Forest Ecosystem Management: An environmental necessity, but is it a practical reality or simply an ecotopian ideal?

J. P. (Hamish) Kimmins 1


Forestry is, first and foremost, about people. Faced with a three to four billion increase in the human population within this century, the multiple resource values and environmental services of existing forests must be sustained and depleted forests renewed. Forestry must balance the short-term needs and desires of today's human population, the anticipated needs of future generations, and the maintenance of long-term forest ecosystem conditions, functions and organisms. The most effective way to satisfy these obligations may be to use the paradigm of forest ecosystem management (FEM) as the template for forestry.

FEM requires long-term tenure and the management of all desired values and services under an integrated management plan that spans at least one full rotation (multiple rotations for short-rotation timber crops) and has inputs from multiple stakeholders. An FEM plan should cover a defined forest area sufficiently large to permit the management of key ecological processes. All marketable values should be managed under a single plan to facilitate value trade-off analysis, and targets for the management of non-marketable values should be an integral part of the plan rather than merely a constraint on the profits from a single marketable value such as timber, as is often the case.

These ideas are not new, but have proven difficult to implement. The following are fundamental to achieving FEM: appropriate tenure systems of adequate duration and area, the involvement of multiple stakeholders in setting management objectives, active management and marketing of multiple values at the landscape scale, and the explicit definition of a "desired forest future". The tenure system must permit the management of the entire forest landscape ecosystem as a single endeavour, with economic rewards to the managing agency, consortium or collective for all marketable values. Equally fundamental is the need to understand and respect the ecology of the resources and other values that are to be sustained.

Another major impediment to implementation of FEM has been the lack of ecologically-based scenario and value trade-off analysis tools with which to evaluate the most effective stand- and landscape- management strategies to achieve a desired forest future. Such tools must incorporate both the ecosystem processes responsible for biophysical sustainability, and the social values that relate to social and economic sustainability. In the absence of these prerequisites for successful FEM, this urgent environmental necessity may remain an ecotopian ideal rather than a practical reality.


The world's forests will have to service the needs and desires of another three to four billion people by the end of this century (Lutz et al., 2001). The current population of about 6.3 billion is posing unprecedented pressure on the world's forests, especially in developing countries at tropical and subtropical latitudes. A plethora of new paradigms have been suggested as templates for managing the world's forests in the face of this human pressure.

This paper looks at forest ecosystem management (FEM) and some of the major impediments to achieving it. It discusses the planning and communication tools needed for the design and virtual assessment of FEM that will result in a social licence to manage our global forestry inheritance, and a clearer vision of where different approaches to sustaining forests might take us.

Forest Ecosystem Management: buzzword or meaningful concept?

Forestry is constantly facing new social pressures, ideas, buzzwords and paradigms. There is an urgent need for clearer definitions of suggested new paradigms, including FEM, and for the ability to forecast their social and environmental consequences over both short and long time scales, and small and large spatial scales, before they are implemented. Only when we are equipped with these forecasts can we have confidence that the suggested new approaches to forest management will honour intergenerational equity issues, and not just indulge short-term desires and preferences.

Forestry is the art (skill), practice, science and business of managing forest stands and forested landscapes to sustain the balance of values and environmental services that are ecologically possible and desired by society. As society has come to understand more about the holistic, integrated character of forest ecosystems, it is demanding ecosystem management as a replacement for traditional timber or other single-value management. It is the responsibility of the profession to make this transition once it is clear what is meant by FEM, but only after it has been assessed that the components of the proposed definition of FEM will respect the ecology of the forests and values in question, and are likely to satisfy the needs of both local people and society in general, now and in the future. Once this has been achieved, foresters will face the difficult challenge of persuading the public to accept what needs to be done to achieve FEM.

The term FEM has seen increasing usage over the past two decades. From the outset, it has been poorly defined, ambiguous and subject to diverse interpretations. The most recent evolution of terminology associated with the FEM approach to forest stand management is Variable Retention silviculture and Structure Management silviculture (Franklin et al., 1997; 2002).

1. What is a forest ecosystem?

Forest ecosystems are areas of the landscape that are dominated by trees and consist of biologically integrated communities of plants, animals and microbes, together with the local soils (substrates) and atmospheres (climates) with which they interact. Forests are much more than the present population or community of trees. Forests that have been recently killed or altered by fire, insects, disease, wind or logging are still forests because of the biological and physical legacies from the previous forest - legacies of forest soil, organic matter, microbes, minor vegetation and animals. Under a regime of sustainable forest management, many or most of these legacies persist during the period between forest disturbance and the redevelopment of tree cover.

Forest ecosystems are both a stand-level and a landscape phenomenon, the latter being a mosaic of stands that vary in age, species composition, structure, function and time since disturbance. Periodic disturbance is a key attribute of most forest ecosystems, and maintenance of their historical character and values will generally require maintenance of historical disturbance regimes, or the ecological effects thereof.

Because a forest ecosystem is an integrated biophysical system, a forest is as much a set of ecosystem processes as a set of forest ecosystem components. Short-term changes in the structure of the forest do not constitute loss of the forest, as long as the processes of the forest ecosystem remain in operation at acceptable levels.

