The US Forest Service for the 21st Century:
Who are we?
by Dave Iverson

Unity of purpose: ecosystem management

In a world where humans impacts are everywhere, and increasing at an increasing rate, ecosystem management must entertain the paradox that "We are managed by ecosystems, and we manage ecosystems." When we think of "management," though,we usually think about "us doing something." I thought that it might be novel to stand that perception on its head. So I propose that we define ecosystem management as follows:

Ecosystem management includes a recognition that we are managed by ecosystems and nurtured in ecosystems. In turn, we must manage ourselves and our actions accordingly. We must learn to work within natural cycles and within systems' limits if we are to maintain any semblance of quality of life.

Ecosystem management involves life-long learning. We find that we are at once teachers and learners in all that we do. That fundamental reality serves as a guidelight and constant reminder of our US Forest Service mission: "Caring for the land and serving people." Much like ecosystem management, "Caring for the land and serving people" is a shared mission, one that must ultimately be shared widely across the face of Earth.

A couple of years ago a collaboration of managers defined ecosystem management to mean 1:

  • Working together to sustain ecosystem health and integrity, including conservation of biodiversity.
  • Providing for people's needs within the capabilities of ecosystems.
  • Taking a whole systems approach where we integrate policy goals on multiple levels or scales.
  • Applying an adaptive management approach where we use the best scientific knowledge and technologies, clearly recognize knowledge gaps, build shared expectations among those who have a stake in ecosystem outcomes, monitor actions, and adjust management actions accordingly.
  • Opening access to information and involvement in decisionmaking processes.

Ecosystem management requires that we embrace a new and unfamiliar standard for land and resource stewardship: cooperation in pursuit of shared goals- particularly biodiversity and the protection of endangered species and endangered ecosystems. Along with many others, the Forest Service has embraced ecosystem stewardship. We can define Ecosystem stewardship as follows: "We work with others to pass along to our grandchildren intact, healthy ecosystems -- enhancing Earth's biotic wealth."

Collectively we seek clean air and water, biological diversity, balanced energy flows, and so on. But cooperation requires that we understand and identify our specific purposes relative to those held by others in "federations" of cooperators. Cooperation requires that we identify and understand our own niche and cross-compare that with niches inhabited by others. To date, we in the Forest Service have focused attention broadly as ecosystem managers,and have failed to identify any particular niche for our organization. It is as if in pursuit of "multiple use" we have tried to become everything to everyone. Some would argue that the ultimate irony is that in an attempt to become everything to everyone we may become nothing to anyone.

Our niche:

As the US Forest Service we might identify ourselves as a forest ecosystem health maintenance organization with special emphasis on protecting and enhancing ecosystems for biodiversity and other public benefits. We would do this through cooperative education, action, and deliberate "no action" to set context for learning. And we would point out that:

We are not the US Park Service. We provide for a broader array of services and uses from lands under our stewardship, including some extractive uses for timber, grazing, mining, and oil &gas leasing, etc. Still, we work to establish Wilderness areas and other types of "reserves" situationally when shared goals suggest this to be a prudent course of action.
We are not forest industry ecosystem stewards. And we are not agricultural ecosystem stewards. We generally seek to encourage longer life spans for vegetative species than do these managers. We facilitate broader public engagement in developing ecosystem stewardship and public service goals and plans, and in implementing, monitoring, and learning from them. We preserve intact "native" 2 systems over large expanses to serve as controls for adaptive management experiments.

Does this help to identify our niche? Is is close to right? Dead wrong?

What more might we do, and at what scales? I would not venture to guess at answers to these questions, but believe that there is merit to begin discussing "niche."

Harmony through collaboration:

In concert with other ecosystem stewards we in the Forest Service work toward sustainability; toward enhancing quality of life for humans and other inhabitants of Earth. We do this through collectively agreeing on broader purposes and by working in harmony one with another, cross-comparing our various specific purposes and seeking better fit situationally. Still, we recognize "discordant harmony" and allow for both cooperation and competition as parts of a broader whole.

1 from "Framework for a Shared Approachto Ecosystem Management," 1/1/95, available from the author.See also: "A Shared Approach to Ecosystem Management."D.C. Iverson. Proceedings of Society of American Foresters NationalConvention 1993, Indianapolis, IN, pp.129-134.

2 When talking about "native" systems we do not mean to infer lack of human imprints. Rather, relative to other human-modified systems these systems would be less impacted by contemporary human activity. Clearly, there is much work needed to better understand the interrelationships between humans and others in systems contexts.

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