Respectful Forestry

Forest ecosystems could serve us generously
if we would work with them

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 46
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Robert Brothers has been exploring sustainable forestry and bioregionalism for a number of years, first in Idaho and now in southern Oregon. His article, "The Synthesis Of Two North American Visions" appeared in issue #3.

MOST DISCUSSIONS OF FOREST USE stall out somewhere around the "houses vs. backpacking" argument. The possibility that we could have both timber products and a beautiful forest is rarely considered, perhaps because it is rarely exemplified. Yet the simple truth is that lumber for houses can be taken from the forest on a sustainable basis only if the beauty, health, and integrity of the total forest ecosystem (herbs, birds, bugs, and bears) is also sustained.

Sustainable forestry works. It is being practiced successfully – in both economic and ecological terms – by people sprinkled across the continent and around the world. In this article, I will describe the principles and practices that make it work, and then briefly discuss why they are not being more widely used.


Forestry is not Farming Forests are unique ecological communities, in that they provide products for human use in a manner that cannot be improved upon. The time scale of growth is too long, the areas involved are too vast and complex, and the refinements that evolution has already provided are too precise for people to make effective positive changes in basic long-term processes.

Agricultural systems for food production are different. They can be small enough to permit helpful human additions of soil nutrients and water, but forests are too large to fertilize or irrigate. In addition, the mixed blessing of selection for "improved" plant varieties is simply unnecessary in forests. Millions of years of evolution have resulted in an extremely precise matching of the variety within a species to the diversity of the terrain in which that species grows. In one recent study, when douglas-fir seedlings from a representative sample of 193 parent trees in a 23-square- mile area of the Cascades were grown in an experimental nursery, the height differences in the young trees could be seen to repeat exactly the topographic contour- map of the area (Siren, 1982).

When the unique perfection of forest ecosystems is recognized, it can be seen that forests are not "renewable resources" in the conventional sense. The goal of sustainable forestry must simply be to maintain the integrity of forest ecosystems, and prevent their deterioration into more simple and unstable systems that we would then need to attempt to "renew."

Respect For human beings, then, the primary guiding principle of sustainable forestry is one of respect – respect for all the species and elements which together create the diverse balance of interactions that maintains the stability of the forest over time. Questions of practice thus involve ways of interacting with the forest which disrupt forest processes to an extent no greater than the ecosystem’s range of tolerance, no greater than the forest’s adaptive ability to respond to stress and right the imbalance.

The three major factors to consider are microclimate (sunlight, air & soil temperature and moisture content), the nutrient quality of the soil, and the reproduction of harvested species. How these factors interact will determine methods of harvesting trees that are adapted to the needs of each particular site in the forest.


Selective Thinning Most of the land available for forestry in this country has been harvested before, and the second-growth forest trees returning are in various stages of the succession process which leads to a mature (or climax) ecosystem. A typical situation in the second-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest today involves conifers of various heights and ages, such as douglas-fir, hemlock, cedar, and white pine, growing up amidst a variety of hardwood "pioneer" species (alder, tanoak, maple & madrone). Here the most fruitful strategy to employ is selective thinning.

As in gardening, the thinning of a group of plants permits those remaining to continue to grow stronger and healthier than they would have under crowded conditions. However, the relatively large size (easy visibility) of trees in the forest permits thinning to be more specifically selective than in gardens. Stronger, healthier trees will grow slightly taller than their weaker neighbors, and diseased or misshapen trees can be more readily noticed. Minimally disruptive selective thinning can hope to align itself with long-term evolutionary process by improving the overall quality of the trees now growing. (But don’t forget to leave tall dead snags for the woodpeckers and flickers who eat the bugs who eat trees.)

Thinning forms the core of an approach called "natural selection forest management" by Orville Camp, a successful forester on his own 160-acre woodlot in southern Oregon. This involves "the continuous process of thinning and removing the weaker members of a population – as selected by nature – to allow adequate territories for the roots and crowns of the stronger dominants" (Camp, 1984, p. 42). Cutting trees in this way makes only small, incremental changes in the forest microclimate, and thus spreads out and diffuses the disruption caused by harvesting. For this reason, it is better to thin too little than too much. Trees are ideally spaced when their branches touch, but do not overlap.

