In 2009, Congress authorized the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in Title IV of the Public Land Management Act. Twenty- three priority landscapes across the National Forest System were accepted in the program. Over the past eight years, collaborative groups of stakeholders, and the respective National Forest Interdisciplinary Teams, have developed and implemented proposed actions in the priority landscapes. In addition, collaborative restoration projects have progressed in landscapes external to the CFLRP. The accomplishments of these projects are building momentum for increased management activity on federal lands.
Attracting much less attention is the maturation of the agency's restoration strategy. In 2016, the Forest Service adopted an Ecosystem Restoration Policy, adding clarity to the purpose and definition of forest restoration (referred to below as the Policy). A decade in the making, the Policy evolved from a 2006 document, Ecosystem Restoration: A Framework for Restoring and Maintaining the National Forests and Grasslands. The Framework "identified that the concept of ecological restoration has not been well understood nor consistently implemented within the agency". The Policy was developed with the intent to increase restoration as an effective tool to achieve land management objectives. The approval process for the Policy included internal review by agency staff and external comment by the public.
FSM 2020 provides policy for reestablishing and retaining ecological resilience of National Forest System lands and resources to achieve sustainable multiple use management and provide a broad range of ecosystem services. Resilient ecosystems have greater capacity to survive disturbances and large-scale threats, especially under changing and uncertain future environmental conditions, such as those driven by climate change and human uses.
For restoration collaborative groups, the publication of the Policy offers an opportunity to review the content, and determine if performance could be improved by adapting business processes to align with restoration objectives of the agency.
The source of the restoration definition incorporated in the Policy is the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) International; the definition references the Three Dís of current condition:
Ecosystem (ecological) restorationis the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged or destroyed.
The Three Dís imply a comparison to a reference condition. Is the ecosystem degraded, damaged or destroyed - compared to what? And to
what degree has the current condition departed from the reference condition? The concept of Natural Range of Variation (NRV) provides a framework to identify the structure, composition, and connectivity components of the landscape that are important in order to restore, or maintain, a resilient ecosystem. Historic conditions contribute to an understanding of the ecosystem characteristics that are resilient. A review of the historic conditions serves to inform, but not necessarily to define, a desired landscape condition.
Functional Restoration: Project managers and collaborators will encounter landscapes for which the departure from the reference condition is so great that restoration to the historic landscape components is infeasible, either ecologically or economically. In these situations, proposed actions focus on achieving a structure, composition and pattern that will restore functional characteristics of the ecosystem. The structural characteristics, however, will likely not align with those that occurred in the past.
Natural disturbance is an integral part of the NRV for Idahoís forests. Historic fire regimes have influenced the structure, composition and the pattern on the landscapes. Management actions over past decades, including fire suppression, have also influenced the characteristics. In many
landscapes, fire suppression has contributed to ecosystem degradation, resulting in conditions that merit restoration. In the absence of restoration actions, landscapes will likely be less resilient to future disturbance caused by insects, disease and wildfire. The current degraded conditions constitute a hazard which increases the risk of large-scale disturbances. A less resilient landscape may require additional time or management actions to recover following a disturbance. In the case of uncharacteristic wildfire, a landscape may never fully recover from high severity impacts (i.e., the ecological functions are destroyed).
The Policy also recognizes that not all Forest Service lands need to be restored, nor does every management activity require a restoration objective. Restoration can complement other management activities conducted in landscapes that have retained ecological integrity. But for those landscapes that would benefit from restoration, what is the objective?
The restoration objective of the agency is threefold, and addresses the question "when is the ecosystem restored"? Over the long term, the restored ecosystem conditions i) are resilient, ii) can be managed for multiple use, and iii) provide ecosystem services, including, but not limited to, carbon storage and sequestration (FSM 2020). The Policy defines ecosystem services as the benefits people obtain from the underlying functions of the ecosystem. The four categories of ecosystem services identified are:
Provisioning services, such as clean air and fresh water, energy, food, fuel, forage, wood products or fiber, and minerals;
Regulating services, such as long-term storage of carbon; climate regulation; water filtration, purification, and storage; soil stabilization; flood and drought control; and disease regulation;1
Supporting services, such as pollination, seed dispersal, soil formation, and nutrient cycling; and
Cultural services, such as educational, aesthetic, spiritual, and cultural heritage values, recreational experiences, and tourism opportunities.
1. Not explicitly included in the Policy statement, maintenance of wildlife habitat, both terrestrial and aquatic, is a regulating service (implied).
Objectives - Collaborative Group
Collaboration is a partnership between the agency and stakeholders. The partnership implies that the collaborative group should, at minimum, understand and acknowledge the agency's restoration objective. As stated in the Restoration Framework, the Policy seeks to improve understanding and consistent implementation of restoration within the agency. Similarly, the Policy should also improve understanding and consistent project implementation with collaborators. Two topics stand out from the Policy (for this author) that merit the attention of collaborative organizations: Ecosystem Services and Restoration Scale.
The agency's objective is stated in terms of ecosystem services.
By definition, the services benefit people. Collaborative participation is essential in order to identify the local community's expectations for services derived from the forest.
In the project design phase, collaborators need to understand that services to the public are constrained by current condition (the Three D's), as well as the inherent capacity of the landscape.
A primary goal of the collaboration ought to be a landscape outcome - reducing the departure from the desired condition.
Metrics that measure activity (acres treated with commercial harvest, miles of road improved, stream miles improved, etc) are relevant but secondary to the primary goal.
A Scale to Match Objectives
Participants in collaborative groups frequently have experience reviewing timber sale projects on federal lands.
The timber sale projects typically were smaller in scale than landscape restoration projects, and objectives tended to be narrower and often commodity focused. Landscape restoration projects are typically implemented with multiple contracts, each addressing a subset of the landscape.
An ecosystem service objective requires a change in scale for project recommendations. Watershed and landscape scale prescriptions are more appropriate to address the restoration objectives of achieving landscapes resilient to large-scale disturbances.
The references below offer background that will help the transition to a scale that matches objectives.
Hessburg, Paul F.; Churchill, Derek J.; Larson, Andrew J.; Haugo, Ryan D.; Miller, Carol; Spies, Thomas A.; North, Malcolm P.; Povak, Nicholas A.; Belote, R. Travis; Singleton, Peter H.; Gaines, William L.; Keane, Robert E.; Aplet, Gregory H.; Stephens, Scott L.; Morgan, Penelope; Bisson, Peter A.; Rieman, Bruce E.; Salter, R. Brion; Reeves, Gordon H. 2015. Restoring fire-prone Inland Pacific landscapes: seven core principles. Landscape Ecology. 30(10): 1805-1835.