The Precautionary Principle and Forest Planning


“Better to be safe than sorry.”

“Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

“First do no harm.”

“Fences are made for those who cannot fly.”

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Caution or boldness?  What happens if doing nothing is worse?  This is one of the debates emerging from the Forest Service planning rule development.

In the 1970s, the Black Forest in Germany was obviously deteriorating.   Acid rain associated with sulfur and nitrogen emissions from industrial, commercial, and transportation sources was the suspected culprit, but science could not provide firm evidence of cause and effect. Despite this scientific uncertainty, the German government instituted regulations to reduce power plant emissions.  The policy became known as “Vorsorgeprinzip”, which translates into the “principle of advanced caring.”  After evolving into a key component of German environmental law, the concept of precautionary action gradually gained wider acceptance across Europe and was incorporated into various international treaties, conventions, and declarations.  The concept grew into what is known today as the precautionary principle.

The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absense of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.  This principle allows policy makers to make discretionary decisions in situations where there is evidence of potential harm in the absence of complete scientific proof. The principle implies that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm, when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk. These protections can be relaxed only if further scientific findings emerge that provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

The principle has become very popular, embraced by governments around the globe.  In the European Union, the application of the precautionary principle has been made a statutory requirement. It has been incorporated into many treaties and resolutions, including the Rio Declaration, the Montreal Protocol, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the 1992 Climate Change Convention, the Treaty on European Union, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, and the Helsinki Convention on Marine Protection in the Baltic.  In 2005, the city of San Francisco, adopted a precautionary principle purchasing ordinance. 

At a 1998 conference convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network at the Wingspread House in Racine, Wisconsin, a group of scientists, philosophers, lawyers, and activitists developed a widely-cited consensus statement about the precautionary principle:  

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

The precautionary principle has been proposed by various environmental groups as a central theme of a new Forest Service planning rule.  It became one of the discussion questions during the third planning rule national roundtable last week.  But there are questions about the appropriateness of the principle in a typically value-laden forest planning process lacking agreement on goals, and when inaction could be as risky as action. 

Although it was only briefly mentioned at the planning rule science forum in the question and answer period for the first panel, it was highlighted in Booz Allen’s summary report of that meeting.  Tom Sisk from Northern Arizona University observed that when we lack information we still need to make tough decisions.  In order to protect the environment, management should be appled according to the ecosystem capabilities.  Sisk said that a lack of uncertainty should not be used to adopt environmental protections.  Later, there was a follow-up question from the audience about whether we should be using adaptive management instead of the Precautionary Principle.  Sisk reminded everyone that the Precautionary Principle cuts both ways: both taking and not taking action.  We should not let uncertainty stop us in our tracks.

Alston Chase has argued that the precautionary principle does not always benefit society, could produce more ecological and social harm than good, with consequences not known until it’s too late.  He explains that in “game theory” there is no such thing as a “correct decision” under conditions of uncertainty, and that all choices are subjective, reflecting the values of the decision-maker.  When applied to natural resource planning, he argues that it presupposes the idea of a self-regulated ecosystem, seeking to protect conditions that never existed, never will exist, or never could exist. 

In the middle of the debate over the use of the precautionary principle in Forest Service planning is the set of Forest Plan amendments comprising the Sierra Nevada Framework.  The principle played an important role in the 2001 amendments.  However, risk and uncertainty assessment teams in 2003 observed the dangers of applying the principle, and a new decision was made in early 2004.  (On separate issues the decision was litigated and a Federal Register notice to supplement the analysis was issued earlier this year).

In 2004, Hal Salwasser, School of Forestry Dean at Oregon State, and former director of the Pacific Southwest Experiment Station, wrote about his experiences with the complex and messy forest planning in the Sierra Nevadas, and the problems he saw with the application of the precautionary principle in these types of “wicked problems” .

