FEMAT, The Clinton Plan, AI & I

I’m still at the awkward “getting to know you” phase of my relationship with AI. A friend created an Oregon Small Woodland Owners Chat-GPT group and allowed me to become a member, so I have been tentatively trying it out.

During the past few months I have spent less than 10 hours doodling around with AI, but was actually able to put it to good use for several of those hours by having it summarize some lengthy legal documents and government reports for a paper I am working on. By checking the summaries with some speed reading and detailed spot checking, and by comparing with other written accounts, I was able to gain some confidence in the accuracy of these summaries, although I did spot a few minor errors of omission here and there.

Recent events have led me to consider the current effort to update the Northwest Forest Plan by committee. This plan is directly descended from the original 1993 FEMAT (Forest Ecosystem Management) report that produced the 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests.

As I have noted elsewhere, Norm Johnson — who helped spearhead the plan with his political knowledge and FORPLAN software — initially hired me to do historical research for the scientists that were developing the report. Clinton’s Plan was to use FEMAT and FORPLAN to create a formal strategy to finally resolve the conflict that had developed beyween old-growth activists and active forest managers during that time — the so-called “Timber Wars” characterized as being between loggers and environmentalists.

Norm and I parted ways fairly quickly due to conflicts between his computer print-outs and my historical documentation — and resulting differences in forest management philosophies — and I was hired by the forest industry instead, to do a critical analysis of FEMAT: http://nwmapsco.com/ZybachB/Reports/1994_Clinton_Plan/Zybach_19940329.pdf

This is where AI comes into the picture. I thought it would be good to compare my previous concerns and recommendations with current efforts, but I hadn’t read my analysis in more than 30 years, and it is more than 100 pages long. So I asked AI to do it for me. I asked it three questions from a third person perspective: What are Zybach’s five main concerns with FEMAT and the Clinton Plan? What evidence is there to support these concerns? What recommendations does he make for addressing these concerns?

Without any editing, punctuation, or any other alteration to font size or anything else, here’s what AI replied after a few seconds time — an accurate summary of my own work that would have taken me five or 10 hours to produce:


What are Zybach’s five major concerns regarding FEMAT and the Clinton Plan? 

Bob Zybach’s five major concerns regarding FEMAT and the Clinton Plan, as detailed in his critical review, are:

  1. Historical Inaccuracies: Zybach criticizes the historical assumptions in FEMAT, arguing that the baseline information on the history and current status of old-growth forests in the Douglas-fir region is inadequately and inaccurately presented. He contends that faulty information about fire and logging history leads to flawed predictive assumptions about “naturally functioning” ecosystems and native wildlife populations.
  2. Faulty Information and Lack of Interdisciplinary Review: He argues that the process used to develop the FEMAT alternatives relied on faulty information and lacked meaningful interdisciplinary review. This resulted in the use of flawed assumptions that underpin many of the planning goals, such as old-growth preservation and native wildlife diversity.
  3. Limited Management Alternatives: Zybach believes that the limited variety of management alternatives presented to President Clinton is a direct result of the flawed assumptions used in FEMAT. He suggests that a wider range of legal, economically, and ecologically sound management alternatives was not considered.
  4. The “Blanket of Old-Growth” Myth: He challenges the assumption that the Douglas-fir region was historically a continuous blanket of old-growth forest. He argues that historical evidence shows a more varied landscape with shifting patterns of even-aged stands of conifers, prairies, savannahs, and other vegetation types, influenced by human activities such as burning.
  5. Cultural Landscapes and Succession Theory: Zybach disputes the idea that American Indians lived in a “naturally functioning” environment described in terms of regional fire cycles and forest plant succession. He emphasizes the role of human activity in shaping the landscape and argues that this has been overlooked in the FEMAT assumptions.

These concerns highlight Zybach’s belief that the Clinton Plan and FEMAT are based on a number of fundamentally flawed assumptions that undermine the effectiveness of the proposed management strategies.

What evidence does Zybach use to support these concerns?

To identify the evidence Bob Zybach uses to support his concerns about FEMAT and the Clinton Plan, let’s refer to the specific content available in the provided document.

