Should Restoration be the Forest Service Mission?

The first “substantive principle” in last year’s Federal Register notice for a new Forest Service planning rule is restoration.  How did we get here?  Should we get out?  Before we adopt the restoration idea as a central theme of the rule, we need to be aware of the pitfalls.

The idea of restoration started with site-based approaches on well-defined areas such as a minesite or a wetland.  In the 1990s, a need was recognized to expand the scope of restoration ecology to embrace broader scales and tackle landscape-scale problems.  The term  “Forest Landscape Restoration” was a term first coined in 2000 by a group of forest restoration experts that met in Segovia Spain.  Internationally, several organizations such as the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration have formed to address the worldwide loss of half of the Earth’s forests over the last 200 years. 

There is currently a wealth of information about the emerging field of ecological restoration.  The non-profit Society for Ecological Restoration publishes a Restoration Ecology journal that helps explain restoration processes and descriptions of techniques.  The Society also works with the University of Wisconsin-Madison to publish an Ecological Restoration journal about current projects and techniques, and essays about the restoration idea.

Largely due to concerns about fuels and increases in large fires, the Forest Service started thinking about restoring fire regimes affected by a century of fire suppression.  Along with concerns about invasive species, declining road maintenance budgets, and climate change, in 2005, the Forest Service chartered a team to look at the evolving science of landscape restoration, and developed an Ecosystem Restoration Framework.  The framework made the following recommendations:

  • adopt a national policy regarding ecosystem restoration, including defining ecosystem restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed;”
  • increase the productivity of the agency’s restoration efforts through improved integration of various programs spanning all Deputy areas;
  • use national, forest, and project planning to engage Forest Service resources, partners, and stakeholders in identifying and implementing restoration needs and priorities;
  • use budget and performance incentives to increase accomplishment of ecosystem restoration objectives.

Based on these recommendations, an interim directive was initially written last year and updated in March.  This directive, Forest Service Manual id-2020 , says that ecological restoration is a “foundational policy” for all program areas for the National Forest System.  It defines ecological restoration as:

Ecological restoration.  The process of assisting the recovery of resilience and adaptive capacity of ecosystems that have been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.  Restoration focuses on establishing the composition, structure, pattern, and ecological processes necessary to make terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems sustainable, resilient, and healthy under current and future conditions.

As a signal of the intent of the Administration, the Secretary of Agriculture spoke prominently about ecological restoration in his August 2009 speech in Seattle about the Forest Service. 

Then, the restoration idea quickly got more attention when the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program was established in the 2009 Omnibus Public Lands Management Act.  Now restoration needs were tied to money, and not surprisingly, needs were identified nearly everywhere.

Restoration is now being offered as a central theme of a new Forest Service planning rule.  But there are several problems.

First, the Forest Service may have troubles reconciling the idea that there are “degraded” ecosystems which must be restored, with its 100-plus year history of managing these lands.  Are agency leaders willing to admit that past forest management policies were wrong?  Are these past policies continuing today?  How can they be changed?

I remember talking to a representative of the timber industry at a regional roundtable meeting on the planning rule in Rapid City, South Dakota.  He told me that there are many “managed” forests that aren’t in need of restoration because of past forest management practices.  He described those instances where timber management has been used to thin forests and reduce fuels.

Second, for some forest types, there isn’t a clear idea about what restoration might look like.  For instance, in lodgepole pine, trees will eventually burn or die from insects.  The presence of large fires or insect outbreaks does not mean that the system is out of balance.

The idea of restoration leads to several value-laden questions:  restoring to what?  restoring for what purpose?  what do you do once things are restored?  Earlier posts on this blog have discussed the confusion with the Forest Service multiple-use mission, and the wicked problem that Forest Planning attempts to solve.  In describing the social problem posed by the idea of restoration, Eric Higgs from the University of Alberta notes that restoration efforts rest in the notion of redemption, where we heal ourselves culturally and perhaps spiritually by healing nature.  Because nature and ecosystems are historically and culturally contingent ideas, Higgs suggests that there is no one single, fixed, correct restoration for any particular site, although structure, composition, and function criteria may provide tight guidelines for success of a project.

