Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 11, Issue 2 - December, 2018

Editor: Lee Stivers

Ecologically Focused Forest Management Programing for Non-Industrial Private Forest Landowners

Warren, W. A., Extension Educator, University Of Idaho


This paper presents an argument for developing landowner forest management programing that prioritizes ecological goals in management. The literature review presented illustrates the evolution of the natural resource science disciplines from concern with maximum sustained yield to more ecological concerns, as well as the shift of public values regarding forests, and the dramatic shift in western forest conditions due to past management and climate change. A landowner education approach is presented that incorporates the latest science on forest dynamics, biodiversity conservation, wildfire risk reduction, and the management goals of NIPF landowners. This programing approach provides another option for landowner education from that of traditional production forestry.


Three vectors of change have converged to suggest alternative approaches to Extension forest management education, at least in the West. The first vector is the decades-long change in resource management disciplines from a focus on “maximum sustained yield” of a single resource, whether it be wood fiber, fish, or white-tailed deer, to a focus on managing for multiple ecological, social, and economic values. This change is illustrated dramatically by the spotted owl crises in Pacific Northwest forests in the 1990s, when management of federal forests along the West Coast and interior west abruptly changed from the application of traditional production forestry and “get out the cut” to one of ecological stewardship, where timber production (if any) was seen as a byproduct, not the primary management goal (Kohm and Franklin, 1997).

This change has since spread to the management of state and even private industrial forest lands through enactment of stricter forest practice act regulations in the coastal states of Washington, Oregon, and California. While this change in orientation of natural resource management has been advocated by ecological scientists since at least the 1970s, it was finally the overwhelming push of environmental groups and the public that has driven these changes (Maser and Thomas, 1977; Yaffee, 1995).

The second vector of change are value changes among the landowning public, which has been documented by research on the values of non-industrial private forest (NIPF) landowners, among others. Findings show that a large majority of NIPF owners value naturalness, wildlife, and biodiversity conservation as more important than economic return through traditional forest management (Butler, 2008; Cook et al., 2018; USDA 2015;

Finally, the third vector of change, is the rapidly changing condition of western forests and the problems this change is creating, such as increased wildfire extent and severity and major mortality of forest stands at a landscape scale. These problems have given impetus to a major ecological research effort to understand historic forest conditions and the attributes of forest resiliency. This research seeks to inform how the ecological components and services of these forests can be maintained in the face of rapid environmental change and unprecedented levels of forest disturbance. Climate change is one of the principle drivers for this change which poses the larger issue of continental-scale ecological change that is not likely to be reversed (Sample and Bixler, 2014). This scale of change is undermining the knowledge base of traditional natural resource management approaches such as forestry which has been developed during a period of rather stable climatic and environmental conditions (Sample, 2012).

NIPF landowners in the West are faced with these changing forest conditions and risks. Extension can respond to these vectors of change by structuring educational programs that teach non-traditional approaches to forest management. These non-traditional approaches can inculcate an alternative view of forests as dynamic, complex adaptive systems. This research can be combined with studies in the field of biodiversity conservation and the importance of structural heterogeneity to help landowners “un-simplify” their forests to produce conditions that are more conducive to the values of species conservation and forest resilience. This paper, including a review of the literature, presents an argument for developing landowner forest management programing that prioritizes ecological goals in management. 



Traditional natural resource management tended to focus on the maximization of a single resource, typified by the concept of “maximum sustained yield” or MSY. The paradigm was based on industrial models of efficiency, uniformity, predictability, and maximizing production of a particular resource, usually with an economic emphasis. This approach resulted in the simplification of forest structure to create management efficiencies, creating forests that were easier to measure and predict growth and yield for wood fiber production (Puettmann et al., 2009; Hilborn et al., 1995).

This paradigm was questioned in the late 20th century due to advances in the science of ecology that pointed to the complexity and inherent unpredictability of ecological systems, as well as the detrimental impacts that traditional approaches were having on fish and wildlife habitat, sensitive species, and water quality. In addition, the changing values of the public demanded more emphasis on aesthetics, species conservation, and “naturalness” over commodity extraction.

Finally, the development of “megafires” in the West has spawned major research initiatives that are looking at how forest managers can reestablish more complex forest structures that were characteristic of western forests prior to Euro-American settlement (e.g. Churchill et al., 2013; Franklin et al., 2008; Franklin and Johnson, 2012; Hessburg et al., 2015; Larsen and Churchill, 2012; Tinkham et al., 2017; USDA, 2018). The more simplified structures we have today are a result of traditional forestry approaches, and are contributing to the fire, disease, and insect mortality of western forests (Puettmann et al., 2009; Hessburg et al., 2015).