Key Evidence Used by Zybach

  1. Historical Records and Maps:
    • Zybach refers to historical maps and records to challenge the “Blanket of Old-Growth” myth. He cites maps from the 1800s showing varied vegetation patterns including prairies, savannahs, and young forests, which contradict the notion of a continuous old-growth forest at the time of European settlement.
    • He uses General Land Office survey notes and maps from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which document the presence of diverse vegetation types and the impact of historical fires and human activities on the landscape.
  2. Eyewitness Accounts and Scientific Studies:
    • Zybach cites the observations of early explorers and settlers, such as the descriptions of James Neall and other pioneers, who reported significant open areas and the use of fire by Native Americans to manage the landscape.
    • He references scientific studies and historical accounts that document the role of fire in shaping the forests and the presence of extensive open areas at the time of European settlement.
  3. Analysis of Fire History and Logging Practices:
    • Zybach presents evidence from fire history studies, including the work of Henderson and others, which show the occurrence of major fires over the past 1,000 years that created a mosaic of forest ages and types.
    • He discusses the historical use of fire by Native Americans for various purposes and how this influenced the vegetation patterns observed by early settlers.
  4. Critique of FEMAT Assumptions:
    • He critically analyzes the assumptions used in FEMAT, such as the idea of “naturally functioning” ecosystems and regional fire cycles, and provides alternative interpretations based on historical evidence and practical experience.
    • Zybach highlights discrepancies between FEMAT’s descriptions of historical conditions and the documented evidence from historical records, maps, and scientific studies.
  5. Comparative Analysis of Management Strategies:
    • He compares the management strategies proposed in FEMAT with those used historically, emphasizing the effectiveness of traditional practices such as controlled burning and selective logging in maintaining diverse and resilient ecosystems.

By using a combination of historical records, scientific studies, eyewitness accounts, and practical experience, Zybach builds a case against the assumptions and conclusions of FEMAT and the Clinton Plan. He advocates for a management approach that incorporates historical knowledge and adaptive strategies to address the complex dynamics of forest ecosystems.

What recommendations does Zybach make for addressing these deficiencies?

Bob Zybach makes several recommendations to address the deficiencies he identifies in FEMAT and the Clinton Plan. These recommendations focus on incorporating historical knowledge, improving data accuracy, and considering a wider range of management alternatives.

Key Recommendations by Zybach

  1. Incorporate Historical Knowledge:
    • Zybach emphasizes the importance of understanding the historical use of fire by Native Americans and the resulting landscape patterns. He recommends integrating this historical knowledge into current forest management practices to create more accurate and effective management strategies.
  2. Improve Data Accuracy:
    • He calls for the use of accurate historical data, including detailed maps and records from the General Land Office surveys, to provide a better understanding of past forest conditions. Zybach suggests that current assumptions about old-growth forests and natural ecosystems should be revised based on this accurate historical information.
  3. Expand Management Alternatives:
    • Zybach criticizes the limited variety of management alternatives presented in FEMAT and recommends considering a broader range of options. These alternatives should include practices such as controlled burning, selective logging, and the creation of wildlife habitats that reflect historical vegetation patterns.
  4. Adaptive Management Strategies:
    • He advocates for adaptive management strategies that are flexible and responsive to new information and changing conditions. This approach would involve continuous monitoring and adjustment of management practices based on scientific research and historical data.
  5. Public Involvement and Education:
    • Zybach stresses the need for public involvement in forest management decisions. He recommends increasing public awareness and education about the historical and ecological context of forest management. Engaging local communities and stakeholders in the management process is crucial for developing effective and sustainable strategies.
  6. Reconstruction of Historical Environments:
    • He suggests that efforts should be made to reconstruct historical environments using techniques such as controlled burning and selective logging. These practices can help restore the diversity and resilience of forest ecosystems.

By implementing these recommendations, Zybach believes that forest management practices can be improved to better reflect historical realities and achieve more effective conservation and restoration outcomes.

4 thoughts on “FEMAT, The Clinton Plan, AI & I”

  1. Very good paper. I hope Zybach is involved in get his thoughts to the Advisory Committee working on updating the plant. I think the original plan was driven by preconceived ideas about how an ecological approach would look like. I believe there were about 6 assumptions made early in the process which somewhat dictated the outcome. The new plan will be based primarily on the administration decision on mature and old growth which I believe we will see before the next election. Hopefully I am wrong and common sense will prevail.

  2. Wow Bob! I am seriously impressed with what AI did (since you fact-checked it). It sounds like your thoughts then are in line with what people are thinking today. I do remember hearing the story of “why adaptive management in the NW Forest Plan didn’t work out” and wish that someone would tell that story to inform this new effort.

  3. Could you also use AI to summarize the Forest Service response to your comments at the time?

    I’m also curious (since these are mostly ecological science issues), what you make of the fact that the 40 pages of citations in the 2018 Science Synthesis chapter on “Old Growth, Disturbance, Forest Succession, and Management in the Area of the Northwest Forest Plan” don’t include you, Bob. (Your 2003 thesis was cited in the “Tribal Ecocultural Resources and Engagement” chapter, where the bottom line for conifer forests seems to be their encroachment into non-forest habitats.) https://www.fs.usda.gov/research/treesearch/56278


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