However, general statements like this have their exceptions, and sustainable forestry requires that we be able to judge the unique characteristics of each situation:

"For example, the old twisted oak tree standing on the south slope may seem useless for anything but firewood … until we notice the crowd of little Douglas- fir seedlings coming up under the protective shelter of the overhanging branches which provide both moisture and shade." (Camp, p. 40.)

In this case, overlapping branches provide a useful protection for the growth beneath them, and the old oak should only be carefully removed when the young trees are ready to stand on their own.

This brings up another guideline of what Orville Camp calls "all-age, all-species management": don’t remove anything unless there’s something better to take its place. In second-growth forests where conifers are often mixed with hardwoods, conifers are not always the best replacement. Hardwoods such as alder and ceanothus fix atmospheric nitrogen and thus improve the quality of the soil. Conventional forest practices seek to eliminate these species as "weed trees," but in an efficient system whose complexity exceeds our knowledge, it is presumptuous to make this kind of general negative judgment.

On a practical economic level, so-called undesirable hardwoods are in fact quite valuable as material for furniture, fence posts, and tool handles – not to mention firewood. Small woodlot owners are able to sustain their own activities in the forest by finding profitable uses for forest products which the larger corporations generally ignore.

Regenerative Cutting As the years go by, trees which remain after a first thinning will grow into each other’s space, allowing for second and even third thinnings before an entire stand of mature, widely spaced trees is ready for group harvest. It is at this stage that considerations of forest microclimate become especially important for the regeneration of the next cycle of growth.

When a single large tree is felled, the sheltering arc of branches which forms the forest canopy is opened up, and increased sunlight reaches the forest floor. This results in raised temperatures and increased rates of evaporation. As individual trees are removed during the selective thinning process, the moderate influx of sunlight from scattered breaks in the canopy may or may not prove sufficient for the germination of seeds from local parent trees and the growth of new seedlings. Depending on the varied conditions of each particular place in the forest (elevation, cool north-slope or hot south-slope), certain species of trees such as douglas-fir which are conventionally classified as "shade intolerant" may require warmer and drier microclimates for successful reproduction. The opening up of larger patches in the forest is then desirable.

That there can be too much of a good thing is exemplified by the massive clearcuts where seedlings may suffer from sunscald and stunted growth in the semi-desert conditions of hotter and drier soils. In this now dominant forest practice, before the seedlings are planted the soils are damaged by broad scale burning of the entire acreage to clear it of unused logs, branches, and stumps. The resulting high temperatures volatilize large quantities of nitrogen from the soil, and kill beneficial bacteria and fungi. Ash remaining from the fire does not sufficiently compensate for the damage done.

Clearcutting and burning areas opens them up to the direct impact of rain, and the precious layer of thin forest topsoil is washed away in increasing proportions with the size and slope of the cut. Adding insult to injury, clearcuts are usually sprayed with herbicide to kill the hardwoods which are the first to sprout up, hold the slope, and thus "compete" with the newly planted conifers. Unfortunately, herbicides contain genetic mutagens which can often cripple even the "future timber" which they are supposed to help.

In contrast, "group selection harvesting" is a method which retains the one advantage of clearcuts with none of the disadvantages. For example, in the mixed hardwood stands of Illinois’ Kaskaskia Experimental Forest, cuts of 1/5 acre to 1 acre in size were found to let in enough light for successful natural regeneration of the original variety of forest species (Twight & Minckler, 1972). A good rule is to cut all the mature timber from an area slightly larger in diameter than the height of the tallest trees. Skilled fellers, with the aid of jacks and cables if necessary, can then drop the trees into the middle of the clearing without damaging other growth.

