Rural System's

Modern Wild Faunal Resource System Management
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Ecosystem Management: An Analysis

Ecosystem is a word that has come into almost daily use. This has surprised many people, and older people can almost remember the time when it became popular in the early 1970's. Over the past two decades it has grown in use and interest like the world environment and ecology. It has not been very precisely used but that is O.K. There are other scientific words that once had very precise meaning to scientists and technicians but that have become generally and grossly used. For example, calories still has a scientific meaning but it is used very loosely. Ecosystem is one such word. I do not intend to give you a scientific definition of ecosystem management. I want you to understand a very large and complicated idea that sails under the flag of "ecosystem" and "ecosystem management", now a newer policy of the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

The ecosystem of the U.S. Forest Service is all of the forest, the air above it, and the soil, geology, and minerals below the surface. It is a volume, a multi-dimensional space, but it is much more than that because it is the image of what the space used to be. It is where you took a big buck, went courting, got stuck. It is where you saw an incredible sunset, where the morning tree shadows almost made you cry they were so pretty. It is more than an area on a map, more than a piece of ground. It is a large volume with emotional and esthetic dimensions and it even has a time dimension.

Not just history and esthetics are united with that big volume, but also economics and risks. Some of the trees of the forest were planted at great cost, and reasonable people want their investments to pay off. The big red oak is pretty, but its standing there is as good as dollars stacked up. There is more to the tree than just dollars because there is a game going on as if people were involved in a financial deal. The financial deal with the tree can pay off, but disease, fire, or insect might "steal it away." A lightning strike may destroy its value. Risk in the woods is as real as the odor of a skunk, unseen, but surely there.

The ecosystem of the Forest Service is all of that described above and also the temperature in which the trees grow, a temperature affected, we suspect, by factors far removed from our forested or range sites. Our trees now get more ultraviolet than they once did because of the ozone hole. We've all participated in creating this awful thing. Our trees will be affected, and so will we, and eventually we'll have to counterattack. In this area precipitation is affected by ocean winds as well as air masses from the West and those winds now bring rain and snow that is different than that tasted by your grandfather and mother when they went outdoors and let the rainfall on their faces.

An ecosystem is all of the above . . . and more, but I think it should be even more. Because ecosystem deal with "all outdoors", all of nature, and usually connote "biological", then I think that is too narrow. It misses three other major parts of a big interactive whole system. If ecosystem as part of the policy really means this whole system - that includes ecology, esthetics, economics, and energetics - then I am for it. If it only means the ecosystem (the set of natural communities) part, then there are problems ahead. To deal with the practical affairs of managing a particular forest with a particular ownership, we must deal with more than the ecosystem, more than just trees.

Once growing trees was the emphasis; now we have a larger view and are trying to learn all that it might mean. We know that if you plant trees too close together, then they will use up all the water around their roots and compete with each other for the last drop. They'll become stressed and when they are sick, they attract insects, and when this happens we tend to spray insecticides. When we spray we kill predator insects and before you know it, we can have other insect problems; birds have less food; and, in some cases, other animals suffer. . all because we planted trees too close together. What we want to do, what we are actively attempting to do, is to understand these sets of relationships so that we can avoid such problems later. More wood crowded on an acre once seemed to be a good idea, but now we know that the promised returns over the long run do not always materialize. Sure, they often did, but we do not need the failures. The failures hurt too many people - not all of course - but too many, too badly.

Management means making decisions and controlling systems to achieve desired ends. Managers of businesses work to achieve profits. That's not all they do, because they also want safety, to be legal, to avoid labor conflict. They even paint the building knowing of the high cost of doing so, but that is what will maintain reasonable profit over the long run. It may not be "necessary" but the wise manager does it anyway because they understand that maintenance pays off over the long run.

Ecosystem management is a phase with many meanings. Leadership has not yet been significant enough to centralize a definition or to clarify the concept. It is debated at a trivial level, also ignored as a gross irrelevant agency ploy. It is a phrase with potential meaning about as precise as "manage that ecosystem." It may mean or imply the fullness of modern total human system management, something much more, but displayed in the management of areas with trees.