The precautionary principle has several flaws that make it questionable as a guide to decision making (Beckerman 2000). First, if the future is really all that uncertain, then we cannot be confident that action taken or not taken today will not make the future better rather than worse. Second, what constitutes harm is not always clear and could vary over time and space. When the precautionary principle is applied to dynamic ecosystems to constrain actions, such as fuels thinning needed to restore the system’s resilience to fire, it sets up the potential for major long-term harm: harm from inaction could be greater than harm from proposed action. Inaction creates “opportunity benefits,” that is, benefits foregone because action was not taken (Wildavsky 1995).

It is not possible to have full certainty regarding most of the important things in life, and ecosystems are certainly no exception. The standard for burden of proof about certainty in the precautionary principle is infinitely high. And taking no action precludes the opportunity to learn from trial and error. The upshot of applying the precautionary principle is either nothing will ever get done or the preconditions for action are so time consuming and burdensome that action is excessively costly, too timid, or too late. The consequence will be countless unintended harms as a result of inaction. Care, thoughtfulness, and testing of ideas make sense, but extreme precaution is hardly prudent in a dynamic ecosystem, especially one that is vulnerable to uncharacteristic disturbance events. Thus, in situations such as those that confront Sierra Nevada ecosystems, stakeholders, and managers, the precautionary principle sheds no light on prudent choices.

The precautionary principle appears to have greatly influenced how risk or uncertainty about forest management impacts on certain fish and wildlife entered the decision rationale in the 2001 Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment. It appears that uncertainty was assumed to have only negative potential outcomes; however, uncertainty means outcomes or future events are uncertain in both directions. The rationale for how tradeoffs were made warrants open critical thinking and review of what uncertainty implies, what harm is, and how it is judged vis-à-vis other objectives. The 2004 revised Record of Decision handles risk with more boldness, yet even it is insufficient to address the magnitude of risk to late successional forests and their ecological values posed by uncharacteristically intense fires”.

Salwasser adovates decision analysis and adaptive management learning processes used in other disciplines for complex problems (things that have been discussed on this blog).

In the planning rule roundtable meetings, some participants have suggested that the Forest Service develop a framework using experimental approaches with a precautionary underpinning to address forest challenges.  But others have noted that forest restoration is expensive and suggested that caution (whether enacted actively or passively) is the appropriate framework to reduce costs in the national forests.   Both risks and benefits are apparent in the multiple-use mission of the Forest Service, so this is an important debate.

Environmental lawyer Carolyn Raffensberger, one of the leading advocates of the precautionary principle, has said that it’s about setting goals, reversing the burden of proof, looking for the safest alternative, and emphasizing public health and the environment over economics.  But she also concludes that the final element of the precautionary principle is democracy:

If we’re faced with scientific uncertainty, we need to set goals, and choose the safest alternative to achieve these goals. These processes involve values and ethics; it is not something that scientists or government bureaucrats can decide alone. We need to bring affected parties to the table. This gives us a chance as a public to set the goals that we want to drive toward; it helps get on the table a much wider array of options for solving problems and looking for alternatives. So democracy is also an essential component of the Precautionary Principle.”

Perhaps a conversation is a good place to start.

8 thoughts on “The Precautionary Principle and Forest Planning”

  1. John,

    How about another maxim related to uncertainty and decision making: “when in doubt, mumble.”

    One law that doesn’t mumble much, relatively speaking, is the ESA-certainly a law with a huge impact on federal lands management. If I recall correctly a House Report on the statute described it as “the institutionalization of caution,” or something close to that. The Act is certainly precautionary is several respects, such as the mandate to list species based on the “best AVAILABLE science.”

    And then we have NEPA, of course, which everyone agrees requires a “look before we leap.” (BP Deepwater Horizon and MMS not included apparently).

    Seems that the burden of proof must be set somewhere. Some folks argue for a “sound science” default position, where the science must be absolutely clear and dispositive before industry can be regulated–knowing full well that science is rarely so unequivocal.

    So I’ll throw that into the mix for debate as well–that the ESA (and NEPA to a lesser extent) already mandates a precautionary approach in some situations.