2. What is forest ecosystem management?

FEM approaches forest conservation, utilization, administration and regulation on the basis that the forest is a highly integrated, complex, generally resilient, multivalue biophysical system that has thresholds of tolerance for disturbance (either too much or too little) beyond which its resilience and certain values and environmental services are changed, and often reduced. FEM is the management of forest ecosystem processes and disturbance regimes to sustain the desired values and ecosystem services from a shifting mosaic of different ecosystem conditions across the landscape, and a non-declining pattern of change over time in the values and services provided by each stand in that landscape. It is also the management of the human use of, and interactions with the forest, because humans are part of forest ecosystems.

Based on these definitions, it is clear that FEM is far more than a politically correct buzzword. However, if we are to be successful in implementing it as the biophysical template for sustainable, multivalue forestry, we must understand the impediments to, and the necessary conditions for its successful application. Successful application of the FEM concept as the basis for forestry involves much more than mere acceptance that FEM is a nice idea.

Elements of forest ecosystem management

There are many suggested lists of the basic attributes of FEM. Chistensen et al. (1996) propose that it includes the following elements:

There are several different lists of the key themes in forest ecosystem management. The following is a distillation of those lists (Kimmins, 2003):

Some prerequisites for forest ecosystem management

There are many conditions that must be met before FEM can become an effective paradigm for forestry. These include:

Ecosystem management models as communication and planning decision-support tools

Setting objectives, assessing trade-offs between values, balancing the needs of the present generation against the legacies we want to pass to future generations, and communicating choices, risks, uncertainties and possible outcomes to the public all require the use of a new generation of decision-support tools. Traditional planning tools will continue to be essential. These range from forest site classifications, to geographical information systems, to timber supply-analysis tools. However, the increasing complexity of forestry, and the imperative to manage forest ecosystems rather than populations of trees or individual games species, requires decision-support tools that can address this complexity. This can be provided by FEM models (Messier et al., 2003). These should be linked to user-friendly interfaces and visualization systems (Shepard and Harshaw, 2000) to facilitate their use by the non-technical population.

Forest decision-support tools fall into three major categories: experience-based, empirical (historical bioassay [HB] models; e.g. growth and yield models); knowledge-based (process simulation [PS] models); and hybrid simulation [HS] models that combine both experience and knowledge in hybrid historical bioassay-process simulation systems. The emerging consensus is that HB will always be useful in forestry but have limited capabilities relative to changing expectations of such tools, that PS models are needed but that they are often too complex to use in forest management, and that a hybrid of the two - HS models - will be the way of the future.

Messier et al., (2003) review a variety of stand and landscape models for use in sustainable forest management planning, and the literature and the internet are rich in information about the rapidly expanding choice of models as research, decision-support and communication tools in forestry. I mention a selection of the models I am most familiar with as an example of the type of FEM models that I believe are needed now, and will be needed increasingly in the future.

The public are generally better able to understand and evaluate forestry through pictorial than through tabular, graphical and two-dimensional map representations. The scientific basis for the images being presented must be communicated in as clear a format as possible in order to establish confidence in the images. Visualizations should incorporate representations of natural and human-caused risks and uncertainties, and clearly communicate that there are many different possible forest futures.

An important question with respect to forestry models is: can they be used by foresters in developing countries? While it is true that there are knowledge and technology barriers that limit the use of such tools in many parts of the world at present, computers are rapidly becoming omnipresent wherever there is electricity. Computer models can harness knowledge and experience from developed countries at any latitude, and make them available as heuristic, educational and extension tools to countries that presently lack the wherewithal to locally calibrate and use such tools. It may be some years or decades before foresters in the less developed countries gain the local information needed to make them realistic local tools for prediction, but the day when this will be possible is approaching, and it is time to start to customize this type of tool for this future use. Several forest ecosystem models already exist for tropical forests, and there are many for temperate forests. Their development should be continued in anticipation of the day that foresters in developing tropical and temperate countries are ready for them.


To respond in a responsible and ethical manner to the challenges posed by an additional three to four billion people, foresters must stop managing forests for timber, or for wildlife, or for water, or for any other single value. They must be managed as ecosystems for multiple values. This does not imply that all forests are managed for all values all the time. Wilderness, ecological, genetic and potable water production reserves and recreational areas will be part of the mosaic of different land-management designations within a forest landscape, but the whole must be managed as an ecosystem. Park boundaries do not stop fires, insects, diseases or timber/wildlife poaching. Forestry that fails to address the human needs of local people, or to respect the processes of local and landscape ecosystems, is unlikely to be sustainable. Only when the forest is managed as a system with people and their multiple values respected and incorporated into management, will we reduce conflict in forestry and balance the multiple and competing demands of today's generation against our desire to leave a suitable legacy for the future.

Forestry is primarily about people, not ecology, biodiversity, timber or any other single value. The fact that ecology is now the essential biophysical foundation for forestry, and that wildlife, water and biodiversity have become as important in forestry as timber, is because people have recognized their value and have insisted that they become an objective of management. If foresters are to obtain the social licence to manage the world's forests, they must strive to implement FEM with humans as part of the ecosystems. Many changes are required to achieve success in this vital endeavour. One of them is the synthesis of ecological knowledge, both "traditional" and that derived from "western science", into ecosystem management scenario analysis and visualization tools.


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1 Department of Forest Sciences, Faculty of Forestry, University of British Columbia,Vancouver, B.C.