The small size of group selection cuts also assures easy seeding of the entire area from nearby parent trees, and a sufficient number of the strongest, healthiest trees should be left for this purpose. A frequent problem with natural regeneration from local seed is that a good cone crop may occur only once in 3 or 4 years. If full seeding of an area must wait this long after harvest, "pioneer" species of hardwoods may get the jump on young conifer seedlings. In order to retain the benefits of increased sunlight from the open overstory, selective manual clearing of hardwood underbrush from the south side of seedlings may be desirable. However, it should be remembered that faster growing trees produce poorer quality wood. As long as the seedlings are well established, it might be just as well to let them be.


Special Areas There are obviously many places in the woods where it is simply not possible to practice sustainable forestry – primarily because the slopes are too steep, and the soils thus too fragile, to permit access to the land without tearing it up beyond repair. Most of the remaining original old-growth forest in this country is on this kind of land, and should be left alone. The most productive forest lands occur at lower elevations on gentler slopes, where stable roads can be built and maintained.

Just as there are large forest watersheds which should be left intact as protected wilderness, there may be special areas on any forest hillside which require particular care and consideration. Living spaces for rare and endangered plants and animals, or Native American archaeological and cultural sites, are important aspects of the forest which have been too often ignored. Road networks and timber harvest areas should be placed in ways which respect these special areas, while following the natural contours of the land, and avoiding unstable soils, riverbanks, swamps, and rock-slides. The minimally disruptive construction of stable roads on hillsides is a rarely practiced art that is essential to sustainable forestry.

How Much To Leave? Using conventional standards of efficiency, it would seem logical and profitable to make full use of all the forest products derived from thinning, but how much of this wood does the forest require for its own needs? We need to remember that the wood which we leave on the forest floor is not wasted – it is the future soil of the forest.

If we remove too much wood from the forest – whether by thoughtful use or by the wasteful burning of all the remaining vegetation on huge clearcuts – we run the risk of overdrawing our account at the soil bank. While the next generation of trees may grow well, the one to follow may not. Current research does not adequately address this point. We need to systematically assess the soil fertility factors necessary for tree growth, and the percentage of biomass which can be removed from the forest as "interest" without damaging the "capital" base.

Are the leaves and small branches which fall to the forest floor over the hundred-year cycle of a tree’s life sufficient to grow that tree again? What proportion of thinned-out trees might it be necessary to leave rotting on the forest to feed the healthy growth of the remaining dominants? These complex questions need to be answered authoritatively for different soil types, climates, and tree species if we are to proceed with confidence in our practice of sustainable forestry. Until that time, it would be well to stop short of maximum wood utilization.

Forest Diversity and Health Natural regeneration, when combined with all-age, all-species guidelines for the thinning process, allows for the original diversity of tree species within the forest to be maintained. A number of different species provides a wide range of habitats for numerous birds, insects, and bacteria who maintain stable populations by a delicate and complex pattern of checks and balances. Correspondingly, the monoculture planting of genetically uniform species is generally associated with the increased spread of insect or disease plagues.

Given the widespread practice of single-species forestry and agriculture, the intact ecosystems of wilderness or sustainable forestry are islands of health in a sea of disharmony. Epidemics of white pine blister rust, Bynum’s blight, phytophora root rot, Southern pine beetle, gypsy moths, and spruce budworm have already been spreading throughout our forests for some time. For this reason alone, sustainable forestry cannot be practiced in isolation. Unless the large land-owning timber corporations and the U.S. Forest Service begin to encourage natural regeneration and the replanting of diverse forests, it will only be a matter of time before insect or disease plagues begin to intrude into the few balanced ecosystems which remain.


There are probably more people practicing sustainable forestry than one would think, but the information is hard to come by. There is no "Association of Sustainable Forestry" to parallel the many groups who have sprung up around this country to demonstrate and defend organic gardening and sustainable agriculture.

