Forest Health and Ecosystem Management

By Sampson, Neil | American Forests, July-August 1993 | Go to article overview

Forest Health and Ecosystem Management


Sampson, Neil, American Forests


Not long ago, a forester introducing an important study of the serious problems in the forests of the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon went to considerable length to explain that the study team had discarded the term "forest health" in favor of the term "ecosystem health" because they thought the former was too narrowly focused. I found that surprising, and somewhat bothersome. Are most of us still, in the 1990s, thinking of forests only as groups of trees? If we are, that may be one of the reasons we're having trouble communicating, about both forest health and ecosystem management.

A forest, in my vocabulary, is a very real area on a map, and includes everything within that area, and every process that goes on. But a map fails to do it full justice, because every forest is four-dimensional, with time as one critical dimension. Like any other very complex system, we see only a tiny portion of any forest at any time, and understand it in only the most rudimentary ways.

We may separate a forest's components--soils, waters, trees, animals--so we can study or talk about them more specifically, but when we try to understand and maintain the forest itself, we must consider all of these as integral, interrelating parts of the system, not as stand-alone units. And we must also be aware that humans have been integral parts of most forests for centuries, even though their actions may have changed significantly in recent history due to increased populations and changing technologies.

I'm gratified to see two new documents from the forestry community that seem to take these positions as a basic platform--"Healthy Forests for America's Future," the new Forest Service strategy document on forest health, and "Sustaining Long-Term Forest Health and Productivity," the report of a Task Force of the Society of American Foresters. Both are invaluable new aids in spurring debate as to just what forest health means, and how people might support healthy forests.

Every time the forest-health debate breaks out, the metaphor that springs to mind is human health. There seem to be many similarities. Doctors spent centuries identifying causes and cures for diseases. …

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