I try to analyze to understand and compare my understanding with that of the reader. Ecology, properly defined, is a word symbol for study. Study, alone, is not adequate to the task ahead. The task is of total human system management (analysis design, implementation, and maintenance). The forest is a complex system but it is only a part of our larger system challenge. If we cannot manage forests well, there is little hope for managing the total human system. There is no clear boundary to "forests" as a subsystem; ecology has taught us to name the relations. We don't yet quantify them well. Failure to deal with urban expansion (fires), wetlands (aquifers), rangelands (riparian zones), coastal zones (bottomland hardwoods), or other systems will create problems. Systems are linked, strongly coupled. The ease with which the ill humor of "your end of the boat is sinking" comes to mind is disturbing. Not to deal with total systems is to plan disaster, at least continued waste, inefficiency, and festering crises without end.

The work needed at all levels, it seems to me, is to continue to work at two levels of analysis simultaneously. There is the need to work at the regional or landscape level and at the map pixel level (each square meter is unique). Nature may continue to work but I hold that nature's results may not match well with human needs. To deny this is to suggest the belief that there are no known vertebrate pests or that if they are, they are only the result of human intervention. To deny is to suggest returning the mid-US to the buffalo.

I see all ecosystems as managed. In this region there are no longer (since at least 16,000 bp) any natural systems. Old growth and wilderness areas are also managed. All are managed for the future, that undefined state at least as ambiguous as ecosystem management. A challenge within the well-formulated ecosystem management is to allocate properly resources to achieve intergenerational fairness or equity. Objectives need to be quantified and eventually graphed over time. People need to know when ecosystem management is being done. There must be evidence, recognizable. Results must be concrete; there must more than a gross probability statement. There must be desired end states (R) over time significantly different than those that would be provided by nature (Fig.1).

Figure 1. The desired end state R* can be stated and graphed (here the straight line) and then progress in managing a system over the years (time, t) seems reasonable, causing the difference between R and R* to be as small as possible . Excessive deviations of R are always possible (such as caused by storms, illegal activities, or budgetary failures). In some cases objectives may be improperly stated and they too can be revised.

I've only mentioned costs. Management is expensive. You do not "will" management; you do it, and every act including ever decision costs money. Every cost is not direct, a payment. There are externalities. There is an inexplicable de-emphasis of full-scale cost accounting and cost minimization in ecosystem management. This is because most of us work in the public arena. We do not sit on the knife-edge of the daily payroll, nearly consumed by thoughts about risks and costs. In public agency management, the source-field of the ecosystem management concept, the pattern is maximizing a budget, not in achieving system effectiveness at lowest cost. At least some low cost or break-even results seems desired by taxpayers.

In ecosystem management, the manager works for the long run, at least 50 years but usually 150 or longer. That's merely 2 average lifetimes and people have lived here in these forests since the glacier drizzled water in this direction 141 life-times ago.

Management like ecosystem also has several meanings and connotations. I think it usually means taking control over a situation. More exactly, it means taking control and heading toward some destination. Ecosystem management may simply mean managing a forest but it probably means much more than this. It may mean taking control and doing all of the following things simultaneously:

  1. Preventing local extinction of any plant species or animals species.
  2. Achieving an even age distribution of forest stands - some young, some old.
  3. Achieving a high proportion of the areas in ancient forests, non-renewable resources with various associated plants and animals.
  4. Harvesting an amount of timber that can meet current needs and leave an amount growing that will assure opportunities for future harvest.
  5. Reducing erosion.
  6. Improving groundwater quantity and quality.
  7. Reducing turbulence in streams.
  8. Stabilizing stream baseflow.
  9. Reducing stream peakflow.
  10. Assuring increasing or stable game populations.
  11. Minimizing agricultural, forestry, and horticultural damage from vertebrate pests.
  12. Increasing forest health.
  13. Restoring degraded or intensively used and abandoned systems.
  14. Assuring abundant, diverse recreational opportunities and sites for pleasant use.
  15. Assuring large areas judged by many to be visually beautiful.
  16. Improving water quality and fishing productivity within the lakes, ponds, and streams of the forest.
  17. Reducing losses of forests to insects and disease.
  18. Reducing organic pesticides in the lands and waters of the forest.
  19. Reducing introduced heavy metals into the forest.
  20. Working to improve air quality throughout the forest, pollution from within and outside the forest.
  21. Allowing mineral harvest within the present law but with superior reconstruction and rehabilitation.
  22. Promoting increased regional gross domestic product.
  23. Reducing people in the region below the regional poverty level.
  24. Reducing unemployment levels.
  25. Preserving indigenous culture and unique historical and cultural sites and sites of interest.
  26. Preventing loss of historic sites.
  27. Contributing to knowledge about the forest and its people.
  28. Providing a baseline or measuring future change.
  29. Providing wilderness and natural areas for all of their many, potential and actual benefits.
...all within budget; all within the laws; all at reasonable costs. Clearly, there is more to ecosystem management than growing trees or watching the things naturally happening on an isolated tract of land or water!