Ray Raphael’s book, Tree Talk, provides several informative interviews which describe various approaches to sustainable forestry used by the Big Creek Lumber Company of Santa Cruz, the Tosten Ranch west of Garberville, Cal, Richard Smith of Portland, and the Couvet Forest in Switzerland. This book also presents a well-written, readable history of logging in the Pacific Northwest, descriptions of all the various aspects of conventional forestry and timber economics, and an excellent explication of "holistic" sustainable forestry.

The most organized group of sustainable foresters that I’ve been able to find out about is located in southern Oregon around where I live. Sparked by Illinois Valley "Tree Farmer of the Year" Orville Camp, the Jackson-Josephine Forest Farm Association now includes at least 15 active members with approximately 3000 acres of forest under "natural selection forest management." Read Forest Farmer’s Handbook for a full description of this approach to sustainable forestry, as well as for a good discussion of the problems and opportunities facing the small woodlot owner.

One good way to find out about sustainable foresters in your area is to track down the local horse-loggers, who will have had some of them as clients. Horses obviously tear up the turf less than a D-6 Caterpillar tractor, and even less than the rubber-tired 4-wheel drive tractor with a power winch on back that is probably the best mechanized tool for the job. Small Farmer’s Journal is a good source for horse-logging information.

In order to facilitate more communication about sustainable forestry, I would like people who are interested to let me know the kind of forests they are working with and what they have been doing. Hopefully, a sustainable forestry network could not only make more available what little literature there is on the subject, but also provide access to a variety of "demonstration forests" in different ecosystems around the continent.

For those of us trying to change the practices of the large timber corporations and the U.S. Forest Service, this would be an invaluable asset. As in most environmental issues, it is usually easier to criticize others than to do it right ourselves. There are economic and political factors which inhibit the practice of sustainable forestry, but a few good examples would definitely help to show that there is a way to harvest timber which is both environmentally and economically sound.


From the preceding discussion of the principles and practices which must be employed for forestry to be sustainable, it should be clear that it can only be done on a small, human scale by people who care about the forest as a whole more than they do about short-term profit. Not that profit is not possible – it simply cannot be maximized in the short-term without damage to future productivity.

One example of this, discussed more fully by Raphael in Tree Talk, is the relation of interest rates to investment in reforestation. Simply put, trees do not grow fast enough to provide even a minimal 5% return on any money put into growing them – unless they are harvested at a very early age (40 years for douglas-fir), long before they reach productive maturity. The more money invested in reforestation, the shorter time before the trees must be harvested to turn a profit.

When the mechanics of interest rates are put together with clearcutting harvest practices that are designed to maximize short-term profit, then this puts the timber companies in an inevitable double-bind as far as sustainable forestry goes. Clearcutting may be the cheapest way to get the wood out under most conditions – but it also causes the most drastic disruption of the forest ecosystem requiring the most costly efforts at reforestation, which the mathematics of interest rates make it unprofitable for these companies to pay.

The predictable result is that the forests suffer. One-third of the timber lands in the Pacific Northwest are "understocked" (Siren, 1982), including 2 million acres of private company land in Oregon which has been clearcut but never reforested. And as we have seen, long-term sustainability for monocultures of douglas-fir replanted on depleted soils is definitely open to question.

The irony of all this is that a truly sustainable forestry (with only selective thinning and small group selection cuts for regeneration) is probably the most long-term economical method – it’s just never been given a chance! In fact, cases like the Kaskaskia Experimental Forest show that it can even be cheaper in the short term. Time and energy need not be expended cutting down unmarketable trees just to clear out the space, and millions of dollars currently spent on nursery programs and herbicides is unnecessary when Nature does the management.


Forestry is the one area where the inappropriateness of both large-scale technology and the short-term profit motive is most apparent. For this reason, it may be an ideal place to begin to turn the tide.

Exactly how this is to be done, with broad impact where it matters most, is a question of politics. Different groups around the country are approaching this subject in a wide variety of ways (for examples, see the periodicals Forest Planning and Earth First!).

Some key points in any discussion should include:

1) The prime old-growth forest which has supplied our needs in the past is essentially gone. The little that remains is on steep and fragile slopes that cannot be adequately reforested, and therefore should be left in its natural state.