Third, shouldn’t the idea of “maintenance” of ecosystems at least get equal billing?  A regional watershed program manager recently told me that “maintenance” is a well thought out priority for land management, as captured in the mantra for the Northwest Forest Plan: “Save the best, restore the rest”.    Maintenance means your first priority is to make sure that ecosystems that are already functioning well stay that way.  Maintenance gets to the core of what the agency does on the landscape – all the mitigation measures (i.e  soil and water  BMPs) that we supposedly implement for our projects and for third party authorizations, to ensure that we “do no harm”.   Even if it’s important to fix what’s broken, it’s also important to not break anything else.

 The problem with a restoration only focus is that it could potentially reward bad behavior (you made a mess, now you get money to clean it up) rather than reinforcing good behavior (you implemented BMPs, monitored to see that they were effective, and nothing went wrong).

Fourth, there are the purported “myths” about restoration ecology.  In a 2005 article by Robert Hilderbrand, Adams Watts, and April Randle,  the authors describe five problems with the restoration idea.  First, there is a problem with the typical assumption that ecosystems develop in a predictable fashion toward a specified, static, end-point or climax.  Many Forest Service planners these days are enamored by the “desired future condition” description as the central part of a Forest Plan.  But when systems are “reset” they usually don’t end at the same point, and the idea that you can restore a “carbon copy” of an ecosystem is the first myth.

There is also the problem with the idea that restoration of the physical structure will result in the same biological response.  The authors point out the “field of dreams” myth – that if you build it, they will come.  It’s not apparent that you will get the same distribution of species when you create the previous habitat.

Other myths include the idea that you can “fast-forward” succession and ecosystem-development, that you can develop a “cookbook” of practices that can be used to restore landscapes, and the “sisyphus complex” that nature can be controlled.  We may describe detailed and specific desired conditions in a Forest Plan, but can we really control the outcomes?

The authors are clearly in the adaptive management camp, and they explain that to get beyond the myths, projects need decision points along the way for possible interventions with contingency plans if things aren’t proceeding appropriately.

In previous attempts to develop a planning rule, the Forest Service has committed to the idea of “sustainability” as the guiding star for management of National Forests.  This idea flows from the legal mandate under the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act.  The idea of ecosystem services is an extension of the multiple use mission.   Perhaps restoration is a part of this mission, because the ecosystem must be functioning in order to provide the services.  But restoration may not be the full story, and perhaps it’s not the best way to describe the important work that must be done.

5 thoughts on “Should Restoration be the Forest Service Mission?”

  1. Excellent post, John.

    Your point that “the Forest Service may have troubles reconciling the idea that there are “degraded” ecosystems which must be restored” was brought home to me in 1996 when then-Siuslaw forest supervisor Jim Furnish and I premiered our collaborative video “Torrents of Change.” We were at a line officers meeting in Washington’s Skamania County. The video was hotly criticized by several older supervisors who believed it indicted their careers as forest managers. It was defended by several younger district rangers who noted its scientific accuracy. The generational gap was apparent. Is it still today?

  2. I agree with Andy that this is a great post. I have a few other concerns with the concept.

    First, I fundamentally believe that good public policy can’t be based on fuzzy thinking. What happened here is that someone took a straightforward concept, which has an English definition and redefined it. Int his example, (restoration) is defined as “bringing back to a former position or condition.” That’s what restoration means in English. Not resilience. Not ecosystem health. This puts everyone at a disadvantage in conversation, because there is always a tension between what the word is accepted to mean in English, and what it is defined to mean by an agency or discipline. This is a communications “Situation That Shouts Watch Out.”

    Second, thinking “restoration is what we are about” not only has the disadvantages John outlined above, but tends to put funding in the places that always have gotten funding. For example, people cut longleaf and planted loblolly. I am all for restoring longleaf, but what about places that people tried to keep all the native species? In other places, logging practices caused damage, and now the same units of the agency will be funded to fix it. The common denominator is that areas that didn’t have much timber harvesting going on were not funded in the past, and because they didn’t do much on the landscape, may once again at the bottom of the funding list.

    Third, returning to the past is of course an impossibility- especially in this era of climate change. So why can’t we be simple and say “we want to continue to produce an array of desirable ecosystem services and manage in a way that is resilient to future change. There may be explicit trade-offs between different ecosystem services, and between individual ecosystem services and reslience, but those are discussions best had on the specifics of each case.”

    It seems to me that returning to the past had become a synonym for good.. abetted by scientific disciplines who study the past. Discussing what society wants today, under today’s and tomorrow’s conditions, does not necessarily privilege the findings of scientists who study past landscapes and lifeforms. And perhaps decisionmakers find it easier to turn to scientists for “what is right” (what was in the past) rather than engage in messy democratic processes about values, tradeoffs, and acknowledging that some win at the expense of others.

