30 years of triad forestry: an interview with Dr. Robert Seymour

Recently, I’ve been meditating on the strengths and weaknesses of intensively managed plantations. I understand firsthand the incredible efficiency of plantation forestry to produce wood fiber; I worked nearly a decade in some of the most intensively managed production-oriented plantations on Earth before turning to a career in academia. During my PhD studies I focused on the link between biological diversity of the goods and services forests provide and society desires. My research suggested that more diverse plantations might produce less timber but, at the plot level, were more productive when multiple ecosystem services were considered (Himes et al., 2020). These results made me wonder if forests should be managed more holistically for a multitude of values or if people were best served by segregating different parts of the forest landscape to wood production and other parts to meeting  non-timber objectives like wildlife preservation, recreation and aesthetic values. This question is not new and great minds have suggested theoretical and practical frameworks for addressing it. This article is the first of a series, based on interviews with some of the most prominent researchers who have dedicated part of their careers to the question of how the forests landscape should be managed.

The first person I spoke with is Robert Seymour, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maine, where he pioneered the triad approach to forest management with Dr. Mac Hunter. As the name implies, triad promotes dividing the landscape into three different management zones—intensively managed plantations, reserves and ecologically managed matrix forests. Small but roughly equal proportions of the forest landscape should be dedicated to intensive wood production and no-touch ecological reserves while the remaining majority is maintained with ecological silviculture for multiple benefits. The triad has been extremely popular and widely adopted since Drs. Seymour and Hunter first introduced it nearly 30-years ago.

Dr. Robert Seymour

“We tend to get into these win lose arguments about the right kind of forestry, but this is a fallacy, there isn’t any one right kind of forestry.”

I asked Dr. Seymour to describe triad in his own words. “Triad is just a generic word for a three-part thing,” he responded. “We tend to get into these win lose arguments about the right kind of forestry, but this is a fallacy, there isn’t any one right kind of forestry.” Triad, he explained was proposed as an alternative based on the belief that people benefit from having multiple types of forestry practiced across the landscape.

“The origin of the idea was dissatisfaction with the way things were,” Dr. Seymour continued. He explained that there was increasing pressure to manage for non-timber objectives like biodiversity. “[Dr. Hunter] was an early advocate for ecological reserves as benchmarks. If we are going to manage for biodiversity it is arrogant to think we know how to do that, so we need natural benchmarks for comparison.” The problem, Dr. Seymour explained was producing enough wood for the timber industry while being able to set aside some forests as reserves. “I had done some work suggesting Maine was facing wood shortages, [but] if [managers] practice intensive, forestry on a small number of areas, they could get higher production. Why not ratchet up management in some places and back off in others? It’s just more efficient.” The rest of the forest would buffer reserves from intensively managed areas and support wood production at a lower rate but also support biodiversity and other ecological values. These “matrix” forests could make-up the bulk of the landscape.

“The concept is pretty straight forward,” Dr. Seymour explained. “It tends to be accepted by the public because it is a win-win deal. Triad has something for everybody. The biggest challenge is understanding that the matrix is not a ‘low management area,’ it is as intensive or more intensive than the production area. It takes a lot of work and knowledge to manage under ecological forestry. The matrix should contribute as much or more than [reserves and plantations] to societal goals, both in terms of conservation values and timber production.”

Dr. Seymour went on to explain, “ecological forestry includes autecology but more significantly it incorporates disturbance ecology.” He suggested silviculture under ecological forestry in the matrix should mimic nature disturbance severity and return intervals and provide a complete range of habitats. “Nature knows best, and [ecological forestry] follows nature’s templates for management.”

“It’s hard to get people to acknowledge that ecological forestry stands are working too!”

Despite the importance of the ecologically managed matrix to the triad, Dr. Seymour claimed it is the hardest part to find support for. “There is very little public constituency for the ecologically managed matrix. In the public eye, land is either harvested or it is preserved, and it is difficult for people to understand the benefits of ecological forest management. It’s hard to get people to acknowledge that ecological forestry stands are working too!”

Despite the challenges, the triad has had a significant influence on forest management around the globe over the last 30-years. Drs. Seymour and Hunter first presented the concept at the 1991 Society of American Foresters national convention in San Francisco and based on the reception published a bulletin describing the triad. “Usually you print 50 copies of these bulletins and retire with 40 of them in a box,” Dr. Seymour explained, but more than 2000 copies of the triad bulletin were distributed in the first year. The triad approach has influenced forest management policy in Maine, Chile and Australia. It has shaped the management of private timber companies. Just this year, Nova Scotia has begun the largest scale implementation of the triad approach in a plan for managing approximately 1.8 million hectares of provincial forests.


Austin Himes, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Forestry at Mississippi State University where he teaches and conducts research. His research is focused on silviculture, forest ecology, ecosystem services, and environmental values. He is interested in understanding interactions between forests and people through an interdisciplinary lens and finding ways silviculture can be used to improve the many ways forests benefit people. He and Adam Polinko, Ph.D., run the Silviculture at MS State lab, which you can follow on Twitter @silviculture.

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