On December 8th, 2020 the Oregon State Land Board voted unanimously to move ahead with transferring ownership of the Elliot State forest (32,000 hectare) to Oregon State University. The decision came after reviewing a proposal prepared by the College of Forestry to turn the Elliot into one of the world’s largest research forests. At the heart of the ambitious Elliot State Research Forest proposal is a landscape scale experiment aimed at testing trade-offs between different intensities of forest management. How do timber production, biodiversity, climate resilience, recreation, wildlife, water quality/quantity and other benefits change if intensively managed forest area is balanced with ecological reserves or lighter “ecological” forestry is practices everywhere?
I recently interviewed Dr. Matt Betts, one of the lead contributors to Elliot Research Forest proposal, about triad forestry. This is the third article in my ongoing series of interview with the most prominent researchers on the topic of functional zoning in forestry and the triad model. Dr. Betts is a Professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society in Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. He is a forest landscape and wildlife ecologist interested in the effects of landscape processes on wildlife.
I asked Dr. Betts why he was interested in implementing triad forestry at the Elliot. “We should be empirically testing the approach because a bunch of jurisdictions are implementing it with very little scientific advice on how it should go ahead or what the implications may be,” he said, referencing among others, the recent decision by the provincial government of Nova Scotia to adopt the triad model of forestry as recently recommended in the “Lehey Report.”
For Dr. Betts, the greatest challenge for forestry in the 21st century is, “how can we best manage forest landscapes to provide for global timber demand without wrecking the planet for the rest of the species.” He points out that global consumption of timber is projected to increasing steadily for decades to come.
Plantation forests are growing in land area to meet this demand, while most other forest types are shrinking. We are on the verge of having more than half of all global round wood produced in plantations. Dr. Betts points out that, “we are on a rapid trend toward intensification and we are doing that without understanding the consequences at broad scales.” Many argue that intensifying production will leave more land to set aside for reserves compared to extensive ecological forest management which is likely to be less productive per unit area. But Dr. Betts points out the expansion of intensive plantations globally is happening without these decisions being formally tied to the establishment of reserves. “Often, in agricultural systems the more successful you are at growing food on a small area, the greater the likelihood that that sort of agriculture increases, leaving less land for reserves – a pattern termed “Jevon’s paradox”.
“I withhold judgement on if triad is a good approach,” says Dr. Betts. “In some places, maybe extensive management just doesn’t work, and we need to maximize the area of reserves and intensify management on a small area of land. In other parts of the planet, maybe extensive management is best and should be used over 90% or more of the landscape. What I think is compelling, is the argument that we should try to find out – using the scientific method – in different parts of the world. Triad needs testing,” he adds, “but there isn’t some alternative that has been tested and is working. The alternative to testing the triad is to cover our eyes and ears and hope for the best when it comes to the way we are meeting world demand for wood.”
“The alternative to testing the triad is to cover our eyes and ears and hope for the best when it comes to the way we are meeting world demand for wood.”
The Elliot Research Forest proposal has been generally well received with strong endorsements from many external reviewers including Prof. David Lindenmayer of the Australian National University, Dr. Christian Messier of the University of Quebec and Dr. Bernard Bormann, Professor of Ecosystems and Director of the Olympic Natural Resources Center at the University of Washington who said, “The Elliott Plan promises to address [a] critical data shortfall for the first time, with state-of-the-art measurement of all core outcomes, sensible time horizons, and sufficient replication of a broad swathe of real world management practices.” However, the plan has not been well received by all. One notable detractor is Pacific Northwest forestry celebrity Jerry Franklin, who in his review of the proposal declared, “…the triad theme is indefensible as a basis for the research program.”
“The Elliott Plan promises to address [a] critical data shortfall for the first time, with state-of-the-art measurement of all core outcomes, sensible time horizons, and sufficient replication of a broad swathe of real world management practices.”
In response to the criticism, Dr. Betts says, “this is less about whether one agrees with the triad approach, and more whether one thinks science is necessary to test a range of options for balancing biodiversity conservation with timber production.” He adds that “some people oppose the triad approach because they think we already have sufficient information to manage for biodiversity, so we don’t need to study reserves as important benchmarks for our actions. Alternatively, others argue we already know everything about intensive management—it’s bad, it’s like a parking lot, we should skip it. Both arguments assume that we already know what we are doing and don’t need more science to support forest management.”
Research on the triad isn’t the only thing the plan’s architects intend to study. “Nested within the triad design is the potential for dozens of research projects,” says Dr. Betts. “Not all the extensive treatments within a landscape will be identical, and not all the intensive treatment will be either, so there can be opportunities for experimental manipulations to test variations on extensive ecological silviculture and intensive silviculture approaches. For example, what are the best ways of doing ecological or intensive management in the face of climate change? This could be an international laboratory attracting researchers from all over the world.”
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.