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Climate & Energy
Understanding and Managing Forests as Ecosystems:
A Reflection on 60 Years of Change, and a View to the Anthropocene

Jerry F. Franklin

Jerry F. FranklinThere have been major revolutions in forestry, environmental affairs, and the wood products industry during my career. I was aware that things were changing and that I was participating in this process, but at the time I failed to appreciate the magnitude and direction of these changes in forest policy and management.

These past several years I have had to think deeply about the nature of these changes as my co-authors and I were completing a new textbook entitled “Ecological Forest Management.”1 The bottom line is that forestry is in an immensely different place and facing very different challenges than when I began my career 60+ years ago.

In this personal reflection I focus on three topics: 
  • First, how our view of forests has shifted from seeing them simply as collections of trees managed primarily to produce wood, to understanding them as complex, biologically-diverse ecosystems, which provide multiple ecological services and goods. 
  • Second, how this change in perspective has influenced forest policy, primarily but not exclusively on federal lands; this change is reflected in laws and regulations, as well as management plans. I will use the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) to illustrate the changes. 
  • Third, the challenges and opportunities provided by the arrival of the Anthropocene Epoch, which will certainly involve significant social changes as well as environmental. The social issues include highly polarized views about the meaning of the Anthropocene and how humankind should respond to it.
Forests as Ecosystems
When I was an undergraduate forestry student in the late 1950s, forests were viewed primarily as collections of trees and wood production as the primary object of forest management. Furthermore, the wood products industry was dominated by vertically-integrated corporations, which managed the most productive of our nation’s forest estate to provide raw materials for their mills.

Natural resource managers at that time had similar views of their missions. Foresters focused on wood production and developing optimal agronomically-based approaches for efficiently doing that.Wildlife managers focused on production of game species and a major tool was elimination of predators.2 Fisheries managers focused on commercial and sport fisheries; in their view every accessible body of water should be stocked with game fish, with no thought to impacts on other aquatic biota, including native fish.

There was no scientific basis at that time for any other perspective, even if a manager had wished to consider others. There was no body of ecosystem science to learn from or draw upon. Although much forest research had been conducted it was directed nearly exclusively to the goals of growing, harvesting and regenerating even-aged collections of young trees of commercially important species.

Today a large body of knowledge about forests as ecosystems does exist; it is a product of research conducted over the last 60 years much of it supported by the National Science Foundation, which supported the first generation of old-growth forest studies. They were extremely productive of important fundamental and practically relevant knowledge, identifying and documenting the complex structural features and functional capabilities of older natural forests. These pioneering studies were followed by many decades of additional research that dove deeply into structure (e.g., dead wood), processes (productivity), responses to disturbances (Mt. St. Helens), and ecosystem dynamics.3
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Emergence of Ecosystem Concept in Policy
In the 1960s ecosystem concepts were emerging into popular conscience even if not recognized precisely by that label as environmental issues emerged as a major social concern. This was certainly stimulated by the book, “Silent Spring.”4 There was a growing appreciation of that all things were ultimately connected!

The legislative consequences of this emerging awareness are obvious, with several laws passed that were relevant to forest policy: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). These laws made adoption of an ecosystem perspective imperative in managing federal lands.5

Society at large responded to the lessons of emerging ecosystem science more quickly than resource professionals, whose fundamental management premises were challenged by both the science and the laws. Much judicial intervention occurred before the full implications of these laws were realized and the Northwest Forest Plan (NWFP) was one of the defining outcomes of that legal jousting.

The Northwest Forest Plan
Determining the substantive requirements of ESA and NFMA ultimately involved legal challenges in federal courts. In the Pacific Northwest (PNW) an outcome was the suspension of further timber harvest activities on federal forest lands within the range of the northern spotted owl (NSO) in 1990. This set the stage for the NWFP in which the consequences of both science and policy were realized. As the most important federal forest region, a crisis was created that was ultimately addressed by newly elected President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Circumstances were challenging. The management agencies had lost credibility and a team of scientists (Forest Ecosystem Management Assessment Team or FEMAT) was given responsibility for analyzing the science and preparing alternatives for a subsequent NEPA-based EIS. President Clinton directed that all alternatives provided to him be scientifically sound and legal under existing law—the substantive outcome required by NFMA and ESA6 —in addition to providing a predictable and sustainable timber sale program. Notably, FEMAT was conducted as a closed rather than a publicly open process.

The existence of a substantial and current body of science was fortuitous. This science was focused on the natural forests of the region and associated streams and rivers, as well as on the ecology of focal species, such as the northern spotted owl. Further, the scientific community was prepared to grapple with issues at this scale because of several earlier scientific analyses: the Thomas Report on a scientifically credible plan for conservation of NSOs7 ; and the “Gang of Four” report8 commissioned by two Congressional committees and—at their request—focused on conservation of old-growth forests and endangered fish stocks as well as NSOs.

