Taking sides on restoration on the Mark Twain

Here we have a timber sale controversy without either the timber industry or the ‘radical environmentalists.’  It just struck me as a good example of how the Forest Service can keep its eyes on the prize more easily, and fend off local public criticism, by having a relatively objective and measurable benchmark of ecological integrity to meet for a national forest (as established by the 2012 Planning Rule).

Late last year, the couple learned that the Forest Service has proposed returning 18,000 acres in the forest’s Cassville unit to pre-settlement conditions, a time when the forest was much more open and trees were spaced much farther apart, thinned by occasional fires, compared with the denser stands of timber in the area today.

To that end, the federal agency responsible for the 1.5 million-acre Mark Twain National Forest is proposing thinning the number of trees in an area known as Butler Hollow, removing invasive cedars and restoring glades and savannahs. The plan includes riparian plantings, prescribed burns, some for-profit timber sales as well as a technique called cut and leave.

But this is not a controversy that pits conservationists and environmentalists against public land managers. In fact, the project has the backing of several national groups including the Nature Conservancy, the American Bird Conservancy and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Those three groups issued a joint position statement endorsing the project, which said the plan “employs science and sound conservation practices to provide direct benefits to people and nature.” Benefits, according to the advocates, would be a healthier forest ecosystem as well as timber to help support the local economy, and improved recreational opportunities.

“We are concerned that some recent criticism of the project is based on an assumption that the area was dense forest. Data show that the area was originally a far more diverse complex of woodlands and glades,” the statement reads.

But JoNell Corn says to return the forest to pre-settlement conditions is “not a proven science.” Corn has lived in Butler Hollow for 38 years, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, who put down roots here in the 1850s.

“I have spent hours visiting other project areas and have had people express to me that they are not concerned with what it looked like before settlers came, they just wish it would look like it did before the USFS started cutting and burning,” she said.

Missouri’s U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt is another skeptic. During an Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies hearing this spring, he questioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell about plans for the Mark Twain National Forest.

“I don’t want to spend our time and effort here in doing things that won’t work,” said Blunt in the hearing, which was documented by video and can be seen online. “In theory with some of these burns, you’re trying to restore a landscape from a couple hundred years ago. Surely it’s worth a little time to see the science to whether that’s even possible or not and I’m just asking you to work harder with us.”


  1. This and other federal forest management issues reminds me of the following paper. I think there is a lesson here as we yearn for the “ancient” forests of bygone days. All too often, I think we yearn for a myth.

    Ancient Forests of the Sierra Nevada
    Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D.
    Texas A&M University

    The future of ancient forests in the Sierra Nevada is in doubt. A dangerous myth is guiding us toward an ecological future that will harm the flora, fauna and people of the Sierras. Flawed reasoning and an ignorance of history and ecology have led some people to believe that humans are not part of nature. They believe that humans are inherently destructive and that beauty can only be found in dehumanized landscapes. Such misanthropic beliefs form the foundation of many environmental organizations that advocate preserving millions of acres of Sierra Nevada forests within a collection of old-growth reserves. These reserves will eliminate nearly all timber harvesting on federal lands, with devastating consequences to local communities. They also will fail to ensure the future of old-growth forests. By excluding people these environmental organizations are unwittingly subscribing to the Jurassic Park syndrome a false and dangerous faith in the ability of humans to preserve bits of nature by isolating them from the rest of the world.

    Ironically, excluding people from nature is an unnatural change that will ultimately destroy the ecological communities that environmentalists wish to preserve. The best example of this destruction can be found in the rapidly deteriorating old-growth forests within Sierra Nevada national parks. Humans have played a natural and decisive role in guiding evolutionary change. The oldest records of human activity and technology date back 2.6 million years from material found in Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, and the Omo Valley in southern Ethiopia. Since that time humans used tools and fire to help shape and maintain the plant and animal communities that today’s environmentalists wish to preserve. Humans were an integral part of the forces of nature. Erecting barriers that exclude people removes this natural force and begins chains of events that create new and artificial ecological communities. Locking up forests within dehumanized reserves radically alters nature to satisfy the esthetic taste of one segment of society.