2) The full price for the cheap, old-growth lumber that helped make possible the housing boom of the 1950s and ’60s has not been paid. Adequate money for the reforestation of damaged lands needs to be forthcoming.

3) Because the second-growth trees on our timber lands are not up to full production, and never should be pushed to produce the amount of timber which was cut from the original forests at an unsustainable rate, we will need to readjust our economy for a decreased consumption of wood products and increased recycling.

Within this context, a sustainable forestry of the future must address the possible redistribution of forest lands to those people who will care for the forest as a whole. One way of thinking about this, discussed by both Camp and Raphael, is the concept of land-based forest stewardship. The basic idea here is that sustainable forestry can best be practiced by people who live where they work. Knowledge of place and commitment to place go hand-in-hand with living there. Like the small farmer, land-based forest stewards would be responsible for an area small enough in size to be easily known and appropriately cared for.

The catch is, who "owns" the land? Private ownership can lead to exploitation for profit. Government ownership can lead to inefficient, arbitrary over-regulation and mismanagement. One solution described well and at length by Raphael involves land already owned by the public, and the evaluation of steward performance by training teams of teachers and students (past, present, and future forest stewards) who would be able to judge the work of their peers from the standpoint of common interest in shared goals. My own view is that both corporate and public forest needs to be returned to public control, but in a decentralized fashion that respects the needs of each local area (forests and people) as primary.


The healthy forest ecosystem and the practice of sustainable forestry can provide an appropriate model for the interaction of basically self-reliant bioregions with each other – in a world where human society parallels the patterns of Nature.

Each forest is a self-reliant community which does not need to depend upon other regions for the necessities and the joys of life. If we humans respect this basic integrity by the practice of sustainable forestry, then we will be able to enter the forest for spiritual replenishment and enjoyment, and return from the forest with its prudent surplus of fine timber and healing herbs. As we learn to trade respect for prudent surplus and enjoyment from these forests, so we can also trade respect for the prudent surplus and enjoyment of all the other bioregions of the world.

If we can learn to practice with each other the kind of all-species gardening which Nature practices so well in the forest, then we will be at peace with the diversity in our societies. We will be able to leave the wilderness to itself, and let the forests reach down along all watersheds right into the hearts of our cities, to moderate our climate and our minds, and to teach by example.


Buck, Stuart, "Woodlot Management," Small Farmer’s Journal, Summer ’84, pp. 17-18, 3890 Stewart Road, Eugene, OR, 97402, quarterly, $15/year.

Camp, Orville, The Forest Farmer’s Handbook, 1984, Sky River Press, 236 East Main, Ashland, OR, 97520, $6.95.

Earth First!, (especially the issues for August & September, 1984), P.O. Box 235, Ely, Nevada, 89301, $10/year.

Forest Planning, P.O. Box 3479, Eugene, OR, 97403, $15/year, (primary focus on the U.S. Forest Service).

Fritz, Ned, Sterile Forest: the Case Against Clearcutting, 1983, Eakin Press, P.O. Box 23066, Austin, TX, 78735, $ 12.95, (a well-written story of an important legal battle).

Minckler, Leon C., Woodland Ecology: Environmental Forestry for the Small Owner, 1975, Syracuse University Press, (written by a professional forester for the Eastern hardwood region).

Raphael, Ray, Tree Talk, 1981, Island Press, Star Route 1, Box 38, Covelo, CA, 95428, $12.

Silen, Roy R., "Nitrogen, Corn, and Forest Genetics: the Agricultural Yield Strategy – Implications for Douglas-fir Management," General Technical Report PNW-137, U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, 809 NE Sixth Ave., Portland, OR, 97232, (no charge).

Twight, Peter A., and Minckler, Leon S., "Ecological Forestry for the Central Hardwood Forest," 1972, National Parks and Conservation Association, 1701 18th St. NW, Washington, DC, 20009, $1.

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