The NWFP revolutionized management priorities for federal forests, shifting the focus from timber production to ecological goals. It stopped timber harvesting in most remaining older forests and planned for restoration of large contiguous blocks of older forest habitat (Late Successional Reserves or LSRs). The NWFP recognized the essential linkages between forests and streams and included multiple strategies to retain and restore aquatic environments. FEMAT adopted a coarse-filter ecosystem-based approach to conserving biodiversity. FEMAT emphasized the need for flexible, adaptive management and creation of a network of Adaptive Management Areas where experiments could be undertaken.

The NWFP achieved much but also failed regarding key goals. For example it did not result in recovery of the NSO and primarily because of competition from the invasive barred owl. The NWFP has not been as adaptive as planned because agencies and stakeholders ultimately wanted certainty in terms of outcomes, such as land allocations and prescriptions, not the uncertainty implicit in adaptive management. The predicted levels of timber harvest have not occurred, partially because the coarse-filter strategy central to FEMAT was subverted by addition of Survey and Manage, a fine-filter screen for 427 species.

Importantly the NWFP did not mandate restoration of ecosystem integrity, including the array of successional stages needed to sustain the biodiversity and processes of PNW forest landscapes. Active management was permitted but not emphasized, excepting thinning of young stands in LSRs to speed their structural development. The NWFP did allow managers to undertake restoration of dry (frequent-fire) forest ecosystems in LSRs to more natural and resilient conditions but few managers chose to do so.

The NWFP immediately began undergoing change but primarily through internal decisions that were opaque to the public. For example, logging of older forests in the general management land allocation (Matrix) —a key element in the NWFP—was halted almost immediately by civil disobedience and legal challenges. Management agencies ultimately ceased attempting regeneration harvests in any age of forest and confined timber harvesting to thinning of younger stands.

Recently the NWFP has undergone significant change through publicly vetted processes conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The USFWS developed and adopted a recovery plan and designation of critical habitat for the NSO.9 The BLM developed and adopted new management plans for the O&C lands in western Oregon.10

The NWFP still needs significant revision to reflect changed realities and additional knowledge.11 One major need is to fully embrace the goals of restoring the integrity of ecosystems in both the moist forest (forests historically subject to wildfires with stand-replacement severity) and dry forest (forests historically subject to frequent, low-severity wildfires) landscapes of the PNW.12

Systematically planning to sustain well-distributed high-quality early successional or preforest ecosystems is the most important need in Moist Forest landscapes. It has become clear that much of the biodiversity associated with these landscapes occurs in the preforest ecosystems following disturbances.13 A revised NWFP needs a strategy for maintaining these disappearing habitats, primarily by variable-retention harvests in the immense acreage of existing plantations.14

The challenging task of restoring and maintaining resilient forest conditions in the dry forests needs to be aggressively embraced in a revised NWFP.15 A generic policy of retaining old trees is an appropriate principle in restoration because of their ecological and social significance.

The recovery plan for the NSO16 provides an excellent starting point for incorporating both the restorative moist and dry forest activities. Furthermore, both of these restorative efforts would be important contributions to preparing and adapting the federal forests to the expected effects of climatic change.

A key lesson we have learned about managing forests as ecosystems is that attempting to maximize management for any individual output will result in the marginalization or elimination of other important functions. Today on public lands we have largely moved beyond the notion that wood production is the overriding goal of forest management and other uses and values are merely by-products. Now proponents of other forest values—such as maximizing carbon sequestration—need to embrace the same difficult lesson. Managing forest to optimize any single function, condition, or species will result in marginalization or complete loss of other important ecosystem capacities; it will violate the principle of managing so as to maintain the fundamental integrity of the forest ecosystem. Natural forest ecosystems—our models for sustainable management—provide multiple values but maximize none.
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Challenges of the 21st Century: The Anthropocene
So what does all of this have to do with the Anthropocene? A lot, as it turns out. There is a growing need for ecosystem-based active management to restore ecosystem structure and function, create resilient forests and landscapes, provide economic and other social benefits, and create novel solutions when ecosystems undergo failure.

In one sense the Anthropocene simply labels a reality that human influences are now pervasive and generating global-level changes both directly and indirectly.

What the Anthropocene should make apparent are humankind’s responsibilities for sustaining the functional capabilities and biological diversity of the global ecosystems for their future potential as well as their current contributions to humankind. The challenges of maintaining ecological integrity, let alone species, is going to be immense, as is the critical need of providing for economic and other societal values. Ecosystem science will be one of the major sources of knowledge that we are going to need in order to do that.

But we are faced—yet again—with significant social challenges, including some folks with pretty extreme perspectives about how we ought to proceed! As usual, achieving social consensus is likely to be a greater challenge than the scientific and technical issues.

On one side there are those who believe “nature is dead” or at least irrelevant. They think that since we are now in the Anthropocene and humans are recognized as the dominant influence on global conditions and since truly natural ecosystems no longer exist, nature, natural models, and natural science are all irrelevant. Solutions to problems will be technical and human-created—we will bioengineer our way out of any problems of food, fiber, and everything else.

On the other side are individuals and organizations that would ignore our scientific knowledge in favor of passively leaving solutions to Nature. Their mantra is, “You foresters (and other natural resource managers) have screwed everything up. You need to stay out of the forest and let Nature restore the balance!” Seemingly, some would rather allow forests to burn catastrophically than see resilient conditions restored through application of established science.