    The sooner we get over this “past should be future” mythology and move on to discussing what society wants and what is achievable today and tomorrow, the better off we will be. In my opinion.

  3. I agree with Sharon comments. Restoration could be a component of the FS mission but not “the” FS mission. It’s one of those current buzz words that is politically correct, but is not well defined and means different things to different people, but hey it sounds good. The basic questions such as; what are they going to restore, what are they going to restore it to, how do you know when it’s restored, does everything need restoring, typically aren’t answered very well. It seems to be more of a theory or philosophy to me, and not something that would be the “mission”. There also seems to be a lack of interaction with people, I don’t see much integration with things like recreation. The theory seems to be if we restore the forests to what they were before man interfered then every thing will be good and nature can take over. Very idealistic but not very realistic from my point of view.

  4. John,
    You’re raising a lot of important issues here. I agree that some caution is in order, especially when the Undersecretary states that 110 million acres of National Forest lands are in need of restoration (out of 193 million acres of NFS land).
    As you know, I’ve been digging into all of these place-based initiatives going on, and they all focus on the need for landscape-scale restoration. Some initiatives have taken the politically malleable term “restoration” and given it meaning from the bottom-up, with clearly defined objectives and parameters.
    What I’ve also found is that political agreement about forest restoration often breaks down when the place in question is not predominated by dry-site forests of ponderosa pine. There is some concurrence that forest restoration is necessary in places where historically low-severity fire regimes have turned into high-severity or mixed-severity regimes. This explains why, for example, there is such a widespread consensus around the need to treat Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests, or the dry forests in eastern Washington and Oregon—and why some traditionally litigious groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and the Lands Council are on board.
    But such consensus is absent in places consisting of mid-and-higher elevation forests of mixed-to-high severity fire regimes. This helps explain some of the controversy surrounding Senator Tester’s bill, as the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest consists mostly of lodgepole pine, a forest type subject to stand-replacing fires. And there is certainly no scientific or political agreement that restoration treatments on these forests make ecological sense. So opponents of the bill have a hard time swallowing the need for forest restoration on the BDNF, even if sweetened with additional restorative promises and wilderness protection.

    Maybe we should also consider, as a rough starting place, a divide between dry and moist forests in parts of the country. Forestry Professors Norman Johnson and Jerry Franklin begin their case for active restoration by dividing federal forests into dry and moist types. “Generally, it is not necessary to conduct silvicultural treatments to maintain existing old-growth forests on Moist Forest sites.” But their diagnosis is different on dry forests and they insist that “eastside federal forests in Oregon face a bleak future without swift action.” These forests have been greatly simplified during the last century, due to such things as fire suppression, grazing, logging, and the establishment of plantations. Because of this, “We will lose many of these forests to catastrophic disturbance events unless we undertake aggressive active management programs.”

    Part of restoration’s political allure is due partly to the fact that it is open to multiple political interpretations. But this lack of clarity and a common definition can also be problematic, from a political and managerial standpoint. I think the best way to proceed is by working through the definition and its application in a collaborative way.

    Take, for example, Montana’s Forest Restoration Committee—an exemplar in terms of how collaboration can facilitate restoration. This broad, stakeholder-based group agreed to a number of restoration principles that “articulate a collective vision of ecologically appropriate, scientifically supported forest restoration.” These principles serve as guidelines for project development and “represent the ‘zone of agreement’ where controversy, delays, appeals, and litigation are significantly reduced.” Individual restoration committees have been formed on the Lolo and Bitterroot National Forests and they apply the restoration principles to individual projects. This inclusive process has produced a foundation upon which future restoration work will proceed, with support from the agency and a broad base of other stakeholders.

  5. We’ve already seen collaboration and consensus fail in a great many instances and it will continue to fail until there is litigation reform. The Forest Service seems to choose to ignore the giant elephant in the room. The Quincy Library Group has been brought to their knees by Chad Hanson, who militantly campaigns to eliminate timber sales of all kinds, including roadside hazard tree projects. The Sierra Club has reiterated their desire to end all timber sales, as well. These litigious groups are not willing to walk away from their profitable cash cow. They are against the three “C-words”…. Collaboration, Consensus and Compromise.


Leave a Comment