The goal of sustainable forestry has shifted from growing and regenerating uniform stands of timber, and “healthy,” fast-growing trees, to approaches that seek to perpetuate old trees and other forest legacies, as well as use natural disturbance as a reference to create complex, “messy” forest conditions with interspersed tree patches and clumps, openings of various sizes, and single trees. The intent is to create more complex and heterogeneous forest conditions that enhance biodiversity and break up stand and landscape uniformity to prevent the spread of large, destructive fires and insect outbreaks (Hessburg et al., 2015). The advocated changes not only draw from research on forests, but also on fundamental ecological research that has demonstrated the link between heterogeneous structural elements in ecosystems across time and space and increased species richness and biodiversity (e.g. Aukema and Carey, 2008; Carey, 2003; Kovalenko et al., 2012; St. Pierre and Kovalenko, 2014).

Another major finding in this research is that much of the West that is currently forested was un-forested historically (Hessburg et al., 2015); therefore, foresters should be encouraged to get away from the idea that every acre is improved with trees. Nationally, grasslands, not forests, are one of our most endangered ecological communities (Bryer et al., 2000).



In 2018, a forest management program for NIPFs was developed and presented in a two-evening format called “Ecologically-Based Forest Management Alternatives for North Central Idaho.” The program reviewed the latest research on interior-west forest dynamics and the historical structure of forests at various scales, along with the implications for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem resilience, and wildfire risk. In addition to a summary review of the basic science, attendees were introduced to techniques for applying this knowledge to their own forests, such as variable density thinning and free selection.

Program Outline

The two-night workshop used a PowerPoint presentation format combined with handouts addressing the major concepts. The presentations began with a brief review of the transition of natural resource management disciplines from a “production based” to an “ecological goals” emphasis over the last few decades. This helped attendees understand the historical context and limitations of any disciplinary perspective, and how these change with scientific advance and public demand. Along with this, examples were presented with some of the problems that developed with conventional approaches (e.g. simplified forest structure that is more susceptible to insect mortality and wildfire), and the benefits of more ecologically driven management (e.g. greater biodiversity and wildlife benefits).

Next, attendees were given a review of the ecological change in western forests that predated the time of Euro-American settlement, and how past management has contributed to this change. This part of the program used historical photography (some using static photo-points) and period landscape paintings from the 19th century and onward to illustrate forest change. Photos of present-day forest sites that were believed to be more typical of historic forests based on reconstructions of past forest conditions were also used.

This wass followed by a review of the evidence that these historic forest structures and patterns were more resilient to disturbance than present-day forests, and how present conditions have contributed to the increased size and severity of wildland fire as well as insect and disease issues.

Next, attendees were presented with the principles of applying an ecological approach to forest management. This included the primary focus in ecologically oriented management of referencing natural disturbance patterns with an emphasis on the historic structure of forests (the spatial arrangement of individual trees, tree clumps, successional patches and openings across space and time), and the maintenance of ecological “legacies” (Churchill et al., 2013; Hessburg et al., 2015). Evidence suggests that this focus will create forest conditions that are more resilient to environmental change and future disturbance such as wildfire, while enhancing or maintaining biodiversity (Churchill et al., 2013; Hessburg et al., 2015).

These approaches attempt to move away from the traditional forestry priorities of regeneration and creating stands of evenly spaced, healthy, trees, to one of forest continuity and structural arrangement through time, creating a more “natural” or “messy” forest condition than with traditional management.

In summary, the goal is to manage forests as “complex adaptive systems” using ecological approaches and perspectives better suited to address ecosystem complexity, variability, unpredictability, and adaptability (Puettmann et al., 2009). Such management will create forests that are “spatially heterogeneous at multiple scales” and more resilient to disturbance and environmental change (Northwest Fire Sciences Consortium, 2016).

Finally, attendees were presented with some specific protocols for applying ecologically focused forest management that were accompanied by photographs and metrics for tree spacing or clumping. Photos and Google Earth images of properties where these approaches were applied were also presented.

These protocols and approaches gave attendees some specifics on how they could implement alternative forest management approaches on their own property. These approaches drew heavily on pre-Euro-American forest structures and conditions as a reference, and involved a focus on complex spatial patterns, aggregation of trees and regeneration in clumps (vs. uniform spacing). They advocated using variable size openings and successional patches at small to large scales, retaining large/old trees of the most fire-resistant and drought-tolerant species, and tailoring patch distribution to natural topography.

The underlying paradigm in these approaches is one of forest continuity over stand termination and regeneration as with traditional forestry as well as creating structural and compositional diversity within a forest stand, rather than favoring growth on individual trees and creating spatially uniform stands as with traditional forestry (USDA, 2016).

Three applications of alternative forest management were presented. They are: variable density thinning (VDT), free selection, and one (not given a name) presented in a paper by Larsen and Churchill (2012).

Variable Density Thinning. The goal of VDT is to create stands that are structurally and compositionally diverse, rather than uniform as in traditional forestry (Franklin et al., 2007). This is achieved by producing variably sized gaps (where all-or most-trees are removed), skips (where no-or few-trees are removed), and various degrees of thinning elsewhere. The idea is to loosely mimic natural disturbance characteristics for a forest type, and create horizontal, vertical, and temporal complexity of forest structure. The location of various treatments can be tailored to forest conditions of that site (for example, a gap created where disease or other forest health issues argue for stand termination), and thinning can be used as an intermediate treatment to a final regeneration harvest. In that way, the approach can be blended with traditional forestry approaches to achieve both economic, forest health, and ecological objectives (USDA, 2009).