    What is needed is a better understanding of the structure and dynamics of ancient forests. This knowledge is essential because ancient forests can serve as a model for managing future forests of the Sierra Nevada to maintain biological diversity and sustain economic prosperity. The dynamics of ancient Sierra Nevada forests also can teach us about the potential adverse consequences of setting aside forest reserves that exclude people.


    Our knowledge of the ancient or presettlement forests of the Sierra Nevada is growing rapidly. Information sources include fossils, pollen studies, eyewitness descriptions by early settlers, scientific reconstruction using existing plant material, and scientific deductions drawn from experiments and observations. These sources converge to form a coherent picture of the structure and function of ancient forests. Our knowledge is most complete for the mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada. These forests form a wide belt located between 2500 and 9000 feet in elevation along the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. The principle species are white fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, incense cedar, giant sequoia, Douglas fir, red fir, Jeffrey pine and black oak.

    The ancient mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada formed a complex and dynamic mosaic of plant and animal communities. In 1894, John Muir described the ancient forest: “The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more or less apart in groves, or in small irregular groups enabling one to find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through openings that have a smooth, park-like surface.” He also referred to the ground around the trees as “flowery”. These and other early descriptions portray the ancient forest as a mosaic of even-aged groups of trees – some old and some young – with openings carpeted with wildflowers and patches of shrubs.

    Dr. Edward C. Stone (University of California-Berkeley) and I conducted the first detailed studies to verify the group structure of ancient forests observed by early explorers. We used pattern analysis to show that these early observations were accurate. The even-aged groups of trees in ancient forests, which we named aggregations, were generally less than 0.2 acres in size.

    A persistent myth about ancient forests is that they were composed mostly of large, old trees. Old trees were present, but young and middle-aged trees, shrubs and wildflowers also were a prominent part of the ancient forest. For example, our study of the entire Redwood Creek watershed in Kings Canyon National Park showed that aggregations of saplings and seedlings covered 28 percent of the watershed when it was ancient forest. Aggregations of pole-size trees covered 15 percent of the watershed, and 19 percent was covered by shrubs. Only 18 percent was covered by aggregations of large old trees when it was an ancient forest. The remainder of the watershed consisted of meadows, gaps and rocks. Clearly, setting aside forest reserves that are dominated by large old trees cannot be justified as preserving ancient forests.

    Combining Dr. Stone and my studies with the work of other scientists reveals that the ancient forest mosaic changed continuously. Trees in each group in the mosaic grew older, died and were replaced by other trees, shrubs or wildflowers. Lightning, fire, insects, animal populations, disease, landslides and other forces accelerated the process by thinning or destroying groups of trees. The most powerful force was fire.

    Fires were frequent in ancient mixed-conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada. Studies of fire scars in tree rings show that one or two fires burned each decade in some places, but fire free intervals could last thirty years. Since fires were frequent enough to clean up most of the debris on the forest floor, they generally burned as low-intensity surface fires. Large wildfires were extremely rare. However, ancient fires occasionally flared up and killed groups of large trees. These hot spots opened gaps in the forest that provided opportunities for young trees to grow. Fires also removed understory trees and they recycled nutrients needed by the plants.

    Fires and other disturbances maintained the mosaic structure and dynamic character of ancient mixed-conifer forests. Aggregations continually changed in relation to each other in both space and time as the trees grew older and were replaced by younger trees. We can visualize this process with the aid of a checkerboard.

    The checkerboard is a mosaic of squares and each square can be considered to be occupied by a group of trees that are all the same age. However, the age of the trees differ on each square. Seedlings cover one square, large old trees cover another and still another is covered by pole-sized trees. As time passes, the large old trees are killed by fire and are replaced by seedlings, and the pole-size trees become large old trees. Thus, the old trees appear to float around the mosaic over time. Fire drove this process by clearing squares on the checkerboard.

    Many people erroneously think that lightning was the principal source of fire in ancient forests. Scientific evidence shows that Indian burning played a decisive role in creating and maintaining ancient Sierra Nevada forests and other forests throughout North America. For example, Dr. Bruce Kilgore and Dan Taylor (US National Park Service) found that the frequency of fires declined dramatically after 1875 in the Redwood Creek watershed in Kings Canyon National Park. This is about the time that the local Monache Indian culture disappeared. This decline in fires also occurred long before the initiation of an effective fire suppression program. Since the number of lightning fires remained constant before and after 1875, they concluded that “aboriginal ignitions augmented the lightning caused ignitions to give us the frequencies we have found.” There is no doubt that human hands helped to fashion the ancient forests of the Sierra Nevada.

