Summer 2001

Why does sustained yield continue to be the basis for forestry in most managed temperate forests? The forest science and forest policy history case against continuing sustained yield forest management is devestating and growing. Alternative management frameworks have been developed and implemented. Governments and corporations have embraced the concept and at least the rhetoric of sustainable development. But SY greatly inflated possible harvest volumes which, over time greatly inflated harvesting and milling capacity, which now severely constrains change to alternative, ecologically sustainable management.

In their Policy Instruments for Sustainable Development in the British Columbia Forestry Sector contribution to the 1996 publication MANAGING NATURAL RESOURCES IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, David Haley and Martin Luckert confirm again that sustained yield is the continuing forest management paradigm:

"Historically, the development of forest policy in many countries, including Canada and the United States, has been influenced by the concept of sustained yield. Sustained yield principles are as old as the forestry profession itself and, to a great extent, provide the ethical foundation upon which it is built. Policies designed to promote sustained yield forestry are firmly entrenched in all Canadian jurisdictions and pervade almost every aspect of forest management."

Haley and Luckert then consider whether sustainable development of forests is possible within continuing sustained yield: describing the regulated forest, the timber management focus of SY compared to the emerging concern with non-timber values, and the history of policy instrument development inside SY. The authors are resource economists and although they state up front that intergenerational equity is the cornerstone of sustainable development, their focus is upon development of a management framework that would ensure an optimal production of products - not just timber, but not specifically including nature’s services - today, without undermining potential product production in the future.

The authors do not consider whether SY methodology has inflated harvesting levels and production capacity endangering sustainability, but they do conclude that:

"Sustained yield and sustainable development are unquestionably in conflict. Attitudes, policies, and management strategies that evolved to serve the sustained yield ideal are, in many respects, outmoded. Sustainable development demands that timber primacy be replaced by a concern for forests’ contribution to human welfare in the broadest sense… The emphasis must shift from maintaining timber supplies over the long run to maintaining a multitude of resource values that are dependent upon site productivity, ecosystem health, integrity, and diversity."

Paul Hirt is one of the foremost U.S. historians of forestry. In a difficult to access (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy) article on Institutional Failure in the U.S. Forest Service: a Historical Perspective, Hirt seeks to illuminate why the Forest Service lost its estimable reputation as a respected conservation agency and concludes that timber generating application of SY in the decades after WW2 - very different forestry from the cautious SY approach to western U.S. forests by Pinchot’s agency at the beginning of the century - lead to a failure to balance resource use equitably, failure to even sustain yields of commodities, and a failure to protect the health and productivity of national forests.

"Increasingly, after World War II, the assumptions foresters adopted regarding these myriad considerations shifted first toward the ever-optimistic and finally to the improbable. Those altered assumptions produced a watershed change in forest management an aggressive approach appropriately labeled "intensive management" and advocated in an important document produced by the Forest Service in 1969 titled the Douglas-fir Supply Study. The philosophy of intensive management lent a fašade of rationality to a timber program that was, in fact, driven by markets and unsustainable over the long haul. Intensive management ideology also deflected, to an extent, criticisms of the Forest Service by non-timber resource users. Intensive management promised more of everything: more commercial resource extraction and more recreation, more logging and more wildlife. Intensive management also promised to mitigate any resource damage due to development. Unfortunately, these hopeful visions often failed to pan out for lack of funding or because of irresolvable conflicts between uses or simple environmental limitations. Still, as long as the agency promised more and better management, it could elicit a certain amount of patience from critics and deference from policy-makers. But not indefinitely. The proliferation of timber roads and rapid liquidation of old growth eventually made a mockery of sustained yield and multiple use policies on Northwest national forests, and this, in turn, spelled disaster for the Forest Service’s public image."

Although Hirt’s focus is the Forest Service in national forests, Institutional Failure is rich with insights into SY:

"From the inception of American forestry in the late nineteenth century, foresters saw old growth as an obstacle in the way of the ultimate goal of forestry: to achieve a fully regulated forest producing desired goods and services efficiently and without waste. Foresters hoped to convert old growth as quickly as possible to thrifty, young, growing forests. This remarkably enduring perspective remained largely unchallenged within the forestry profession until the 1980’s, even though for decades many non-timber-oriented resource management professionals defended the positive values of old growth. Greatly outnumbered in the forestry schools, the timber industry and government agencies, these dissenters remained on the margins of policy debates until the 1980’s."

SEEING LIKE A STATE by James C. Scott is about the development of governmental power to control. There are chapters on the dictatorial but successful urban redevelopment of Paris, the building of Brasilia and the development of last names for citizens by the government of the Philippines. But the keystone, first chapter is about scientific forestry: the development of a controlling technology for forests as part of the development of government in nascent Germany in the 19th century.

Scott’s chapter on sustained yield forestry as control gets right to the heart of the Gordian knot of modern forestry. Instead of the age old ‘metis’ knowledge of how to live in forests, redesign of forests for industrial use requires not only regulated forests in tune with compounding interest, but ownership and tenure and a form of government capable of regulating. Like the enclosure of the commons, scientific forestry was a cornerstone in the redesign of humans as well as forests in the development of the emerging industrial society.

