Functional Zoning: An interview with Dr. Clark Binkley

This article is the second 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. In the first article I interviewed Dr. Robert Seymour, co-create of the triad approach to forest management, where the landscape is divided into areas of intensive management, un-managed reserves and a matrix of ecologically managed forest. After my interview with Dr. Seymour, I had an opportunity to talk with Dr. Clark Binkley.

Dr. Binkley began his career as an academic. He was a faculty member at Yale before becoming the Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Dr. Binkley left UBC for the private sector with the intent of implementing the concepts form his research in forest economics in the real world. He was the Chief Investment Officer for Hancock Timber Group before starting his own company, International Forest Investments Advisors which eventually merged with GreenWood Resources Inc. where Dr. Binkley served as the Chief Investment Officer for 5-years and I had the pleasure of working with him.

In the 1990’s Dr. Binkley published two impactful papers advocating for a functional zoning approach to forest management (Vincent and Binkley, 1993; Binkley, 1997). Based on my personal experience with Dr. Binkley, his research in the topic and decades of experience in forest investment I knew he would be the perfect person to ask about functional zoning.

I asked Dr. Binkley for his definition of functional zoning. “In the simplest terms, it is doing different things in different places.” The question at the heart of functional zoning he explained is, “are you better off to produce everything everywhere or are you better off zoning the forest and producing a lot of timber in one place and a lot of non-timber values elsewhere.” According to Dr. Binkley, “economic theory says you are way better off intensifying management for the things you want.”


“Economic theory says you are way better off intensifying management for the things you want.”



In order to get the things that society wants from forests, it is necessary to first figure out what people want, “it is not a value free debate,” Dr. Binkley insists.  “Zoning means developing a production function for the forests [where] there is a continuum of treatments you can have in a forest, each with its own set of outcomes.” According to Dr. Binkley, forest management should optimize those outcomes so that when the trade-offs between outcomes create winners and losers, the benefits to winners should be at least large enough so that they could, in theory, compensate the losers to the point that they are at least as well off as they were before. This is simply the standard economic prescription for cost-benefit analysis.

When asked how to weigh the value of different forest benefits to find optimal outcomes, Dr. Binkley said, “an economist like myself will tell you that if we know the price we can find the optimal solution and the best way to get the price is by trading things in markets.” But getting the price for many ecosystem services isn’t so easy. “We’ve had a remarkable proclivity in the U.S. to avoid trading [ecosystem services] in markets,” says Dr. Binkley. Nonetheless, he noted that in recent decades more ecosystem service markets have developed, siting the California Carbon Exchange as an example. “One thing I knew intellectually from my time in academia and have confirmed in my experience in the timberland investment business is if you have price signals for environmental services, you will get more of them.”

“We’ve had a remarkable proclivity in the U.S. to avoid trading [ecosystem services] in markets,”

Dr. Binkley noted that major barriers still exist for optimizing outputs from forest management in a functional zoning approach. “While economic theory is very clear about the benefits of functional zoning, there is almost no empirical evidence at the landscape scale to support the question one way or the other,” he said. Dr. Binkley insisted that, “long-term research with the ability to do good experimental ecology” is essential to understanding the system well enough to make decisions with optimal outputs. Such long-term research with a landscape scale focus is almost unheard. However, Dr. Binkley suggested that a current proposal to turn nearly 37,000 ha of Oregon’s Elliot State Forest into research forest under Oregon State University management could be the perfect opportunity to empirically test the benefits and costs of functionally zoning 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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