    Indians burned the forest to regenerate and protect black oak trees that produced the acorns that were their principal source of food. They also used fire to flush game and to clear underbrush that could hide their enemies. Scientists have documented seventy different reasons why Indians used fire to manage vegetation. Indians were intelligent and sophisticated managers of their environment.

    The role of Indians as a natural force in the Sierras started at least 4,500 years ago, and probably much earlier. Indian burning was not confined to a few small areas. A.B. Elsasser (US National Park Service) said that, “We now know that almost all of the Sierra Nevada, from the remotest canyons to the highest peaks, were known and probably visited by the Indians.” Over these many thousands of years of extensive Indian management the ancient forest gradually evolved into the condition that was described by European explorers and admired by John Muir. Unfortunately, eliminating the Indians created a shock wave that began the dramatic deterioration of ancient forests throughout the Sierra Nevada.


    Ancient forests of the Sierra Nevada have undergone pronounced changes since they were first seen by European explorers. Large quantities of debris have accumulated on forest floors and many forests are choked with thickets of understory trees. Protected forests no longer represent their ancient appearance and fire hazards are now extreme. The elimination of Indians and the suppression of lightning fires caused these changes in ancient forests. In no other area are the changes in ancient forests more dramatically displayed than within the mixed-conifer forests of Sierra Nevada national parks. Like Jurassic Park, these national park forests could not be isolated from the influences of the outside world.

    Many scientists have documented the deterioration of ancient forests using old photographs and observations. Dr. Stone and I added to this knowledge by comparing our reconstruction of ancient forests with the same forests as they exist today. These studies were conducted in Kings Canyon National Park. I used computer graphics to create the first visually accurate three-dimensional model of a real ancient forest giant sequoia-mixed conifer forest. The model describes an area about the size of a football field. The data include the species, size, age and location of 100 percent of the trees and shrubs. This computer visualization also shows the forest as it exists today. A multimedia presentation that describes this ancient forest is available on a diskette for IBM compatible computers.

    The results of our studies show that ancient forests that are supposed to be protected are actually disappearing at an alarming rate. For example, in the Redwood Creek watershed the area covered by aggregations of seedling and sapling size trees declined by 68 percent since 1890. The area covered by shrub aggregations dropped by 42 percent and hardwood aggregations, which consist primarily of black oak trees, dropped by 40 percent. Aggregations of pole-size trees increased by 135 percent. Young trees also have invaded the understory of larger trees. For instance, aggregations of old trees with both poles and thickets of saplings in the understory increased by 132 percent. Pole-size aggregations with an understory of saplings increased 370 percent.

    Equally dramatic is the 37 percent increase in aggregations dominated by white fir trees. White fir can germinate in thick litter and grow in the shade of larger trees. That is why most understory thickets are composed of white fir. On the other hand, ponderosa pine, sugar pine, giant sequoia and black oak require gaps large enough to allow sunlight to reach the forest floor. The soil also must be nearly free of litter for these trees to germinate and survive. Such gaps were created in the ancient forest by Indian and lightning fires. Since gaps are no longer being created, these species are gradually declining. Today’s forest is thicker and older than the ancient forest, shrubs, oak trees and wildflowers are less abundant, and white fir is gradually becoming the dominant species. These changes in protected ancient forests present a serious threat to wildlife and the biological diversity of the forest.

    I also projected these changes 100 years into the future. I used a transition matrix developed from additional data collected from a small part of the same watershed to make the projection. The results are ominous. The area covered by aggregations of young trees may decline by 94 percent from the condition that existed in the ancient forest. In contrast to the loss of young trees, aggregations of large old trees could increase by 244 percent. These projections show that by the end of the next century, the national parks of the Sierra Nevada will be visually impressive because of the large trees, but they will be completely artificial. Biological diversity also will be drastically reduced. Equally important is the ecological fact that these forests of old trees cannot be sustained because of the lack of aggregations of young trees. Eventually the large old trees will die, probably at the same time. This means that farther into the future the national parks will look more like forest plantations than parks as young trees become established within the debris of the dead old trees.

