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Blue Mountains National Resources Institute

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BMNRI Home > Publications > Search For A Solution > Chapter 4


Publications

Search For A Solution: Sustaining the Land, People, and Economy of the Blue Mountains

Chapter 4: A HIERARCHICAL CONTEXT FOR SUSTAINING ECOSYSTEM HEALTH

Jeffrey G. Borchers


Introduction

A central tenet of many Western philosophies is that humanity is unique among the creatures of the Earth. Classical economics is the most obvious manifestation of this collective attitude, expressing a worldview that has subordinated nature to one vast source and sink for human activity (Peet 1992). While this paradigm has long been challenged by conservationists in shaping land-use policy (Hays 1969), only in recent decades have there been more comprehensive reappraisals of resource management paradigms. To their credit, even the early paradigms of resource management did not propose that wealth flowed from an endless well. Still, the traditional priority of natural resources management philosophies has been the creation of economic wealth. Now, the disparities between paradigm and practice, philosophy and action, have never been so closely scrutinized. In terms of resource management, this rapidly changing relationship between humanity and nature translates into a single broad issue: sustainability.


The issue of sustainability is one of such great breadth that it touches almost every aspect of human relations with nature, from resource degradation to models for growth and development (Dovers 1990). In the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, sustainability debates have been centered mainly on old-growth forests. Political, social, and scientific disagreements about how these forests should be treated have centered on the productive western slope of the Cascade Range, habitat for the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis); however, other regions are now embroiled in the sustainability debate as awareness of other species (e.g., anadromous fishes, amphibians) and their habitats increases.


In the Blue Mountains region of eastern Oregon and Washington (as in other western interior coniferous forests), there is ample reason to doubt that past forest and range management practices have been sustainable. Apparently unhealthy forest, range, and watershed conditions are the legacy of decades of timber harvest, fire suppression, grazing, drought, and pest outbreaks. Not surprisingly, the past 140 years of rapid natural and human-caused change in the Blue Mountains is paralleled in many other western montane coniferous forests (Gast et al. 1991). In the Blue Mountains, as elsewhere, the implementation of fire suppression policies in 1906 (Wickman 1992) initiated much of the widespread change in forest and range vegetation now apparent. Accelerating those trends were increased harvests of early- to mid-seral species, mainly fire-tolerant trees such as ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws.) and western larch (Larix occidentalis Nutt.) (Gast et al. 1991). Sometimes these harvests represented salvage and sanitation efforts following recurring episodes of drought and outbreaks of insect pests (Wickman 1992).


The previous 150 years of human disturbances have interacted with natural patterns and processes in the Blue Mountain landscapes such as those created by climatic fluctuations. For example, it is recognized that variations in temperature and precipitation strongly influence large-scale fire regimes (Agee 1993). Fluctuations in temperature and precipitation from El Niño and La Niña events have been linked to fire severity at a subcontinental scale over the 300-year interval prior to settlement in the Southwest (Swetnam and Betancourt 1990). This observation probably applies to the Blue Mountains as well. Climatic influences and their resulting disturbance regimes (including fire, insects, disease, windthrow, etc.) represent a dominant force in shaping large-scale, historical vegetational patterns (Delcourt et al. 1983, Neilson et al. 1992).


The patterns of vegetation as seen by explorers and settlers in the Blue Mountains derived not only from climatic constraints and other natural processes, but also from cultural processes, i.e., a several-thousand-year history of Native American influences (Robbins and Wolf 1994). Some 60 percent of historical fires in the interior West have been attributed to Native Americans (Gruell 1985), although this large percentage does not necessarily convey the extent to which these activities affected fire regimes. In presettlement times the interval for fire recurrence in the Blue Mountains ranged to as little as 10 years (Hall 1980), well below that imposed by fire suppression policies of this century. Thus, despite the widespread influences of Native American burning practices, presettlement forests are still envisioned as having been more "in balance" with respect to climate. Robbins and Wolf (1994) described this period as "several millennia of relative cultural and ecological stability in the Pacific Northwest." Thus, a discussion of sustainability in the Blue Mountains must emphasize not only the degree of change, but also the rate of change over the past 150 years.


It is against this historical backdrop that a path to sustainability in the Blue Mountains must be found. For more than three decades, the "sustained yield of the several products and services" from national forests has been the law of the land (Multiple-use Sustained Yield Act 1960). However, the concept of sustainability has now supplanted sustained yield as a premier issue, a response to increasing concern for noncommercial species in managed ecosystems. To be a useful concept, sustainability must be comprehensively defined, reconciling as much as possible conflicting social, political, economic, and ecological constraints. The most crucial of these constraints are the ecological. This represents a fundamental premise revealed by this synthesis: in order for social goals and policies to be considered realistically sustainable, they must account for ecological constraints.


The spirit of this premise has been expressed by Wendell Berry (1987): "In the hereafter, the Lord may forgive our wrongs against nature, but on earth, so far as we know, He does not overturn her decisions." Hence, determining the extent to which naturally imposed limits to human activity are "negotiable" is a fundamental task in defining sustainability. Some ecological constraints, of course, can be considered nonnegotiable. For example, the current climate regime of the Blue Mountains precludes a proliferation of coastal redwood. Such climatic constraints might be circumvented given sufficient energy subsidies, but economic constraints (which are also ecological in the long-run) would doom any commercial endeavor.


More worrisome are the less obvious natural constraints to human activity where the greatest risks of degrading ecosystems exist. These require a process for making good decisions in the absence of good information. Hence, sustainability issues in the Blue Mountains are generally not questions of "what?" or "whether?", but of "how much?", "how far?", and "how fast?" Presumably, land-use practices involving renewable resources (grazing, timber harvest, recreational fishing) can be sustained for a very long time if imposed at proper scales. Scale, therefore, is a major issue that lurks behind all sustainability debates—how much to harvest, how much to fish, etc. (Secondary to all this, of course, is the question of how one reduces or minimizes undesirable local impacts on the resource base. Answers to this question represent advances in efficiency, but still do not address fundamental questions of sustainability.)


Given that issues of sustainability can be re-stated as basic questions of quantity, then society, especially its scientists, managers, and policymakers, must make good decisions about those quantities. Decisionmaking is at the heart of science and management, and is properly undertaken with the best available information. In sustainable resource management, such information centers on a knowledge of the scale at which nature can absorb our impositions. These are thresholds (sensu Loehle 1989) that circumscribe an ecological "window" of sustainability for the Blue Mountains. When ecosystems are healthy, there are many options available to resource managers within the window; as ecosystems degrade, this window narrows as it has in the Blue Mountains.


Contents of Chapter Four:

  • Introduction
  • The Semantic Issue: Defining Sustainability
  • An Overview of Sustainability Definitions
  • Sustainability and Ecosystem Health
  • Definitions and Measures of Ecosystem Health
  • Problems With the Health Analogy
  • Ecological Change and the Roots of Uncertainty: Hierarchy Theory
  • Toward an Empirical and Mechanistic Model for Ecosystem Health
  • Information Flow and Sustainability
  • Retrospective Studies In Landscape Ecology
  • Landscape Simulation Models
  • Landscape Analysis and Design
  • Decisionmaking
  • First Steps: A Manual For Managers
  • Organize a Series of Sustainability Workshops for Scientists and Managers
  • Develop a GIS Database
  • Implement an Appropriate Landscape Disturbance Model
  • Implement Large-Scale Management Experiments
  • Conduct Critical Retrospective Studies
  • Retain Responsibility

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Last Modified: Monday, 16 December 2013 at 14:18:43 CST


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