  2. Reducing central European power plant pollution has probably been good for people’s health. But whether those emissions had much to do with the Black Forest die-back observed in the 1980s appears unlikely. Sometimes it takes a wrong reason to do the right thing.

    In regard to clearcutting, Congress applied the precautionary principle by shifting the burden of proof. Congress allowed for clearcutting only where “it is determined to be the optimum method . . . to meet the objectives and requirements of the relevant land management plan.” Clearcutting opponent Gifford Pinchot can rest in peace.

  3. We really should be utilizing the “No Action” alternative analyses to show just HOW damaging doing nothing could possibly be. We should also apply that to wildfires and suppression, if indeed, NEPA rules actually APPLIED to them! Trusting fire people to decide the path of the next several decades in an instant’s moment is the best we can come up with in America?!? To me, that is the path of “Least Liability For The Most Benefitted”. It’s easy to vote for more flammable “wilderness” when you don’t have to live next to it! The political “poison pill” these days is to vote against new wilderness, especially when it is not in your district.

    Clearcutting should only be used as a last resort, usually to skip a hot, stand-replacing wildfire. I’ve seen only a few instances where I could have used that “tool” in the “toolbox”. Here’s an example. A wildfire burns hot, leaving only the biggest and best pine trees, and a few pockets of white fir. The fire coincides with an excellent cone crop for the white firs, and their seeds easily take root. This bumper crop of fir even pushes the brush and pine regen, jumping ahead (or behind?) several successional notches. Then, in the 90’s, the bugs got into this pure patch of white firs, crowding each other for scarce water. Mortality was high and we salvaged what we could while we were there. More dirback came and it all fell on to the forest floor, blocking out any other plant growth. Today, the forest continues to dieback, with extreme fuel loading. Selective logging is difficult, as white fir is easily damaged. Controlled burning is out of the question. A shelterwood cut could possibly work but, winter winds are a definite concern. It’s also not the best pine site, either. One thing is for sure, though, that forest will never reach “old growth”. There are probably 100 good reasons not to clearcut for every single good reason to “whackem, stackem and blackem”. Region 5 has banned clearcuts since 1993.

  4. John, thanks for this excellent review of precautionary thinking.. My view is that
    if it means.

    The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absense of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.

    it is very interesting, but one could wonder how one chooses what to apply the principle. For example, cell phones. It is not clear that there are not health risks.. yet I see not much of a call for regulating them. I personally ran into the use of the precautionary principle associated with the EU when I worked on agricultural biotechnology at OSTP. We decided not to follow the Europeans in using the principle vis a vis genetic engineering. These technologies clearly carry possible health risks, more than most things you would discuss in a forest plan.

    I guess this highlights an idea I have been thinking about.. do people think differently if they are from the “natural resource” tradition compared to the “environmental science” tradition ( I wonder if the lawyers have this tension between “natural resource law” and “environmental law).” The former seems to be about the legal framework for humans working on the land land, and the latter about regulating people to keep them from doing bad stuff (POPS, ozone, etc.). Of course there is overlap, which makes these discussions more interesting.

    The precautionary principle seems to come more out of the “environmental ” tradition-it says that if there is a doubt about a new technology (or an old one) just don’t use it (e.g. offshore oil, nuclear, gas wells, wind turbines). It’s about just saying “no” and attempts to get around the more difficult questions of “which do you pick instead”? and “what do you do if there’s uncertainty about all competing technologies?”

    The natural resource view is that people need to eat, recreate, use energy, etc. and how can we do in a way that is the least unhealthy to humans and destructive to the environment?

    That being said.. I agree with the Raffensberger quote:

    “If we’re faced with scientific uncertainty, we need to set goals, and choose the safest alternative to achieve these goals. These processes involve values and ethics; it is not something that scientists or government bureaucrats can decide alone. We need to bring affected parties to the table. This gives us a chance as a public to set the goals that we want to drive toward; it helps get on the table a much wider array of options for solving problems and looking for alternatives.”

