Restore to What?

In a recent comment Mark said:

Now, let me address “restoration” briefly: Restore to what? April 11, 1767 at 2:33 am? The whole premise is based on this kind of faulty assumption. And then, if an area has been so disturbed that it needs “restoration” then likely, as is the case in this part of the country, actual physical aspects of the environment that were there back at the arbitrary time that you are choosing to “restore” to are missing.

It might be useful to let look at what the Forest Service says on the subject here, including:

How is ecological restoration defined?

Ecological Restoration is 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.

Why is the Forest Service developing FSM 2020 – Ecological Restoration and Resilience?

The need for ecological restoration is widely recognized, and the Forest Service has conducted restoration-related activities across many programs for decades. However, an internal agency study identified that the concept of ecological restoration has not been well understood nor consistently implemented within the Forest Service.

The Forest Service lacks a foundational, comprehensive policy and definitions to more effectively utilize ecological restoration as a tool for achieving land management objectives on national forests and grasslands.

This directive is needed to provide an overarching and unifying policy and definition of restoration for Forest Service employees and partners to more effectively communicate restoration needs at the local, regional, and national levels—all resource management programs have a responsibility for ecological restoration.

This directive will enable the Forest Service to more effectively address 21st century environmental issues such as climate change, water quality, and increasing threats from wildfires, insects, disease, and invasive species.

What is the goal of ecological restoration?

The goal of ecological restoration is to reestablish and retain the resilience of National Forest System lands and associated resources to achieve sustainable management and provide a broad range of ecosystem services. Healthy and resilient landscapes will have greater capacity to survive natural disturbances and large scale threats to sustainability, especially under changing and uncertain future environmental conditions, such as those driven by climate change and increasing human uses.

The policy makes it clear the Forest Service restoration is aimed not at going back to any point in time, but on restoring resiliency and sustainability. It took a long time to get this policy in place because many folks in the agency feared that the policy would be interpreted as a mandate to return to some point in the past, which a Mark pointed out is not possible. I interpret the policy to mean that where ecosystem conditions can best be restored by doing nothing, then do nothing. Where intervention is needed, then do something. That may mean removing a culvert, killing invasive plants or actively bring fire back to the system. The past loss of fire in southern pine ecosystems is primary reason that most rare species in the South are in trouble– they are adapted to systems with a frequent disturbance regime. Unless we area wiling to accept the loss of many of these species (e.g. the red-cockaded woodpecker), active restoration actions are essential.

13 thoughts on “Restore to What?”

  1. I don’t think that too many will quibble with the concept of “ecological restoration,” IF the first premise is “First, do no harm!” Or course that’s easier to say than do. Years ago historian David Clary wrote a very good book titled Timber and the Forest Service. Clary noted that ‘timbering’ — i.e. logging to improve the forests — was then pretty much a religion in the Forest Service. Clary even noted that when criticized the Forest Service “answered with preaching.”

    So Forest Service people will have to be patient as they try to effect their new ‘ecological restoration’ dream. And we all ought to keep a copy of Nancy Langston’s Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares close at hand to see whether this set of dreams turns out better than some of the past foresters’ dreams that turned to nightmares.

  2. These national Restoration Principles, released about ten years ago, were the result of a 4-year bridge building effort between conservation groups and restoration practitioners to develop agreement on a common sense, scientifically-based framework for restoring our nation’s forests. I believe over 100 + conservation groups from around the country signed onto these Principles.

    Citizens’ Call for Ecological Forest Restoration:
    Forest Restoration Principles and Criteria

  3. I decided to dig a bit deeper into this “ecological restoration” policy. But I can’t find it. Where is it? How can we better inform ourselves, when the FS websites are such a mess?
    PS. I looked here, in addition to the link Jim suggested: Do I need to look elsewhere?

    UPDATE: I found it: It’s here, 8/30/2011:
    But I don’t see that it really says ANYTHING beyond, It’s now FS Policy to restore ecosystems. More Forest Service BS?

    • There was a big internal fight just to get that much as policy. I argued that the Forest Service should declare that restoration is the main business of the agency, not just one thing that it is OK to do.I decided to be grateful for the little we got. But like you, I’ve always advocating throwing the manual and handbook in the trash. As long as I didn’t need it to find a way to argue with somebody who was telling I couldn’t do something, I stopped referring to it when I was a GS-7. I’ve also quit worrying so much about the details of the planning rule. Smart people can find ways to write good forest plans regardless of which version of the rule they are using. Others will find ways to do bad things no matter how much proscriptive language gets set down on paper. A clear vision, clearly articulated by leadership (something we don’t currently have), the right people in the right jobs (something we partly have), and strategic thinking (forget about it) will go a lot farther than a longer list of “shall nots.”

      • A clear vision, clearly articulated by leadership (something we don’t currently have), the right people in the right jobs (something we partly have), and strategic thinking (forget about it) will go a lot farther than a longer list of “shall nots

        I agree. So where is this “clear vision, clearly articulated by leadership”? You and I have long argued that it is lacking, and has been for a long time. So it goes. It all reminds me of a lyric from Don McLean’s Vincent,

        They would not listen, they’re not listening still. Perhaps they never will.