    There is a chance that wildfires will sweep through the forest and bypass the stage when most trees are old and decadent. Instead the forest will move directly to the plantation stage where young trees are growing over extensive areas of burned forest. The ancient forest had only a few tons of fuel per acre on the ground, but today’s old growth forests have over 50 tons of fuel per acre. Since ancient forests had few understory trees, fires could rarely climb up into the canopy. Fires also had difficulty moving over extensive areas in ancient forests because the forests were patchy and broken into a mosaic of different size trees. Today, fires can move freely because the mosaic structure is disappearing as the trees reach similar sizes. The wildfire hazard already is extreme and it can only become worse. However, it doesn’t matter whether wildfires destroy the forest or the forest simply grows old and dies, it will still be an artificial forest.

    The US National Park Service is using low intensity prescribed fires to reduce these fuels and forestall a catastrophic wildfire. Congress is reluctant to appropriate money for such efforts so the areas burned are small. However, the lack of money for prescribed fires may not be a problem because data collected from burned areas in Kings Canyon National Park show that little has been accomplished. Low intensity fires can create fuels and they do nothing to prevent the loss of aggregations of young trees. Such prescribed fires are unlikely to change the future of the forest.


    Ancient forests were diverse, dynamic, full of wildfire, beautiful and safe to live in because fires were small. Today’s old growth forests are becoming more depressing and sterile as each day passes. The changes that have occurred in the forests within Sierra Nevada national parks can still be reversed, but time is running out. With scientific management and adequate funding the ancient forests can be resurrected and maintained. The problem is that some people still believe that humans have no place in nature and should not manage forests within parks. The low intensity prescribed fires conducted by the National Park Service are only a slight compromise with this philosophy. It is unlikely that the deterioration of these forests will be reversed.

    Locking up the remaining federal forests available for timber harvesting within old growth reserves will compound the problem already faced in the Sierra Nevada national parks. Who will have the will to manage these reserves and who will pay the cost? It may even be impossible to manage these reserves as ancient forests because they already will be dominated by large old trees. Some people argue that such reserves are needed to maintain biological diversity, yet old growth forests are far less diverse than real ancient forests. For example, a study conducted by scientists from the University of California-Berkeley analyzed the habitat of 255 animal species that live on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. The study included reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals. The study showed that none of the animal species living in mixed-conifer forests can be found exclusively in any one age class of trees, including the California spotted owl. Clearly, the best way to protect wildlife is to have diverse forests and the best model for diversity is the ancient forest.

    There is an alternative to old growth reserves. I call it the sustainable old growth option. This option is based on the ancient forest model. It would ensure the future of old growth forests and protect the economies of local communities by keeping federal forests open to timber production. First, however, we must reject the notion that people are not part of nature. The belief that we can separate people from nature – the Jurassic Park syndrome – is the foundation upon which the old growth reserves rest. These reserves will be islands of forest surrounded by barriers that can neither keep the animals inside nor prevent the outside world from entering. Their creation ensures their future destruction. We must accept our role in nature in the same way that the Indians accepted their role. They acted with knowledge and respect, and we should do the same. Like us, the Indians also acted to ensure their survival and prosperity. The beauty of the ancient forest is ample proof of the wisdom of their decisions. Our decisions could produce the same result without relying on old growth reserves.

    If we want old growth forests in the future, we must produce a continuous supply of young trees to replace the old trees that are lost. Since the Indians are gone and lightning fires are too dangerous, we can mimic nature’s fires with carefully managed logging. The best way to mimic these fires is to cut small groups of trees in a way that ensures that all essential ages of trees and associated vegetation exist in the forest mosaic, including hardwoods and shrubs. Optimum mixtures of old growth and other stages of tree growth will vary depending upon local ecological conditions. It is possible that this option could maintain the same proportion of old growth in the future forest that existed in the ancient forest. Decadent old growth cut in one part of the mosaic would be replaced with renewed old growth as the trees grow larger in another part. Thus, dramatic stands of old growth would float around the future forest mosaic in the same way that they floated around in the ancient forest mosaic.

