by Melanie McDermott, Science & technology committee

Based upon my reading, the 1995 NJ Forestry and Wetlands BMP Manual seems to strike a reasonable balance between aiming for outcomes and setting restrictive rules. Its level of generality both makes it accessible – brief and easy to understand – and applicable to the state’s diverse array of forest types and conditions.

Ecosystems 2Any process of setting resource management standards, just like any process of resource management planning, can – and, many would say, should – provide an opportunity for a conversation among stakeholders about desired outcomes and the values they represent. Standards, guidelines, rules and/or plans can be classified on a spectrum that runs from highly prescriptive (“do’s” and “don’ts”) to outcome/performance-based (“we don’t care how you got there, just show us the result”). Prescriptive approaches tend to be applied where the stakes are high, trust is low and/or values are in conflict. Heterogeneous environments/situations, high uncertainty, and trusting relationships – or at least repeated interactions among parties known to each other, are all factors that often make the greater flexibility of outcomes-based approaches advantageous. Yet another consideration is that outcomes-based guidelines are generally much more concise and easily understood by non-experts and implemented by experts than are prescriptive approaches, which require much more specificity.

The 1995 NJ BMP Manual names desired outcomes about which there is broad consensus: “minimize soil erosion, protect water quality…enhance fish and wildlife habitat and improve recreational opportunities” and “management of natural lands for the continued health, diversity and productivity of ecological systems.” The purpose of the BMP is to see to it that these outcomes are achieved – or at the very least not harmed, through the practice of silviculture, i.e., involving the cutting of trees, prescribed fire, etc. Economic benefit is left unstated as an implicit objective. The real test, of course, comes in weighing and balancing among these objectives and the different parties who make these decisions and benefit from them.

Outcomes-based rules are only meaningful and effective when actual outcomes are monitored and the responsible parties are held accountable to addressing any the gaps between the intended and desired outcomes. They require adaptive management, which is well-suited to dynamic and disturbance-dependent ecosystems.

It would seem the 20 years passed after the issuance of the BMP Manual would provide the opportunity to judge the guidelines, or rather, their implementation, on the basis of the actual outcomes that have transpired. What do metrics of water quality, biodiversity, recreational access and economic productivity show? In practice, it’s tough to make a direct evaluation since there so many other factors are at play; so many different pressures shape resource outcomes. One approach could be to compare outcomes with any other states or locales that have taken a more prescriptive approach to forest practice and wetlands management. Even within NJ, we have other wetlands uses that are regulated more prescriptively – does the evidence suggest better or worse outcomes? These might be interesting avenues to explore.

While the issue of balancing among at times-conflicting objectives is clearly outside the scope of the BMP manual itself, any attempt to update or revise it must grapple with these “process” questions directly. Social and political issues then come to the fore, calling for attention to whose values/desired outcomes receive priority and whose voices are heard in the process (how to weigh landowner rights vs. public interest, which publics (environmentalists, recreationists, workers, etc., etc.)

High stakes (scarce/endangered resources), high social conflict, and low trust all can lead to a push for more prescriptive rules just as dynamic and diverse environments and higher uncertainty (e.g., associated with climate change, invasive pests and diseases) would suggest that flexible, adaptive, learn-as-we-ago approaches would be the most effective.

BMP guidelines embody value-decisions about desired outcomes, whether rules-based (implicit) or outcomes-based (explicit). Foresters can lead the way in opening up an informed discussion about the outcomes we want to see. What do you think? What are the outcomes — and their relative priorities – that you would like a Forestry and Wetlands BMP manual promote?