    But I think when you start invoking democracy you may not always get precautionary, as described above.

  5. Here is another article that asserts that the precautionary principle is really about values instead of science:
    Talking openly about values is a relatively recent development in the established environmental movement, which has long been accustomed to“leaving values at the door,” often under explicit instruction from agency officials and industry representatives, and confining discussions to “the facts” or “science” or “sound science.”

    Also, here is a different viewpoint than Martin’s point about our laws:
    “The biggest difficulty in that regard, a recent exercise by the Massachusetts Precautionary Principle Project revealed, is that many of the activists’ fellow citizens believe that something like the precautionary principle already governs environmental policy in the United States. It does not, of course. Although that may have been the original intent, the systems that have evolved in the United States and elsewhere to protect humans and the environment have not been doing their job.”

  6. Looking forward to reading this John. Thanks for posting. I won’t go so far as to claim that our environmental laws writ large are based on some precautionary principle, just that the ESA (and NEPA to lesser extent) have important precautionary elements.

    I have some problems with clinging to a precautionary principle as a strict matter of ideology or dogma or other excuses not to think critically about individual problems. Facts, cases, and contexts differ—and so should our analyses. In some cases, we must act against a backdrop of great uncertainty; and in others, prudence and caution are in order.

    But it seems to me that the precautionary principle can provide a nice counterbalance to hubris—by scientists, agencies, and industry. Trust us, you have nothing to worry about, this intervention cannot possibly go awry. We’ve heard that before, from the classic stories of introducing exotics, to a century of fire suppression, to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy.

    Seems like the precautionary principle—however incoherent and unworkable as a general default position—can provide a much needed political counterbalance to human arrogance.

  7. I think it is important to recognize that precaution underlies, or should underlie, the way we manage ecosystems, at all times. We undertake many actions intended to utilize, manage, extract, restore, conserve, etc., all with an underlying assumption that the ecosystem will continue to function reasonably well, self-regulate to some sufficient extent, and continue to deliver a wide range of ecosystem services that are fundamental to civilization.

    That being said, I wanted to respond to John’s reference to my comments at the Science Forum that the PP “cuts both ways”. What I meant by that – and as was discussed during the Q&A session – was that, in my opinion, the PP leads us to take action in some situations where inaction could be considered the riskier behavior.

    For example, when the risk of uncharacteristic fire places fundamental ecosystem composition, structure and function at risk (not to mention life and property), as is the case in many fire-adapted forests that have experienced a century of fire suppression, inaction could be seen as very risky, while thinning and use of prescribed fire, (even given considerable uncertainty about some aspects of these actions) might be a precautionary course of action. My point was that the PP does not always militate against management interventions – and this is why I think it “cuts both ways” (perhaps not the most apt expression, and no pun intended!)

    Similar consideration may lead to proactive efforts to restore and protect biodiversity where habitats have been degraded or populations lost, even if there is some uncertainty regarding, for example, the return of extirpated species or the restoration of conditions that have put population viability at risk.

    The Society for Conservation Biology and the Ecological Society of America provide a quote from the 1992 Rio Declaration on Biological Diversity that captures this sense of the PP in their comments on the LOI for the Planning Rule (available online: –

    “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

  8. Tom- I think the problem is that the precautionary principle was fundamentally thought about in relation to pollution or food safety. We are moving from safe technology x to possibly unsafe technology y. Therefore the defintion John has from wikepedia makes sense

    “The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absense of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those who advocate taking the action.”

    Natural resource disputes may not fit very well into the precautionary principle. As your fire example, both doing and not doing have different negative environmental impacts and it is a value judgement which impacts you choose. As a worker in the agbiotech field in the 90’s I can tell you we know a lot more about the environmental impacts of cutting trees and moving them from the woods (technologies used for hundreds of years) than we did about agbiotech, than we currently do about nanotechnology. artificial life, hormones and drugs in water, and so on. Our undertainty about environmental impacts for most common forest activities are a different order of magnitude, in my opinion.


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