This is illogical. Take the example of the frequent-fire forests, which under historical conditions rarely experienced stand-replacement fires. Human activities have altered all aspects of these ecosystems from their structure and composition to the environment within which they exist. Left on her own, Nature will respond to these altered conditions but the outcomes are likely to be undesirable from the standpoint of human values, including maintenance of the ecological integrity of the forest.We have accumulated significant scientific understanding and practical experience in the restoration of such forests and landscapes.Why would we not use our knowledge in collaborations with Nature so as to restore a more resilient (and natural) condition to the advantage of both the forest and society?

Nature—natural science—is not just relevant in the Anthropocene; in fact it will be essential to our succeeding in efforts to deal with environmental change. Recognition of the Anthropocene can, in fact, be seen as an opportunity—indeed an imperative—to undertake a new partnership between Humankind and Nature. In this partnership Humankind utilizes its scientific knowledge and significant powers to assist Nature to the advantage of both society and the ecosystems on which it depends.

Understanding forests as ecosystems provides us with the essential basis for managing forests for multiple-uses. This was the most important development in forest science, policy, and management in the 20th century. Using this knowledge will be essential as we address the unforeseen and largely unforeseeable challenges of forest conservation in the Anthropocene.

Dr. Jerry F. Franklin has spent more than 50 years studying forest ecology, primarily in the Pacific Northwest. He has been a researcher for the USDA Forest Service, and at Oregon State University and the University of Washington. He is considered one of the country’s leading authorities on sustainable forest management, and he is often called the “father of new forestry.”
Will Price and Nick Niles award Jerry Franklin the Pinchot Medallion
Institute President Will Price (left) awarded the Pinchot Medallion to Dr. Franklin with Nick Niles (right), Chair of the Institute’s Board of Directors.

Editor’s note: This article is based on the 2016 Pinchot Distinguished Lecture given by Jerry Franklin. Dr. Franklin was awarded the Pinchot Medallion in recognition of his extraordinary contributions to the science and practice of ecologically-sound forest management, and to major advances in our knowledge of the structure and functioning of old-growth forest ecosystems.

1 Franklin, Jerry F., K. Norman Johnson, and Debora L. Johnson. 2017. Ecological forest management. Chicago, IL: Waveland Press.
2 Leopold, Aldo. 1933. Game management. 481 p. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
3 Franklin, Johnson, and Johnson 2017.
4 Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
5 Skillen, James R. 2015. Federal ecosystem management. 348 p Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.
6 Ibid.
7 Thomas, J. W., E. D. Forsman, J. B. Lint, E. C. Meslow, B. R. Noon, and J. Verner. 1990. A conservation strategy for the northern spotted owl: a report of the Interagency Scientific Committee to address the conservation of the northern spotted owl. Portland, OR: USDA Forest Service, USDI Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service.
8 Johnson, K. N., J. F. Franklin, J. W. Thomas, and J. Gordon. 1991. Alternatives for management of late-successional forests of the Pacific Northwest. A report to the Agriculture Committee and Merchant Marine Committee of the U. S. House of Representatives. Corvallis, OR: College of Forestry, Oregon State University.
9 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2011. Revised recovery plan for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). 258 p. Portland, OR: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. US Fish and Wildlife Service. 2012. Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants: revised critical habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl. Federal Register 77(46): 14062-14165.
10 Bureau of Land Management. 2016a. Northwestern and Coastal Oregon Record of Decision and Approved Resource Management Plan. Coos Bay, Eugene, Salem Districts, and Swiftwater Field Office of Roseburg District. Portland, OR: USDI Bureau of Land Management. Bureau of Land Management. 2016b. Southwestern Oregon Record of Decision and Approved Resource Management Plan. Klamath Falls Field Office of Lakeview District, Medford District, and South River Field Office of Roseburg District. Portland, OR: USDI Bureau of Land Management.
11 Franklin, Jerry F., and K. Norman Johnson. 2012. A restoration framework for federal forests in the Pacific Northwest. Jour. Forestry 110: 429-439. Franklin, Jerry F., and K. Norman Johnson. 2013. Ecologically based management: a future for federal forestry in the Pacific Northwest. Jour. Forestry 111:429-432.
12 Franklin and Johnson 2012.
13 Swanson, Mark E., Jerry f. Franklin, Robert L. Beschta, Charles M. Crisafulli, Dominick A. DellaSala, Richard I. Hutto, David B. Lindenmayer, and Frederick J. Swanson. 2011. The forgotten stage of forest succession: early-successional ecosystems on forest site. Frontiers Ecology and Environment 9: 117-125.
14 Franklin and Johnson 2012.
15 Franklin and Johnson 2012; Franklin, Jerry F., K. Norman Johnson, Derek J. Churchill, Keala Hagmann, Debora Johnson, and James Johnston. 2013. Restoration of dry forests in eastern Oregon. Portland, OR: The Nature Conservancy.
16 USFWS 2011.
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