Free Selection. Free selection (Graham and Jain, 2005) is grounded in ecological science and similar to VDT but is less systematic. The authors characterize it as combining aspects of both even-aged and uneven-aged silviculture to create diverse stand composition and structural heterogeneity (Graham and Jain, 2005). They describe it as a “hybrid system” that requires multiple entries to create the desired conditions, and that can utilize multiple silvicultural methods at each entry (Graham and Jain, 2005). They maintain that the approach is applicable to both dry and moist forests of the western US and is most appropriate when the condition of the forest after treatment is the goal, such as for wildlife and maintaining a sense of “wildness” in the forest. Free selection, properly applied, requires the application of a “vision” (Graham and Jain, 2005) over technical stand descriptions as in traditional silviculture. This approach is required in order to produce the forest complexity that is the hallmark of ecological forestry—patchiness, multiple canopies, and old trees and decadence—and is lacking in traditional silviculture (Graham and Jain, 2005).

Larsen and Churchill. Larsen and Churchill (2012) have developed another approach that emphasizes spatial aggregation, or clumping, as the dominant spatial pattern, and is composed of a mosaic of three elements: openings, widely spaced single trees, and tree clumps. They put particular emphasis on tree clumps as a missing element of managed forests that was a primary structural element of pre-Euro-American settlement forests. They estimate that between 30-85% of trees in eastern Washington forests occurred in clumps. They maintain that tree clumps have numerous benefits to forest resiliency and biodiversity conservation, from increased water infiltration in forest soils, to variability in micro-habitats (see also Churchill et al., 2013).

With all three approaches, specific examples of spatial arrangements and target tree densities in the various treatments are presented, but it is noted that these are only examples. The primary focus of the three techniques is to create simulations of the random variability of an unmanaged forest and adapt the specific interventions to local site conditions and landowner goals. These approaches emphasize the “art” in the art and science of forest management.


All three approaches also put a priority in retaining old/large trees and a preference for fire and drought resistant species, as well as emphasizing the creation of complex structural elements of the resultant forest at multiple scales. Research into pre-management forests and forest resiliency are new and active areas of research. More work needs to be done to translate the findings of ecological science into more practical recommendations for forest landowners. However, since one of the major principles in this literature is to move away from uniform prescriptions as in traditional forestry, and more closely approximate historic forest structure and disturbance patterns, landowners need an emphasis on basic principles, so they can adapt them to their specific conditions, rather than being taught to duplicate standard prescriptions.



The 2018 two-night workshop had 16 landowners participate, representing 1,483 ac of forestland. End-of-program written evaluations were administered with participants asked to rate their knowledge of ecological forestry before and after the event based on a five-point scale, with “1” indicating the least knowledge, and “5” the most. Participants were also asked whether they would implement any of the information learned by indicating “yes,” “probably,” “not sure,” “probably not,” or “no.” Participants were also asked other questions regarding the program such as if the program format was a good way for them to learn the content, and whether they would be able to use what they learned. All answers are anonymous, and the results reported here are simple averages of all responses.

One-hundred percent said they would (79%) or probably would (21%) use or implement the information they learned. A 35% increase in knowledge was reported. One-hundred percent stated that the program was a good way for them to learn the content.

Among attendees were those who had attended previous programs on using forest management techniques to increase wildlife and biodiversity where some of the same concepts were discussed. One participant was a retired forest ecologist with the US Forest Service. Attendees also indicated a strong interest in additional programing on this topic, including a field tour to view where these approaches have been put into practice, based on my verbal questioning of the entire audience at the end of the program, and comments left on the evaluation forms under the heading “Any future workshop topic suggestions?”.



Scientific investigation of ecosystem change and resiliency is leading to a new understanding of western forests, and with this understanding a new way of looking at forests and how to manage them. These changing views of forests and forest management can open the way for innovation, and private forest landowners can play an important role in this innovation if they are given the basic principles of the underlying science to apply to their unique situations.

This area of increased scientific investigation is largely motivated by the increasing challenges we face with western forests from climate change, longer fire seasons and larger and more severe wildfires, forest health issues, biodiversity conservation, simplified forest structure, reduction in fire and drought adapted tree species, and more people living in and near forests that are threatened by catastrophic wildfires.

While the approach suggested here will not resonate with all NIFP audiences, those who value “naturalness,” biodiversity, wildlife, and other non-economic values of their forest may find a forest management paradigm that fits their values, while at the same time producing an economic product from their land.



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Tools For Engaging Landowners Effectively at

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USDA Forest Service (2016). Managing for ecological objectives. Retrieved from

USDA Forest Service (2018). Back to the future: Building resilience in Colorado front range forests using research findings and a new guide for restoration of ponderosa and dry-mixed conifer landscapes. Rocky Mountain Research Station Science You Can Use Bulletin, January / February 2018, Issue 28.

Yaffee, S. L. (1995). Lessons about leadership from the history of the spotted owl controversy. Natural Resources Journal, 35(spring 1995):381-412.