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A Critique of Silviculture: Managing for Complexity Paperback – Nov 15 2008
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(Natural Areas Journal)
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The result is that a tunnel-vision view of trees as simply industrial product has blotted out the importance of ecosystem functions of natural forests. Natural forests are replaced by evenly grown, homogeneous blocks of trees with limited diversity. Not only is the composition of the natural forest profoundly changed at the level of the tree species, the rich community of the natural forest is destroyed. The loss of biodiversity has profound implications for the planet as a whole.
The authors do an extraordinary job building multiple contexts in a few very readable chapters. The chapters are well organized. Complex issues presented in ways that make them very understandable. Jargon is minimal and, where needed, clearly defined.
The book traces the evolution of silviculture through history from ad hoc methods to formalized modern methods (the modern methods are presented as including science, but the system is taken to task for being more learned-based than thought-based).
Silviculture gives way to a discussion on theoretical ecology. The discussion is a tight and excellent review the science of ecology and its evolution from Darwin to present thoughts on the dynamics of ecosystems and the organisms they contain.
The two major threads of silviculture and ecology are woven together, culminating in the final chapter on managing industrial forests as complex adaptive systems rather than factory floors.
The size of land covered by industrial tree farming is huge and growing each year. Modifying the goals of the industrial forest has great potential for creating forests that yield both industrial wood product and rich ecosystems. This book transcends the niche of silviculture and has broad importance. It is also an excellent read.
So what to do? This is where the book gets interesting. The authors consistently show that top down, command and control management styles are not working long term (for the forests and not necessarily for the consumers of the trees) and instead prescribe a more relaxed, highly analytic approach. Be more like the ecologists they say. By adopting complexity models, present day forest managers will be able to manage in much more detail, controlling all sorts of inputs, outputs and balances to make sure that the forests come out just right (according to whom?). Yet the authors also repeatedly admit that complex systems such as a forest have a great deal of inherent uncertainty (temporally and spatially) and complex, ill-understood feedback loops. More research is of course needed to understand this complexity and make these models work reasonably well while knowing all along that some of the key mechanisms and interactions will always be random and thus unpredictable. The models then will always be limited in their effectiveness, the managers never certain just what they're doing - just the same as today. Meanwhile, while they're tweaking their models, the forest keeps doing its thing: growing, dying, adapting to ever changing conditions in ways expected and not. The only logical conclusions that I could come to is that the forests really don't need any management at all and that human caused disturbances should be much smaller in scale. The complexity models become nothing more than smoke and mirrors, an elaborate form of time and resource consuming job protection. Not quite the conclusions presumably intended.
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