Chapter 4: Assemblages, Ecosystems and Change

One of the topics addressed in Chapter 4 is Margaret Davis’ pollen work (pages 80-82 in the hardcopy edition). We people who study trees are familiar with the ideas of how different species came back from their refugia during glaciation, and how different assemblages of species have occurred through time. Many different groups of plants and animals have existed in different combinations on any particular piece of land through time. Changes can be due to changes in soil (e.g., Mt. St. Helens), changes in human activities (e.g., Appalachian “market-induced succession”) or invasive species (e.g., Chestnut blight) and changes are always going on (e.g., climate, development, etc.).

When I worked for the Forest Service, people would talk about how “ecosystems have evolved” and I would ask “what is the mechanism for an “ecosystem” to evolve?” If I had one critique with the ideas in Dan’s book, it is that he did not go far enough in talking about the Emperor’s missing clothes. Just reifying an “ecosystem” places natural phenomena within a human idea context and makes it possible to say all kinds of fuzzy things about an “ecosystem”. I think people use it as shorthand for more complex ideas, but the problem is that it lacks specificity and clarity.

I just ran across one this morning, that policies need to address “fire’s role in forest ecosystems.” My first question would be “fire’s role as to what aspect of plants, animals, water, soil and air?” Fire’s role, like climate or anything else, is not a constant. I like this quote from the book:
P 85. ..

we find that nature undisturbed is not constant in form, structure or proportion but change at every scale of time and space. The old idea of a static landscape, like a single musical chord sounded foresver, must be abandoned, for such a landscape never existed except in our imagination. Nature undisturbed by human influence seems more like a symphony whose harmonies arise from variation and change over many scales of time and space, changing with individual births and deaths, local disruptions and recoveries, larger-scale responses to climate from one glacial age to another, and to the slower alterations of soils and yet larger variations between glacial ages.

If you have been a reader and writer of Forest Service regulations lately, the “form, structure or proportion” will call back to your memory perhaps “ecosystem composition, structure and function”:

2012 Planning Rule: Alternative A would require plan components to provide for the maintenance or restoration of the structure, function, composition, and connectivity of healthy and resilient aquatic ecosystems and watersheds in the plan area.

2001 and Colorado Roadless Rule: Tree cutting, sale, or removal is needed to maintain or restore the characteristics of ecosystem composition, structure and processes.

These statements, in regulation, imply that certain characteristics should be “maintained or restored”; that is, maintained as they are today, or restored to what they used to be (yes, I realize that some in the FS is talking that “restoration” doesn’t mean that, it really means “resilience to change”, but English is English, and if you mean that you should put in in regulation, IMHO.)

Now, scientists reviewed all these regulations and did not say “hey, that doesn’t take into account current scientific thought, because there is no one unchanging way that composition structure and function is “supposed to be” and that “needs to be” maintained or restored.” I think in Dan’s book, he is again asking the question “if science tells us that everything is changing, why do scientists (including ecologists, I assume) review and accept regulations and other policies that seem to say the opposite?

I have three hypotheses. One is that the ecosystem idea has fuzzed everyone’s thinking. The second is that so much science is based on these ideas that scientists can’t imagine a world without them. Third is that scientists don’t study the “appeal to nature” idea in philosophy nor the history of its use (see Wikipedia here), so they don’t see that using it has conceptual problems way beyond the scientific community.

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5 Responses to Chapter 4: Assemblages, Ecosystems and Change

  1. Edgar A. Kupillas says:

    You have done a good job of dealing with a fuzzy aspect of Forestry and other natural resource areas such as agriculture, mineral extraction and others. What is meant by “restoration”? When someone brings that up I ask to what time period does this “restoration” apply: when white settlers first came to the West?, 300 years before?, Ice age? Pleistocene period? in order to be “good”. The next question is: good for whom? current humans?, the animal world without humans?, Gaia?
    So what does a forester think about when he is out there marking trees or laying out a timber sale, hmmmmm?

  2. Sharon says:

    Edgar, that’s a great question. I will tell you what I was taught…back in the day, foresters were trained to manage forests according to what landowners wanted (this was especially true at Eastern schools I attended). They might want to make money by selling trees. They might want to have more turkey to shoot. Your job as a forester was to go out and see what was there, and give the landowner some options as to what they could do, given the way trees grow, markets, etc.
    Not all that different from an ag extension specialist.. what could you do with this prairie? You could raise cows, grow milo, or use it for CRP.

    Maybe dating to Pinchot, foresters also became “those who knew about forests”. When I took forestry you had to learn about wildlife, water, range, recreation, sociology, economics, policy etc. So that background became a natural kind of academic background to be involved in determining how federal forests should be managed and often line officers had backgrounds in forestry. Nowadays people from all backgrounds can be Responsible Officials, within the bounds set by Congress and federal judges. Which isn’t a problem to me as long as the ideas that the decisions are based on make some biological and philosophical sense.

    Hence my concern about ideas like “maintaining and restoring” previous conditions. I also don’t like it because I think it’s dishonest. Since we’re not moving the Euros out of the US (and we’re not putting constraints on population growth), we’re really not going to go back and aren’t even going to stay the same. People should be debating what we are going to do or not do with federal forests, and it should be a political decision based on what is possible and our economic and environmental desires, not what used to be.

    Ideas of maintaining what is and restoring the past can cover up the fact that there are political choices about which things we will attempt to return to a previous state (say lynx) and others we will not (removing ski areas), and others we can not (past gene frequencies in any populations, from viruses to sequoias). According to this idea, our growing populations of humans can never have another parking lot or trailhead (or horrors, a road!). Unless those words in the regulations mean something else than what they say.

    Back to your question, if a federal forester is marking a timber sale, the why should be in the purpose and need section of the EA or the EIS, or the decision document for the CE.

  3. Jon Haber says:

    I have two other hypotheses. One is that the scientists were not in charge of the planning rule, so while they may have brought up these points, such nuances were not considered especially important by those who were in charge. The other is that ‘historic range of of variation’ became a mantra for active management over the last quarter century. This provided a convenient point of reference for ‘restoration.’ (I think there was a PR component to this – who could argue with ‘restoration?’) To a large degree the new planning rule has just captured the current practice of the agency. In a nod to global warming, the term used in the rule is ‘natural’ instead of ‘historic’ variation (which, while it has its own problems, at least acknowledges that ‘historic’ may not be the best point of reference).

    There were some voices raised against including the phrase ‘maintain or restore’ as a universal planning. I suggest now that the best way to read this language is to focus on the fact that what will be maintained or restored is ‘ecological integrity,’ which is defined in terms of natural range of variability. This allows more of a moving target to ‘restore’ to.

    I think the regulations mean what they say, but you have to read them pretty carefully. ‘Ecological integrity’ (and NRV) applies to ‘ecological characteristics,’ but not all ‘ecological conditions.’ The former is limited (by example) to ‘composition, structure, function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity.’ The latter includes roads and ski areas. You can add new roads and expand ski areas if you can still meet the ecological integrity requirement.

  4. Bob Sproul says:

    If a federal forester is marking a TIMBER SALE he should be marking most of the trees that have the highest economic value for the market that the sale is intended for. There are always plenty of other trees around for leave trees. (A new word, to me, that has show up lately, “legacy snags”.)

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