neither of these affiliations prevent positive outcomes from occurring. The most important characteristic of the relationship however is transparency about the interests being represented.

Independent foresters (also known as private or consulting foresters) work for and primarily serve the interests of their clients. A truly independent forester has no incentive to favor one government program over another or one forest business over another when advising clients on decisions around forest management.

But what obligation do any of these professionals have to advocate for the interests of the land itself?

Should it be a responsibility of natural resource practitioners, regardless of their other obligations or the source of their paychecks to ask of themselves, “what is best for the land I am entrusted to manage?”

In the United States, the concepts of land conservation have roots going back to the early 20th Century. Aldo Leopold expanded on the more utilitarian emphasis of conservation with his concept of a Land Ethic. Leopold wrote: “A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of land.” 2

But how do practitioners resolve their commitments to a land ethic when the needs, desires, or interests of the owners of that land may, or may seem to, run counter to that ethic?

The Forest Stewards Guild is a professional society whose principles include an obligation known as the First Duty Principle. The First Duty Principle states that, “A forester’s or natural resource professional’s first duty is to the forest and its future.” 3 The First Duty principle obliges Guild members to educate, advocate, or if necessary disassociate from situations that would result in unsustainable outcomes.

The ethical obligation to the forest and to the practitioner’s employer do not have to be mutually exclusive. In most situations, skilled, experienced professionals can adhere to both obligations without conflict. In situations where conflicts in these ethics do occur, they can often be resolved with skill, respect, and patience, particularly when all parties are willing to step back to consider broader contexts and longer time horizons.

Regardless of where they see their primary allegiance, much depends on the skills and willingness of practitioners to educate and advocate for sustainable outcomes, outcomes that may actually be in the best interests of a forest owner.

A practitioner comes to a relationship from a privileged position—not just with technical skills, but presumably with the ability to see potential risks and benefits that would be unknowable to a person lacking such experience. And so for example, an ethical doctor will not write prescriptions for narcotics simply because the patient asks for it. The reasons to deny such a request might rest in equal parts on a duty of care for the health of the patient, an obligation to avoid harm to others or to society, and to protect the integrity of the profession itself.

Natural resource professionals may draw on the same considerations to respond to the needs or requests of forest owners.

The need to reconcile short-term desires with long-term interests is especially acute in the case of forest owners with limited experience or history of ownership, where the likelihood of unrealistic expectations can be high. The ability to identify scenarios that are either inherently counter-productive, or for which the short-term benefits may be outweighed by long-term costs is a true test of a professional.

Will the cash offer for standing timber today result in a poor-quality forest tomorrow and a decrease in land value that offsets the timber income? Will implementing a longer term plan with more predictable income and expenses, and gradually increasing stocking levels, actually improve the asset value and the pleasurable use of the property for future generations? In most cases the answer will be yes, and when presented with information about those alternatives most owners will choose a course that’s better for their children and the land.

Professional foresters help landowners steward their forest for the long term. Image credit: Tracy Rubillard/USDA NRCS CC BY ND 2.0 Professionals committed to working for the health of land, and serving the best interests of their clients have a powerful opportunity to align those interests through their practice. Establishing trust through honest and transparent dealings, and educating owners with a skilled assessment of opportunities and threats are foundational steps. The trust that develops from such effective relationships can allow a practitioner to influence sustainable outcomes with families over multiple generations—a highly satisfying experience for both parties.

But it also takes effort by both parties to achieve positive outcomes that are good for the land and for people.

Practitioners with an overly-rigid paradigm, or who are not attentive to the owner’s long-term interests, will have difficulty developing a fully trusting relationship. Such relationships do not always last.

Forest owners primarily motivated by immediate economic returns, or just a simpler notion of land utility that rejects the idea of inherent values in healthy lands, may be unlikely to follow recommendations or invest in conservation practices that do not immediately advance their short-term goals.

A compounding factor that often drives unsustainable outcomes for forestland even by owners who would otherwise pursue a more conservative approach is a short-term need for income, often triggered by a family crisis.4 When a sale of timber occurs to fulfill such a need, the urgency of the situation may lead to multiple decisions that result in destructive outcomes that reduce the overall value of land. (The same pressures can affect institutional forest owners as well).

An ethical practitioner’s role in that case would be to clearly lay out the consequences of a given alternative, to explore other alternatives to achieving short term goals, and if necessary to attempt to mitigate undesirable effects of a less-than-optimal course.

For practitioners committed to serving both the interests of land and land owners, there will always be occasions when both interests can not be sustained, at least not fully. In those cases, the professional may need to make a choice about the best course of ethics. Serve the owner’s interests first? Advocate for a different outcome with the owner, and if unsuccessful refuse the work? Both choices are clear expressions of values.

These difficult decisions are telling in reflecting values of a professional, and in establishing their reputation. But perhaps the most telling mark of a professional’s success is how often and how fully he can chart an ethical course that brings the interests of forest owners and land health into the same frame.

Fred Clark is the Executive Director of the Forest Stewards Guild in Madison, Wisconsin.

1 Butler, Brett J. 2008. Family Forest Owners of the United States, 2006. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-27. Newtown Square, PA: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.
2 Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. New York: Oxford University Press.
3 Forest Stewards Guild Mission and Principles. http://www.forestguild.org /mission-principles.
4 http://www.pinchot.org/gp/FHHHI
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