    Adopting the sustainable old growth option would preserve both old growth forests and jobs. It also would maximize biological diversity, provide habitat for all animals, and ensure the survival of the California spotted owl. This is not a new idea. Ecologists have discussed it for many years and there are no known technological barriers. The only barrier to carrying out the sustainable old growth option is, again, the belief that people should be separated from nature and characterizing all human intervention as bad or imperfect. Some people will argue that humans cannot reproduce real old growth forests. That is a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument. The lesson of the Jurassic Park syndrome is simple: whatever we create will become part of an interdependent world. If we want sustainable old growth, we must accept our place in nature and manage the forest.

    Presented June 16, 1993



    Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D.
    Texas A&M University

    Dr. Bonnicksen earned his BS and MS degree in forest ecology, and his Ph.D. degree in resource policy, at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Bonnicksen is currently professor of resource and environmental policy at Texas A&M University. He is a former university department head and has served as an elected member of the board of directors of several professional societies and private organizations, including the Society of American Foresters and the International Society of Ecological Restoration. Dr. Bonnicksen also served as a member of the California State Park and Recreation Commission and several federal and state advisory boards. He wrote the legislation that currently guides the classification and management of California’s state park system. Dr. Bonnicksen also presented invited testimony to committees of the United States House of Representatives on national park and ecological restoration issues. Dr. Bonnicksen has published over sixty scientific papers and he serves as a guest editor and member of the editorial board of several scientific journals, including Restoration Ecology and the Environmental Professional. His research focuses on restoration ecology and computer-aided group decision making. Dr. Bonnicksen’s computer-aided group decision making techniques have successfully resolved many environmental issues. Numerous universities in the United States and abroad use his decision making techniques in teaching and research.

      • Sorry, I came across this Bonnicksen paper quite a few years ago on the web and, the last time I searched could not find it again. Maybe you could just copy this paper off this blog and then save it.

        I’ve long thought it was a great paper with lessons for us all as we think about forests everywhere.. One of the lessons is that one size-fits-all prescriptions will not work everywhere – something our elected officials do not get as they write forest management prescriptions. An important lesson is that, what most people believe to be an “ancient” forest is based on myth and, if so, we are striving for something that probably never existed.

        It is something that I’m not sure all federal employees get either as all too many are not on a forest long enough to really understand that forest. It is too easy to assume that what worked on their last forest will work on their new forest.

        Brian Stout – any relationship to Ben Stout? In his retirement, Ben lived nearby and I got to know him through our local SAF chapter – a good guy and I’m glad to have known him. I met Ben’s daughter (your sister?) at the SAF conference in Pittsburgh a few years ago and again at Ben’s memorial services.

  2. It is encouraging to see the beginning efforts to manage forested lands based on goals for the forests themselves rather than production goals for individual resources. Professional forest scientists should be able to develop management goals for forest health and diversity and then design prescriptions for the use of the proper tools to best accomplish the goals. My concern is that the scientists will not take the time to observe the detail of the individual communities that make up the mosaic of the 18,000 acres of forested lands to be treated! I personally worked on the Mark Twain and completed a detailed inventory of one of the districts 50 years ago. My research disclosed that the average forest community tends to be 25 to 35 acres in size, primarily due to the changing soil types, soil conditions and topographic features. Failure to recognize the unique individual communities will destroy diversity rather than improve it. Managing to enhance the original diversity of the forest vegetation, communities, is the best way to reduce the potential of catastrophic events in the future. The effort is on the right track if we will slow down and take the time to observe the complexity and detail of the individual communities, or ecosystems if you prefer, that have, in the past, always been a part of these central hardwood forests.

    • It did take me awhile to see that I couldn’t blindly apply western treatments to eastern forests. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for is the poor soils in some eastern forests. You can apply some principles but, the goals should be to improve those areas of forests, in ways that minimize the importance of board feet. It is easy to create a mosaic but, can we create effective and valuable mosaics, within the ecological frameworks of those types of forests?

  3. My book, “Trees of Life – Our Forests in Peril”, provides more detail of the work on the Mark Twain NF, and a more in depth understanding of the importance of adjusting our management goals for our remaining forested lands. I also post a blog periodically on my website, “forestsinperil” which offers comments on current forestry issues.

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