Desired Future: Whose Desire? What Future? Why?

The idea of a “desired future” is found frequently in Forest Service NFMA and NEPA discussions/writing. I decided to see if I could find out where the idea of “desired future” and “desired future condition” come from. It sort of shows up in the 1979 NFMA Rule, mainly w/r/t wildlife populations, but gains a major toehold on FS thinking in the 1982 rule:

Sec. 219.11 Forest plan content. The forest plan shall contain the following: … (b) Forest multiple-use goals and objectives that include a description of the desired future condition of the forest or grassland and an identification of the quantities of goods and services that are expected to be produced or provided during the RPA planning periods

And it has been a part of FS thinking ever since. I can understand back in 1982 that the Forest Service wanted to remake America’s national forests into something foresters would desire, while zoning out Wilderness, Wild and Scenic Rivers, and other “set-asides”. So the idea of “desired future” made sense, at least to foresters who were running the Forest Service back then, some of whom were desirous to see the allowable timber cut increased from 11 to 33 billion board feet.

But to continue to use the language in the 2011 proposed NFMA rule is a different matter. The focus these days is not on increasing “allowable cut,” but instead on restoring ecosystems resiliency. But there is still a hint of what author David Ehrenfeld called The Arrogance of Humanism, 1981 at work here. At least I think so. That is why I’ve advocated for simple scenario planning instead, in part to avoid what I believe to be a “desired future” trap. For an article length view, see Thomas Stanley’s Ecosystem Management and the Arrogance of Humanism, Conservation Biology, 1995 (pdf)

Let’s leave a couple of inquiry questions: Is the idea of “desired future” even needed in forestland adaptive management? Why does this language persist in NFMA rules.

[Update, 4/6/11: I noticed this AM that the Draft NFMA rule refers to "desired condtions" (219.7 (d)) instead of "desired future," or "desired future condition(s)" but the meaning appears identical, at least to me.]

Related: In Search of Our Desired Forest, John Rupe, NCFP, 2/18/2011

5 thoughts on “Desired Future: Whose Desire? What Future? Why?”

  1. “Desired future condition” is a child birthed by “management by objectives” theory, described by Peter Drucker. MBO makes pretty good sense if the organization is certain as to its objectives, is confident the objectives are not subject to easy change, and is seeking to conform its employees to do nothing but meet the objectives.

    It is a sign of those times that the Forest Service thought it met (or should meet) these conditions in the 1970s and 80s. Talk about misreading the tea leaves! Or, as Dave would likely point out, studiously ignoring the tea leaves that were staring the FS in the face.

    The Forest Service of today continues to practice MBO even as it preaches “managing the process,” e.g., collaboration. This disconnect makes it tough for the FS to do either well.

  2. I am not a fan of DFCs either. I remember going to a public meeting in Wyoming where people wanted to talk about what they could do where, and we kept trying to talk to them about what they desired, which was fundamentally about pretty words on paper. Many of the members of the public would rather deal with activities than concepts. Of course, so would I.

    In another bad memory we applied DFCs to vegetation. After many words on paper, edits, and time used, it doesn’t really matter what our DFCs are, because we aren’t doing enough vegetation manipulations to make a difference toward them. I prefer to think through vegetation using the trajectory/intervention approach.

    Here’s my way of thinking about post-bark beetle vegetation in bark beetle country. Not what I desire, for which there is no particularly clear answer, but rather, what is the trajectory for what will come back without intervention? Is that OK? If not, what’s “wrong” with it? If something is “wrong”, can we (technically and economically) fix it? What other things might we invest in that we would give up to fund that intervention? Say, in beavers reintroduced or roads decommissioned or…

    I may well be one of the few people still around that used to analyze the economics of silvicultural interventions, as well as later observing the efficacy of our manipulations. It left me with a healthy respect for the power of Mother Nature to overcome our attempts to “manage” her. And where you are uncertain of the outcome, it takes a long time to find out, and there is no economic value anyway, well.. let’s just say that there are probably better uses of taxpayer dollars.

    So, if we are unlikely to make much of a difference- it seems a bit academic to talk about vegetation DFCs. When we could be collaborating on something more practical.

    For recreation, my DFCs would be that all user groups would get along with each other, and that FS privies would be clean. But these aren’t things that would necessarily go in a forest plan.

  3. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for an interesting, informative post. I thought I’d mention an idea that Megan Matonis and I are trying to develop and advocate: undesirable conditions as a guide to forest stewardship. We’ll be presenting a webinar on Friday this week that might be of interest (and we hope you might join in) — here’s the announcement:

    The Southern Rockies Fire Science Network (SRFSN) with presenters Dan Binkley (Professor of Forest Ecology at Colorado State University) and Megan Matonis (PhD student at CSU, and Intern with the Rocky Mountain Research Station) are pleased to present:

    SRFSN Webinar: The Undesirable Guide to Forest Restoration

    Forest management has a long legacy of successfully (and unsuccessfully) designing forests for well-defined purposes. “Command and Control” approaches work well for tree farms with the singular goal of wood production, but the nature of complex forests is not well suited to this type of forecasting and engineering. “Desired Conditions” is closely related to Command and Control, and probably not very suitable for restoration of complex forests for uncertain futures. Perhaps the most fruitful approach is to identify Undesirable Conditions, and then work collaboratively to move away from the risk of the most egregious futures, and accepting a wide variety of future forests that will develop ecologically on our landscapes.

    When: Friday, May 11 from 10:00-11:00 mountain time.

    Who: Fire and vegetation practitioners, conservation planners, landscape planners, GIS professionals.

    How: Register at:
    You will then receive a confirmation email from “Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center” with information about joining the webinar.

    SAF credit: The SRFSN will apply for SAF credit for continuing education by submitting the names of participants.

    Questions: Contact Megan Kram, SRFSN Facilitator, at 303-257-0430
    About the Southern Rockies Fire Science Network: or

  4. These notions of what we should be steering “toward” or “away from” are interesting mind games, and certainly both deserve attention in developing scenarios relative to uncertain, even unknowable futures. But my point in developing the base post was to suggest a third path: don’t lock into any single future, but instead “rehash the past and rehearse the future” via scenario planning (i.e. developing a bunch of guesses about the future as “story lines” but avoiding the temptation to lock into any of them; and instead use adaptive governance to adjust courses rapidly when necessary while engaging the public in the process of adaptive management).

    This alternative approach recognizes the import of what Peter Drucker called “the futurity of present decision-making,” by always keeping the future in the picture, but making decisions when needed, contingent on circumstances. For more on this Drucker notion, see here.

  5. Agreed that the Forest Service needs to rely more on scenario development in planning. The necessary scenarios must include scenarios of future conditions, and these future conditions necessarily include heat and drought. Given the available evidence on these future — even contemporary conditions, some scenarios will inevitably be depictions of future conditions that few if any would desire.

    “Our results indicate that terrestrial ecosystems are highly sensitive to temperature change and suggest that, without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation.”

    Nolan et al. Past and future global transformation of terrestrial ecosystems under climate change.
    Science 31 August 2018


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