"The instrument, the knife, that carved out the new, rudimentary forest was the razor-sharp interest in the production of a single commodity. Everything that interfered with the efficient production of the key commodity was implacably eliminated. Everything that seemed unrelated to efficient production was ignored. Having come to see the forest as a commodity, scientific forestry set about refashioning it as a commodity machine. Utilitarian simplification in the forest was an effective way of maximizing wood production in the short and intermediate term. Ultimately, however, its emphasis on yield and paper profits, its relatively short time horizon, and, above all, the vast array of consequences it had resolutely bracketed came back to haunt it."

"The problem the planner faced was analogous to that of the forester. One modern solution to the forester’s dilemma was to borrow a management technique called optimum control theory, whereby the sustained timber yield, could be successfully predicted by few observations and a parsimonious formula. It goes without saying that optimum control theory was simplest where more variables could be turned into constants. Thus a single-species, same-age forest planted in straight lines on a flat plain with consistent soil and moisture profiles yielded simpler and more accurate optimum control formulas. Compared to uniformity, diversity is always more difficult to design, build and control."

Anthony Britneff, in his Oct 97 RPF Forum article, Silent Forests: Coloring Our Conquests, paints a graphic picture of how this attempted control of forests has redesigned forests in B.C. Britneff, a forester, uses two maps of coastal B.C. (including the Sierra Club map ) to show the history of this forestry. The images are of "an ecological experiment so great in scope that science can not provide any certainty as to its eventual outcomes including the sustainability of successive short rotations of young-growth forests".

"Nature designed forests to live 100 to 5000 years. We are designing a forest to live between 60 and 120 years.

Nature continually regenerates diverse forests of single and multiple tree species (usually between one and 10 tree species) including plants, animals, micro-organisms and fungi. We design forests of single and multiple tree species (often planting two or more tree species on the same site) leaving regeneration of other components of the ecosystem to nature.

Nature designed some forests to be connected, and others to be disconnected, "in space and time over vast landscapes." We are designing fragmented forests disconnected in space and time on clearcut patches.

Nature designed a forest to be self-sustaining, self-repairing. We are designing a forest to require external expenditures and subsidies , watershed restoration, brushing, spacing and fertilizers."

RPF Forum is the magazine of the professional foresters of B.C. and Mr. Britneff’s article is but one of many questioning this monolithic experiment at controlling and redesigning forests, but the ABCPF has not as an organization called for the end of SY as a precondition for sustainability despite numerous tenure and regulation testimonial opportunities to do so.

In his chapter on forests in BIODIVERSITY IN BRITISH COLUMBIA, Lee Harding is another voice questioning the SY experiment:

"Sustaining the yield of timber is not the same as sustaining the biological productivity of a forest ecosystem. Current plans call for timber harvest rotation periods of 80-140 years, whereas it may take 150-300 years for a forest to attain old growth characteristics (Pojar et el. 1990). Many forest scientists have recommended managing forests on the basis of ecological rotations, taking into account the temporal and spatial scales of forest ecosystem development (Kimmins and Duffy 1991). Extending the time scale of harvest rotation in this way would further reduce the long range sustained yield.

On a provincial scale, several decades of old growth cutting remain, but on a regional or local scale the old growth will be depleted sooner in many areas. Kimmins and Duffy (1991) felt that, if the sustainable rate of cutting is not distributed into several local cutting cycles (a cutting cycle is a complete set of stand age classes), local areas may experience boom and bust logging cycles, even though over the entire region the cut may be occurring at a sustainable rate. Social and economic sustainability at a smaller scale (a small local community), therefor, may be affected by forest management which ensures a sustained flow of logs at a larger geographic scale (a large timber supply area). The same can be said for ecological sustainability ."

The 1990’s saw the development of alternative forest management frameworks that had ecological sustainability instead of timber production as their prime goal. In Implementing Sustainability In West Coast Forests (Journal of Canadian Studies), political scientist Jeremy Rayner contrasts the forestry recommended for Clayoquot Sound with the forestry proposed for similar Pacific North-West forests by the FEMAT report to President Clinton. These ecocentric forestry management frameworks were set in differing political economic systems; their initiation and development, their relative success and influence, depended upon their differing tenure, legislative and judicial habitats - even though both plans were scientifically based and in very similar forests.

Mr. Rayner has a keen insight into SY

"In a sense, the need for integration is also the lesson of the old paradigm's failure. The paradigm failed because it oversimplified a complex reality. It is still not clearly understood that the oversimplification took two forms. First, the sustained - yield paradigm failed to understand the complexity of forest ecosystems, systematically downgrading the mounting evidence of soil erosion, biodiversity loss and disappearing habitat as so many anomalies to be handled by doing better in future. Second, it failed to come to terms with the fact that sustainability is as much a social as an ecological problem. Sustained - yield forestry is only a problem to the extent that it fails to provide us with what we want from our forests. It continues to be defended precisely because it is providing some people with exactly what they want."

