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October 27, 2005

Sustainability commentary
Tony Erba

Here's a insightful, and perhaps naive, look at sustainability...comments are welcome. When you read this, think about these questions if you don't agree:

OK, and now what?

• What are we giving up?

• What are we exactly gaining in return?

• If we are not satisfied, is there a better way?

Here's the link - http://www.fs.fed.us/sustained/commentary-fall-2005.html

Posted by Tony Erba on October 27, 2005 at 08:24 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Mike Dechter

Sustainability is a hard one. It is such a generalized concept that I find it impossible to apply on a project-by-project basis. For example, will a proposed mine or an OHV special use permit affect the supply of other resources on the land? Will natural thresholds be crossed to which we cannot easily return? Also, if sustainability includes social, economic, and ecological elements; how do you deal with short-term and long-term trade-offs between these elements? And of course, there's always missing information so that you really aren't ever 100% sure what those trade-offs are.

It is because of this that though sustainability may be a social value, it is not necessarily determined by society. This is an important point because it tells us that though we may make better decisions when embracing the concept of sustainability, those decisions are not necessarily going to be sustainable over the long run.

Because of this I find that for us to truly 'take the journey' we need to focus on some specific areas:

Monitoring - A specter always looming in the background of any planning discussion. There is never very much money for monitoring, and when budgets shrink it is often the first to go. Monitoring, however, is necessary to determine natural thresholds that affect the sustainability of systems and to measure how our activities are affecting them.

Ecological Services - For us to accurately plan for sustainable practices there must be a more comprehensive and quantifiable way to identify and understand trade-offs that result from human activities in our natural environments.

Collaborative planning - as mentioned by Tony in his Sustainable Development e-news commentary, I do belive that a multitude of viewpoints will help efforts toward sustainability. Our agency regulations are so complicated and specific that only 'special interests' uninterested in sustainability are given an incentive to work with the FS at the local levels. By embracing more collaborative approaches outside the boundaries of 'notice and comment' regulations, we'll be able to work towards better solutions and more effective questions.

Mike Dechter | Oct 28, 2005 1:37:57 PM

Posted by: Tom Mitchell

I agree with much of what both Tony and particularly Mike included in their notes. But there is one area is unclear to me.

Tony states that: “Sustainability is a social value. As such, it cannot be an absolute." and “...human values define what "healthy systems" are.” I agree that sustainability is a social value. But is that all it is? Is there a scientific basis for sustainability? Or is it just our perceptions that define a healthy system?

A system can be defined as a set of interactive and interdependent parts that collectively exhibit a high degree of closure. A restatement of part of this definition could be, if all parts of a system are interdependent, then in order for the system to continue to exist, all parts of the system must be present and “healthy.” This definition of a system/ecosystem could provide a basis for a definition of sustainability that is not subjective. A basis for a researched based definition of sustainability that is not based upon value judgements/perceptions. And for a specific ecosystem or group of ecosystems, what is necessary for “sustainability” may change through time, but only as our understanding of the involved ecosystems expands based upon research. Perhaps this is well understood as evidenced by such laws as the Endangered Species Act.

One way to define sustainability could be as an equilibrium state for the system where all parts of the system are present and are healthy. If such a state can be achieved and maintained through time, then the ecosystem will be maintained through time; will be sustained.

There are three kinds of “equilibrium” states for systems: positive, negative and neutral. A positive equilibrium state is like marble at the bottom of a bowl. A perturbation such as a wildfire can move the marble up the side of the bowl, but when the perturbation ends, the marble will roll back and forth until it eventually ends at the bottom of the bowl again. Neutral equilibrium is like a marble on a flat floor. A perturbation can move the marble away from its current equilibrium point and when the perturbation ends, the marble will continue to roll and eventually stop at another equilibrium point. Negative equilibrium is like a marble on the top of a bowl turned upside down. A perturbation will move the marble toward the downward sloping part of the bowl and even after the perturbation ends, the marble will continue rolling down that surface.

In these terms, both positive and neutral equilibrium states could be defined as sustainable. Negative equilibrium points can lead to system collapse in response to perturbations, again such as wildfire, and therefore are unsustainable.

How can this help the agency in Forest Planning and then help Mark deal with sustainability on a project by project basis?

For most complex systems, there are many positive or neutral equilibrium states that are possible. This appears true of forest ecosystems. Each of these equilibrium states can be achieved and maintained through time with all of the parts of the ecosystems in a healthy condition. In each of these equilibrium points, the forest ecosystem will “produce” a specific mix of timber, amount of habitat for each wildlife species, and water quantity and quality and will have a particular visual character and tolerance/suitability for a specific mix of recreation use and experiences.

What would happen if such equilibrium points for involved ecosystems were viewed as/defined as very refined descriptions of “forest conditions” as used in the 2005 planning regulations as a basis for collaboration with stakeholders? And assuming an “allocation” of specific land areas to specific ecosystem equilibrium states are included within the forest plan, then it seems like it would be fairly easy to design projects that attempt to achieve the ecosystem equilibrium state selected for a particular area on the forest. Would this tie “sustainability” to project design and implementation?

Tom Mitchell | Nov 2, 2005 9:21:08 AM

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