The processes that are needed to do ecosystem management in the forest to achieve the above list of 29 desired ends (the above items are the objectives essential in a systems approach; these are the criteria by which performance can be measured; these should become the criteria or standards!) are as follows:

  1. Make and keep an accurate inventory of all major forest resources using comprehensive data systems with geographic information.
  2. Use the inventory, continually up-dated, to assess changes.
  3. Attempt to achieve an improved index of forest health after this is well described and the criteria understood.
  4. Allow, where feasible, natural fires and their succession.
  5. Thin the trees in select sites to reduce fuel in some areas, increase it in others.
  6. Retain or encourage wildlife cover.
  7. Make harvests in only small area.
  8. Harvest no more than a small proportion of any watershed (perhaps 10%%).
  9. Seasonally close roads to reduce fire risks and wildlife disturbance.
  10. Retain a variety of old age stands of each forest type.
  11. Retain virtually all or a large number of snags and down-logs.
  12. Monitor and minimize nitrogen losses from areas.
  13. Encourage deep humus soils.
  14. Reduce new road building; improve erosion controls on existing ones.
  15. Minimize salvage operations in areas other than those under intensive management.
  16. Maintain wide stream-side protection zones based on established soil, geomorphology, water, and wildlife criteria.
  17. Encourage responsible use of wilderness areas.
  18. Minimize harvests on steep slopes.
  19. Minimize use of insecticides; use integrated pest damage management.
  20. Increase stair-step stream gradients.
  21. Move plants and animals from harvest areas to reduce chances for losses.
  22. Maximize size limits and rotation lengths on harvests.
  23. Assure proper animal units per grazing unit, avoiding any evidence of excessive use.
  24. Restore soil productivity wherever possible.
  25. Reduce stream channel deepening.
  26. Step up to using landscape and natural boundaries (rather than political boundaries) then move to landscape statistics loaded into pixels (small map cells, Alpha units).
  27. Compute and use a minimum viable population estimates.
  28. Compute and use analyses of cumulative effects.
  29. Include genetic principles while analyzing populations, then using the analyses to seek to preserve genetic differences.
  30. Combine monitoring with actions that are corrective and adaptive. There must be a result of monitoring.
  31. Study carefully the concept of corridors; there may be counterintuitive consequences and excessive costs to this practice of yet-unproven merit
  32. Seek alternative means to achieve desirable natural conditions once achieved by natural processes (e.g., fuel reduction by lightning fires).
  33. Develop, and manage superior transportation systems in wildlands (because of their costs and magnitude and variety of effects.)
What of the future? There is an evolution of concepts underway: What might be next? Must it be a simple, linear step? Where is the leadership?

If ecosystem management is the answer, what is the question?

The question is "leading", more complex than apparent, but if it must be answered, then ...

What is the question?

The complex answer is: The question is... What is the paradigm and set of strategies and tactics for how those people responsible for a forest system should gain substantial control over owned and surrounding lands and the users so that they continually produce a large set of benefits within acceptable limits into perpetuity?

Perhaps the answer may be called ecosystem management but there may be a larger concept deserving a different name. I now work with rural system management and its E-catalog.

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Last revision January 15, 2004.