Addressing NFMA Timber Requirements Through the Restoration Lens

Arizona Lumber and Timber Company, Coconino National Forest, 1939, photo by Walter H. Shaffer

Sometimes language can get in the way.   Foresters are becoming aware that their traditional language for cutting trees confuses the public, and reduced their ability to explain what they are trying to accomplish.  This is especially true today when trying to reduce the chances of unwanted fire behavior, by “restoring” tree stands to conditions that were less dense.

In 2008, former associate chief Sally Collins coauthored a paper with Hutch Brown about the importance of rephrasing the purpose and need statement for vegetation projects, eliminating the use of traditional silvicultural terminology and replacing it with the language of a new collaborative process.  They pointed out that the technical language is difficult for lay audiences to understand, and because it originated in a timber culture, the language can cause confusion about a restoration project’s true purpose.  For collaboration to work and succeed, a new kind of language is needed that clearly communicates the intended restoration purpose.

In pointing out the problems with silvicultural terms such as “commercial” or “pre-commercial thinning”, “crown spacing”, “ladder fuels”, and “conifer competition”,  Collins and Brown point out: “Whereas Forest Service professionals and many interested groups are familiar with terms like these, others are not. Sustainable restoration efforts require broad public involvement and support, yet relatively few people are likely to engage in a project when they do not understand the terms used to describe it.

The same criticism of timber project descriptions also holds true for planning under NFMA.  Perhaps there is a way to be faithful with the act, but translate the terminology in ways that explain the ecological purpose of the projects.

Here are some of the possibilities:

NFMA Requirement 1982 Terminology Possible New Terminology
Determine forest management systems, harvesting levels, and procedures, and the availability of lands and their suitability for resource management Multiple-use prescription for each management area Agree on a theme for an area – what is the degree of human influence on natural processes like fire and insect and disease outbreaks?;What are acceptable changes and rates of changes to the forest?What are acceptable types of burning of the forest?
Identify lands not suited for timber production Lands suitable or not suitable for timber production Identify areas where trees can or cannot be removed and sold
Insure that cut designed to regenerate an even-aged stand will be used (for clearcuts only where its optimal) where such cuts are consistent with soil, watershed, fish, wildlife, recreation, esthetic resources, and regeneration of the timber resource Even-aged silviculture and even-aged stands Identify landscapes where we prefer trees at the same age
Insure timber will be harvested only where there is assurance that such lands can be adequately restocked within five years after harvest Restocking lands within 5 years after final harvest Provide small 6-inch trees within 5 years after a stand of large trees has been removed

4 thoughts on “Addressing NFMA Timber Requirements Through the Restoration Lens”

  1. While I agree with what John says (and Sally Collins wrote) about the importance of language, I believe that Forest Service practitioners are generally in denial about where science and “polemics” will take us re: “ecosystem restoration”. As a colleague continually reminds me, the scale of restoration efforts alone suggests that management by “timbering” is an unlikely solution even if public acceptance of well-intended foresters’ solutions is forthcoming.

    And “public acceptance” is also in doubt. The “public,” along with many scientists are not at all pleased by past efforts to manage the nations forests in the public interest, as opposed to pandering to private interests.

    Even “ecosystem restoration” via fire, whether let burn wildland fire (is that the right term?) or by prescribed fire, is going to be an increasingly hard sell — if only because some of the strongest, and most polemical attacks are going to come from ex Forest Service people.

    Interesting public engagement times straight ahead, methinks. That is if the FS (or the USDA) actually allows for public engagement.

  2. John, thanks for this excellent post and links. I have long thought that silvicultural terminology is kludgy when dealing with others (not just the public; everyone who is not a silviculturist).

    So, given that, I am not so sure about the first row “possible new terminology.” Perhaps it should be more like ROS, with degree of human influence from general management to wilderness.

    For row four I would substitute for potential new terminology “don’t cut trees unless you know you can get seedlings of the same species established within five years.”

  3. To me, the issue isn’t so much terminology as it is just taking the time to talk with people. WITH, not to. Listening as much or more than talking. The public in Alabama and elsewhere in the southern coastal plain accept longleaf pine restoration, ONCE it is explained to them. Some of that is terminology but mostly it is talking until people “get it,” regardless of terms used. Even with fire. A couple of years ago, the Oakmulgee was doing a prescribed burn when the wind shifted very unexpectedly. Ended up smoking all of Birmingham. Ranger called the newspaper ASAP and spent time explaining what was going on, why it was going on and why it went wrong. Next day, article in the paper explained all in a light very favorable to the agency. No one got upset.

    Another reason not to get hung up too much on terminology: Sharon, I cannot agree with your suggestion of “don’t cut trees unless … seedlings of the same species.” The LAST thing I want when pines get cut down here is for them to have seedlings of the same species ready … ever. The whole point of restoration here is to get rid of species that should not be there and put the right ones back. Waste of time to clearcut a loblolly plantation just to plant it back in loblolly; I want longleaf or hardwood, depending on the forest. But explaining that creates a lot more understanding than a terminology change ever could.

    Still, I agree completely with getting rid of terminology that is in the way; it is the replacing it with more terminology that I do not think is as needed.

  4. Whoops, I wasn’t thinking of your situation.. why it’s so hard to have a national discussion. How about “don’t cut trees unless you know you can get seedlings from a diverse array of desired native species established within five years.”

    See, in our situation, where there are no loblolly equivalents, what you have is probably what you want. If we were to say “desired” people might say “why don’t you just say what was there before?” “are you trying to change the species mix?”

    So it sounds like clear national terminology can help, but not substitute for, a lot of communication at the local level.


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