Dr. Jerry Franklin (r) walks into the audience to take questions at the end of the Charles Newlon Forestry Forum. (graphic courtesy of the Good Stewards Coalition)

story by Melanie Hughes McDermott, science & technology committee

Last October, the audience attending the First Annual Charles Newlon Forestry Forum was treated to a fascinating account of the evolution and future directions of the science and practice of forestry from of one of its key proponents and influencers for the past half century, University of Washington professor Dr. Jerry Franklin.

My favourite quote of the evening was “Forestry is a social science!” You might attribute that to bias resulting from my own career as a social scientist operating in the field, but I believe Dr. Franklin’s lecture convincingly drove the point home.

Economics, the dismal [social] science, accounts for much of the transformation of the timber-oriented forestry of Franklin’s early career, accompanied by concurrent social and cultural shifts, notably the growing engagement of the public. The latter has transformed the forester’s profession from one of playing the role of the expert (“we were the priesthood”) to one acting as interpreter-mediator (this, despite the fact that “we went into the woods in the first place to get away from you [the audience]!”).

Dr. Franklin’s lifework has been first to develop, and now to promote, ecological forestry. This approach answers not only the needs of forest health, but also meets social goals. For example, it is suited to the values and objectives of small private landowners in the U.S., who do not want to dispose of their forestland, but do want to make enough money off of it to pay for the management interventions necessary to retain it in good condition for their children and grandchildren. Ecological forestry sustains the functional capacity of forest, while maintaining a cash flow (rather than maximum profit) to pay for the work and meet family needs.

E.O. Wilson is wrong to claim, argues Franklin, that we can and must conserve the world’s biodiversity in nature preserves. Instead, we need landscape scale restoration and management if we are to have a prayer of doing so. Forest restoration and management costs money, so it will be necessary to make money from forests to pay for it. [An editorial note: Forest restoration and monitoring is going to cost much more money than can be earned from the land, particularly in short run. How do we develop the understanding and political will to make those sorts of investments?]

More colourful quotes followed (paraphrasing slightly from my notes): “In era of climate change and intense social change, we can’t ‘leave it to Nature.’ If we do that, we will lose the things we care about… No claiming ‘we [humanity] screwed up, now we need to stay out!’ … That’s illogical – the forest will burn up! …It’s the Anthropocene – get used to it!… It’s time for us to step up! We must collaborate with Nature and practice real stewardship.”

 

The forestry profession came under criticism, but neither were conservation biologists spared. Together, we have failed to persuade society that we must change our ways. The ‘plantations and protected areas’ model won’t work. We need to think about conservation everywhere, including in agriculture, in other words – “all lands management.”

Concerns were expressed during the Q and A about the mismatch between this kind and scale of forestry and our current property and regulatory framework, as well as the increasingly fragmented ownership of forestland. In response, Franklin spoke about the need for an “experimental, adaptive approach. We hate uncertainty but we are facing more and more of it. This calls for lots of monitoring, thus lots of investment…a willingness to make mistakes – and then fix them.”

A member of the audience asked for advice for moving past the high levels of mistrust prevalent in New Jersey among certain stakeholder groups, such as between urban and suburban environmentalists vs. rural landowners, and between (some) foresters and (some) conservationists that opens up in particular when forest operations are proposed on public lands.

Yes, lack of trust is a problem, Franklin conceded. The best examples he knows of moving on from high levels of mistrust are of public land collaboratives in the West. People in conflict found they could develop trust when a group of individuals works together over time to develop consensus on what must be done to steward a particular piece of land. Engage communities in monitoring. Involve stakeholders.

A questioner asked if there is still a role for strict reserves. Yes, came the answer, particularly in small high ecological value areas, often associated with wetlands. We need mesoscale reserves.

The audience, comprising a diversity of perspectives – consulting foresters, environmental groups, forest landowners and state and local government employees, received Franklin’s engaging address very warmly and attentively. I saw much nodding of heads. I was left wondering — was there a meeting of minds? Did anyone change his or her viewpoint, or was there simply something for everyone? The devil lies in the details. For example, in such a densely developed state as New Jersey counts, what counts as a “mesoscale reserve”? How do we decide what species and values take priority on which particular plots of land (e.g., rare forest interior plant species vs. rare early successional warbler)?

Another audience member wisely called for the development of more activities to bring people together: demo projects, field trips, short courses, informal discussions. Let’s talk to each other more. Look at examples and learn from them.

What I took away from this inspiring talk and the dialogue it provoked was a clear call to foresters (1) to put more effort into engaging with, educating, and learning from members of the public, and (2) to work to develop trust and build consensus with our environmentalist sisters and brothers on how to act now to save the forest ecosystems we all value.   Saying ‘no’ is not an option!