Teaching complex adaptive system science to manage forest ecosystems – an interview with Klaus Puettmann

September is a busy month for academics. To wake up researchers after the summer break, usually many conferences and events are being organized. After the IUFRO Congress in Freiburg i.B., last September I participated to a field course that took place at the Vallombrosa Forest in Tuscany (Italy). This course brought together students from several universities and countries. It focused on teaching theoretical concepts, such as resilience and complexity theory, and how these can be practically applied in natural resource management settings. In this post I interview one of the course organizers, Prof. Klaus Puettmann from Oregon State University (OSU) to better understand why complexity science should be taught in forest management programs.


First of all, thank you prof Puettmann to agree to participate to the interview and for sharing your experience. Let’s start with perhaps something quite personal. When was the first time you heard about complexity science and what was the spark that made you thinking that these concepts can be applied for managing forests?

Simon Levins book “Fragile Dominion”  published in the late 1990s caught my attention, but it took me some time till I was able to make the link between Simon’s ideas and forestry. Our first book started as a critique, because we (Christian Messier, David Coates, and I) were concerned that silviculture played more and more a marginal role in forestry organizations, e.g., we were seeing a reduced emphasize on hiring silviculturists in universities and forest management organizations. After lengthy discussion, we decided we needed a positive message, e.g., suggestions to turn this trend around. We suggested that managing forest as complex adaptive systems is our best to invigorate silviculture.

What is the difference between the classic forest management approach and an approach based on viewing forests as complex adaptive systems? And why would be the second approach be more suitable in the framework of rapid socio-economic and climatic changes?

One of the main differences is that class forest management is basically a top-down approach. The main goal is increased efficiency of commodity production (wood) through homogenization, either in even-or unevenaged aged stands. My main concern with this approach is that it stifles “innovation”, i.e., the ecosystem’s ability to respond to changes. In contrast, managing forests as complex adaptive system is a bottom-up approach. Besides the provision of ecosystem services, management activities also consider the adaptive capacity, i.e., the ability of ecosystem to respond to changes. The adaptive or transformative capacity of ecosystem is more and more important in a world that is changing faster and faster and where foresters have less ability to “fix” things, e.g., due to limited budgets, more constraints on pesticides, etc.

The group discussing “complex” problems for managing the Vallombrosa forest. Author of the photo: Susanna Nocentini

When your first controversial book A Critique of Silviculture was published it made quite a fuss within the silvicultural community. Many praised you and your colleagues for increasing the awareness for viewing forests as complex adaptive systems but others criticized it because – according to them – it did not provided concrete directions to new practices. What had changed now that almost ten years have passed since when you and your colleagues sat on a table to discuss about publishing the first book?

I agree, there was a bi-polar reaction. By now, I see that some of the critical colleagues understand that managing forest as complex adaptive systems can ‘t simple provide a recipe that foresters can follow. I also see that the ideas and concepts have penetrated our field (not only due to our book), but just look for e.g., “resistance”, “resilience”, and “adaptive capacity” in meetings notes, announcements, publication and discussion. It took a few decades for the “ecosystem management” concepts to mature to the point that now foresters in many regions include snags, downed wood, and patchiness into their management prescriptions. From what I see, I am optimistic that managing forests as complex adaptive systems will have a similar development, but it will take some time.

Broadly speaking (i.e. worldwide), at which point do you think we currently are in the application of alternative silvicultural regimes to conventional forest management?

We recently published an overview. In many places the industrial model of forest management is still dominant. Our review pointed out that a combination of ecological, economic, logistic, educational and historical/cultural factors are hurdles that have to be overcome. We are making progress, but need to expand our work by taking a broader approach and e.g., working with social scientists to overcome these hurdles. (click here to the read the review paper, it is open-access)

Why do you think the concepts of complexity science must be included in teaching programs for master and graduate students? And what is the best way to teach these topics?

I have been involved in various workshops and classes, from standard classes (classroom only) that I co-taught with social scientists to field classes. The vast majority of student feedback pointed out that this class opened student’s eyes, meaning that they looked at forests and forestry different after the class. And that this different view provided useful insights. Complexity is cutting-edge science that should be integrated into any forward looking natural resource curriculum. Regarding how to teach it: we are still working on that. What seems to be working well is having a team of instructors, with different background and interest who look at the class as complex adaptive system. This mean allowing the student to bring their background and interest into the class (bottom-up), have students work in groups (networks), and encourage communication across hierarchies.

After visiting the forest, the students worked in groups to tackle a series of exercises, followed by fruitful discussions. Author of the photo: Marco Mina

What was your impression from the latest field week organized in the stunning silver fir/European beech forest of Vallombrosa in Tuscany (Italy)?

I personally was very pleased. The students were well prepared, worked extremely hard (I know we packed a lot into the week), and as far as I could tell, they learned a lot – and so did I. Choosing the Vallombrosa forest worked out perfect. It not only was a beautiful setting that students and instructors will never forget, it also brought up a wide suite of issues, from historical management regimes to current wildlife challenges to larger scale economic challenges in the tourism industry in the region. It will be interesting to see whether some of the “complexity ideas” show up in the new management plan. I certainly would be interested to contribute to that, if possible.

One last question. After field weeks organized in Oregon, Quebec and Italy what is your plan for the future?

We received nice feedback from the students. When we teach future classes, we likely will take more time, encourage students to get to know each other beforehand, and other changes. We also have been talking about developing this and related classes into a workshop for early to mid-career professionals. My experiences with small woodland owners and other professional has shown that in these cases the professional experience provides some challenges, but also a great opportunity expose experts to new concepts and approaches. We will keep on teaching these topics in multiple ways, because we think it is important and rewarding, but also because it is fun.


Klaus Puettmann. Photo: OSU College of Forestry

Klaus Puettmann is Edmund Hayes Professor in Silviculture Alternatives at Oregon State University. He grew up in Germany where received a degree from Albert-Ludwig and Freiburg University. He then moved to the USA to pursue his PhD studies. After a few years as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota has been professor at OSU since 2001. His research interests include silviculture and stand development of diverse structured forests, spatial dynamics of plant interactions, and cross-scales interactions. Among a long list of peer reviewed papers he has published two books on managing forests as complex adaptive systems (A Critique of Silviculture and Managing Forests as Complex Adaptive Systems).


Read here the paper: Puettmann K.L., Parrot L., Messier C. 2016. Teaching Complex Adaptive Systems Science in Natural Resource Management: Example from Forestry. Natural Science Education.

Main photo: The “complex” group participating to the latest field week “Managing Ecosystems as Complex Adaptive Systems” (Vallombrosa, Italy). The field week was organized by the team of prof. Susanna Nocentini from the University of Firenze (Italy). Author of the photo: Susanna Nocentini


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