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Community Consensus

Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! — James 3, verse 5

So many people showed up for a field hearing of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health in City Hall that the fire marshall closed the building Friday morning. Witnesses testified about the state of forests and efforts to mitigate fire dangers.  Greg Bryan/AZ Daily Sun
So many people showed up for a field hearing of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health at Flagstaff City Hall on March 7, 2003 that the fire marshall closed the building. Witnesses testified about the state of forests and efforts to mitigate fire dangers. Greg Bryan/AZ Daily Sun

The politics of Western forest management have been conflicted, especially since the post-World War II emergence of a national environmental movement and the ecological sciences. Policies and decisions once viewed as epitomizing scientific rationality, economic efficiency, and ethical legitimacy have come under increasing criticism. Critics argue that management of the forested public lands has been driven too much by outmoded science and special interest politics and too little by contemporary science and inclusive political process.

“Forest science” once proclaimed that forests were like machines with replaceable parts. Forest managers believed they had sufficient knowledge to replace “the general riot” of wild forests with cultivated forests yielding bountiful and unending streams of commodities (Langston, pg. 5). That beautiful dream has turned into today’s nightmare.

Contemporary sciences such as evolutionary biology, systems ecology, conservation biology, wildlife ecology, ecological restoration, and chaos theory offer a different scientific picture. Frequent-fire adapted dryland forests of the American Southwest are not machines in mechanical motion but living systems that are poorly understood in linear-reductive ways.

Along with sweeping changes in scientific purview have come changes in the understanding of forest politics. The question is increasingly one of incorporating the cutting-edge of science into the policy making process. Yesterday’s forest policies and the political processes that supported them are increasingly appraised as having been hard on forest-dependent communities and the forests themselves. Policies based on classical “forest science,” such as high-grading, clear-cutting, and fire suppression, are now viewed as ecologically and economically destructive.

Changing public policies, such as the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), the Wilderness Act, and the Endangered Species Act, have created new opportunities for citizens to participate in the forest management planning process. These planning processes, while often marked by strong differences of opinion, have allowed a wider array of interests to participate constructively.

Discursively democratic processes offer the possibility for decision-making leading to outcomes that are good for people and for forests. They have yet to be tested over time, but the older forests politics, known as the “iron triangle” (commercial logging interests working in conjunction with “scientific experts” and western congressional delegates), has proven itself to be unsustainable.

M.O.

References

Cortner, Hanna J. 2003. The governance environment: Linking science, citizens, and politics. Pages 70-80 in Friederici, Peter, ed. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests: A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press.

Langston, Nancy. 1995. Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West. University of Washington Press.

Moote, Ann. 2003. Community-based forest restoration. Pages 335-352 in Friederici, Peter, ed. 2003. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests : A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press, 544 p.

Last edited June 25, 2003

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NAU's Program in Community, Culture and Environment Northern Arizona University