  4. “The policy makes it clear the Forest Service restoration is aimed not at going back to any point in time, but on restoring resiliency and sustainability.”

    I 100% agree that restoration shouldn’t be aimed at going back to any point in time, I’m just not sure that the Forest Service always agrees with that, especially in terms of what I’ve witnessed regarding what I’ve called the “War on Doug-fir” here in many parts of the northern Rockies.

    Also, any idea how Wally Covington’s “Pre-Settlement” model of forest restoration in Arizona fits into this “not going back to any point in time?”

    • I don’t know about Covington’s model but my take is that pre-settlement conditions going back to after the last major climate change are useful reference points,but not a goal. The farther we get from those conditions, the more inputs it will take to maintain the suite of plants and animals that evolved and adapted to those conditions. Knowing that should help with decisions about what conditions to attempt o manage for and what the costs of those decisions might be.

  5. “Restoration” to a humanless forest just isn’t possible but, that is just what many want, claiming mankind to be “a cancer upon this earth”. They resist restoring sustainable trees densities and species compositions, preferring high-intensity fires to “rebalance” everything. Any definition or policy that excludes silviculture, human presence, human impacts or site-specific science is fatally flawed, IMHO. Any paper that excludes forester input, is inadequate, as well. Restoration, by definition, means a return to a previous, desirable, sustainable and resilient condition. Blindly preserving impacted forests is NOT “restoration”.

  6. Matts comments “I 100% agree that restoration shouldn’t be aimed at going back to any point in time, I’m just not sure that the Forest Service always agrees with that, especially in terms of what I’ve witnessed regarding what I’ve called the “War on Doug-fir” here in many parts of the northern Rockies. ” are exactly what I have observed and experienced here in the east end of the northern Rockies.

    The silviculturalists still have a very heavy hand in any discussions of previous condition, or
    any goals of management, and we know that these people are fundamentally foresters with training and a desire to grow merchantable trees for logs, not necessarily a forest. Discussions hereabouts about future management conditions always circle back to a desire to grow “more desirable” trees. Doug fir are now trash trees in north Idaho.

    I guess we all need to remember that the USFS started out with a leader trained and steeped in the German forestry tradition, where the emphasis was almost totally towards wood production for lumber and fuel. We have all seen photos of a “well managed” forest stand in Germany, with straight rows of pine, little or no understory, no brush and almost no litter on the forest floor. That is how this agency started, and over the decades things did not change radically until the late 60s, when other resource specialists started asking questions and outside “radical” groups (such as the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society) began putting on the pressure for change. I lived and worked through that era in the agency. We were headed in the right direction until the 1980 elections, then…. You all know the story after Reagan.

    We as a society and as forest management professionals have allowed the last decade or two of wildfires frighten us into a reactive stance that is all out of proportion to the risks, at least in some areas. These mega fires are scary, and we don’t know how they might relate to climate change, or just dumb, random circumstance. But now the fear of fire has become the major factor in decision-making. And in response, what does Congress do? They slash the USFS budget, and dicatate that fighting fires after the meager fire funds are expended, must come off the top of the other budget items. Question…if mega wildfire is such a major fear, why don’t our leaders demand and get the funds to adequately gear-up and prevent and fight these fires? Instead we get congressional mandates to fund prevention efforts by contracts that cut some merchantable trees to provide funds for prescribed burning or thinning.

    As long as we continue to allow FIRE to dominate our thinking and planning we will flounder.
    A new perspective is desperately needed.

    • New perspectives are “undesirable” to stubborn people who use the past to block the future. Closed minds don’t want “discretion”, site-specific science or new perspectives. They simply don’t want ANY human impacts, for better or for worse. Those who ignore the facts of high-intensity wildfires doom forests (and humans) to ultra longterm damages, and “undesirable” impacts to our lives.

  7. If the Forest Service had a clearly articulated vision along with goals and objectives for restoring ecosystems then silviculturists would know that their job is to help figure out how to best produce those conditions. The production of logs would be a by-product that would help pay for the management. These sort of prescriptions are a lot more fun and challenging for a forestry professional than the “clearcut, burn, and plant superior seedlings” prescriptions of the bad old days.

    And yes, things got a whole lot better “after Reagan!”

  8. I just read the USFS definition for “ecological restoration” and threw up a little bit in my mouth.

    Jabberwocky is one of my favorite poems, but I wouldn’t ruin families and industries and forests in order to pay billions of dollars for it. Same with eco-babble, no matter how institutionalized it becomes.

    We’re way past due some kind of return to an applied science approach to the management of our federal lands. Either that, or “restore” them to the counties and reservations from which they were carved. They’ve become an albatross (another great poem) to the people who are native to these lands. Things were better in the days of Acronyms and Latin, but this is Animal Farm. It needs to stop. How? (The “why” is obvious).

  9. The definition is probably about as good as you can get with lawyers looking over the policy writers’ shoulders and political appointees holding the editor’s red pen.

    Anything more prescriptive would risk tying the hands of local managers who want to work with those “people who are native to these lands” and others in crafting management approaches for restoring the landscapes that people care so much about.

    If by “return to an applied science approach” you mean going back to the management practices of 30 years ago, I don’t think you’ll find much support from either the public, the scientific community, Forest Service employees,or, at least in the South, even the timber industry.


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