Sadly, forest policy development in the 90’s can be understood in hindsight as another marginalized attempt to evolve past SY to an ecologically sustainable forestry. Ecosystem management, building upon New Forestry and New Perspectives within the Forest Service, did radically change management in National Forests, but intensive, short rotation forestry on private lands still continued the steady increase in forest products harvested in the US.

The Clayoquot Scientific Panel recommendations should have become a template for forest management in the predominately public Canadian provincial forests, but the Canadian forest industry requires a SY inflated AAC in order to survive as a high volume commodity producing industry. The language changed to stained glass endorsement of sustainable development, but SFM is just another obfuscation like IRM for continuing redesign of forests for a flow of commodities. Long term contracts for fiber from SY tenure areas, with volumes and age-class and species restructuring little changed from any previous decade of liquidation-conversion remains the defining picture of forestry in Canada.

Alex Clapp is a resource geographer. In a very stimulating article, The Resource Cycle in Forestry and Fishing, in the obscure Canadian Geographer (Summer 98), Clapp proposes a cycle from initial resource development to eventual sustainability only in a reduced industry after a resource collapse. Timber and fish are renewable, but the industries based upon their industrial harvesting are not. Again, the SY philosophy and methodology of harvesting controls in order to achieve a sustainable resource production not only does not work because the management framework is within economic and governmental hierarchies that have other goals, but itself inflates supposedly sustainable levels of production.

"This paper presents a theory of resource use, arguing that forests and fish stocks, indeed all wild populations under commercial use, sooner or later pass through a resource cycle -- that is, a pattern of over expansion followed by ecosystem disruption and economic crisis. It proposes that staple theory's focus on technology and institutions can be combined with ecological economics' analysis of resource dynamics to offer a predictive explanation of the resource cycle as a result of mutually reinforcing political and economic causes. The pattern of overexpansion and collapse can be observed in many resources and regions at different times: the precise trajectory depends on the biology of the target species, the technology used to process the resource, and the institutions that allocate rights to the resource."

Clapp’s invocation of resource cycles meshes well with the emerging social science concept of path dependence. Instead of free choice of optimal paths by self interested entities, path dependence introduces a topology of sub-optimal policy and other decision making sinks caused by initial conditions further back on the decision making tree or history of development.

Like the QWERTY keyboard or MS-DOS, the decisions made early on within the implementation of the SY resource management framework now severely constrain the policy space today. We may know we are in resource cycles leading to resource collapse or sub-optimal future states of the resource not compatible with our sustainable development commitment to intergenerational equity, but that still doesn’t mean we can change.

IN SEARCH OF SUSTAINABILITY British Columbia Forest Policy in the 1990’s is an in depth analysis of two terms of NDP forest and landuse policy by five prominent BC political scientists. In chapters on CORE and parks creation, the Forest Practices Code, the Timber Supply Review, Forest Renewal and tenure, First Nations, and timber pricing the authors give an insightful look at policy development and implementation in Westminster-style governments.

The key and sobering primary lesson of IN SEARCH is sustained yield path dependence (SYPD).

Inability to escape the SY philosophy and methodology restricted and undermined each NDP policy initiative. Failure in the key tenure and timber supply review methodology sectors meant that the provincial AAC remained around 70 million m3 (every ecocentric alternative forestry has reduced the rate of cut by at least two thirds from flow of commodity planning levels) and this wood promised in long term contracts for fibre had to come from somewhere.

CORE and subsequent landuse planning policies, for example, ultimate failed to deliver sustainable landuse planning because the working forest could only be constrained at the rock and ice margins. Attempts to protect biodiversity in the CODE could only impact continuing SY timber targets by less than 6%. Devolution of control to communities and First Nations, shut out of SY tenure in the formative decades of the 50’s and 60’s, and evolution to a more value-added industry were stymied by contract holders in an already over-allocated resource.

Sustained yield timber planning creates a policy sink for policy makers even for cabinet dictatorships in our service economy:

"(T)he very long planning horizon of timber supply policy creates acute path dependency. That is, we are now living with the consequences of timber supply decisions taken decades ago that forces us along a particular path chosen then. To retrace our steps and reopen possibilities that were rejected by those early decision makers would be expensive or even impossible. Path dependency reinforces the technical character of timber supply analysis by foreclosing or, at least, putting serious obstacles in the way of radical change in direction."

Jeremy Rayner, The Timber Supply Review IN SEARCH OF SUSTAINABILITY

"(D)ecisions made when the sustained yield paradigm was established after the Second World War set the province on a path that has been and will continue to be extremely costly and disruptive to reverse."

Cashore et al. Change and Stability in BC Forest Policy IN SEARCH OF SUSTAINABILITY

You can access a longer, more detailed review of IN SEARCH OF SUSTAINABILITY: one that accents the Softwood Lumber Agreement at

questions and comments



Green Thoughts


Sustained Yield