How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

This post was written by:

- who has written 4 posts on dotWild.

Sara Vickerman is Defenders’ Senior Director for Biodiversity Partnerships. She and her staff in the Northwest office promote improved biodiversity policies at the state and federal level. They promote strategic conservation investments, cross-boundary planning, incentives for private landowners, ecosystem services and market-based programs that are ecologically effective.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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