Constructing Forest Policy Through A Social Process

After taking a look at how an adaptive forest management approach can redefine forest management framework in a changing and unpredictable world, we look at how social factors can help create policy procedures that are more suitable. By Susanna Nocentini, University of Florence, Gerard Buttoud, University of Tuscia, OrazioCiancio, Italian Academy of Forest Sciences, and Piermaria Corona, Research Centre for Forestry and Wood

In a conventional framework, the common interest is defined by rationalist norms provided by technical expertise, without consideration of the demands expressed by the users. 


In forestry, it is even sometimes stressed that the common interest contradicts the social needs, whilst the conservation of the resource on the long run is frequently opposed to the satisfaction of present demands for products. This leads to top-down policies, where the public authority has the role of deciding for the greater good of the community.


Adapting public decision to the dynamics of the system implies not to consider policy as a list of formal measures and means for achieving pre-defined objectives, but as a set of actions taken by a network of interactions between the stakeholders and the public authority. 


In pluralist societies, the model for policy decision tends to the search for a social consensus between stakeholders and the public, the common interest being defined as a consequence of needs and interests expressed by them. 


In a systemic view, the public decision consists in an articulation of social interests through conciliation. Policy formulation and implementation are understood as a reflexive governance process, based on the interactions between different actors whereas their demands, positions, reactions and coalitions are being permanently re-constructed through mutual learning.


Whilst the various stakeholders do not share the same views on what needs to be done, the role of the public authority is first to translate those visions, and then to co-ordinate the actions in a public context. This leads to an iterative process integrating bottom-up approaches making policy a participatory process of discussion and negotiation among the various interested parties, which results in decisions compromising the various values expressed by the participants.


This process is different from what is usually defined as Participatory Forest Management (PFM): PFM aims at giving more effectiveness to decisions taken by the authority by considering all possible information from stakeholders which can help this authority (one actor deciding; usually the forest administration) to take decisions (theory of government). 


In this framework, the decision is fixed. In a systemic approach, instead, all various stakeholders interact with each other, and the result of this interaction is a commonly assumed decision; the actor in charge of following-up the implementation of the decision (usually the forest administration) has a role of translator of social demands (theory of governance). In such a framework, the decision is not definitive, because it can be re-discussed following results of management or new developments in stakeholders.


Communicative Mechanisms

In the conventional vision, the policy tools include legal and technical norms that give the rules of the game to stakeholders considered as subjects, which must comply with the rules. 


Opposite to this vision, adopting a systemic view of forests and forestry leads to promoting instruments that are linked to the social-economic context of the system, and that are aimed at favouring interactions and communication among actors.


Whilst restrictive regulations and obligations are the basic tools in a context of top-down authoritative policy, support by both public and private bodies to groups and individuals, provided through associations and coalitions, is the means in systemic forestry. 


This support may be economic (grants, subsidies, low-interest loans, payments for environmental services) and educational (capacity development) as well. Communication plays a central role in systemic forestry instruments and mechanisms for policy and governance. 


Coalitions and networks, as mechanisms and patterns of formal and informal connection between actors measured by communication or exchange, constitute bridging organisations for effective policy learning.


Flexible & Adaptive Modes OfGovernance

The process of forest policy formulation and implementation does not only translate a pre-existent social debate into policy terms: it organises social and policy debate itself, creating values, but also new demands for change, through reciprocal information flow from the participants. 


Whilst implementing forest policy is a permanent construction of the facts, governance procedures and mechanisms need to be flexible and adaptive to contextual changes. More than the use of a pre-defined set of criteria and indicators as a normative referent, new mechanisms are needed for follow-up and backstopping in order to facilitate communication and interactions among actors, and make the adaptation of the system possible.


In forestry, the reluctance to change centralised top-down models for decision still opposes strong barriers to such an evolution. More than a shift from normative procedures of government to flexible mechanisms of governance, institutional change in forest policy often leads to new modes of government (and not of governance) integrating in the same conventional framework for decision making some of the changes demanded that are translated or sometimes hidden by the strongest stakeholders’ desire to retain their power, usually in favour of conventional policies and market mechanisms.


New policies and modes of governance are brought in a comprehensive manner, through a process comprising inhibition and promotion, where learning is directly linked to power consolidation. 


Therefore, backstopping forest policy implementation is an exercise of permanent adjustment and adaptation. Change of governance, as implied by the development of a systemic forestry, means also governance of change.


Promoting Changes 

Practical forest management has many challenges ahead, the first of which is usually advocated to be providing more wood production with less input and less environmental impacts. However, it can be argued that the very major challenge is of theoretical nature in itself. Managing in the face of uncertainty will require a portfolio of approaches, including short-term and long-term strategies that focus on enhancing ecosystem resistance and resilience as well as assisting forest ecosystems to adapt to changes in climate, environment, economy and society


A‘maximum flexible’ forest may be described, theoretically, by its ability to adapt to any change in the ecological or economic environments. In this view, because ecological functions are the basis for the functioning of systems in a changing environment, they are set prior to economic and social ones. However, the extent to which the economic and social functions might follow depends on many factors, among which the aims and expectations of the different owners are the most relevant.


Forest planning has been primarily concerned with wood and cash flows—sustainable timber (yield) management. Traditionally, planning and decision making in forestry are performed along a hierarchical framework that consists of a strategic level, a tactical level and an operational level, each covering different spatial and temporal scales. 


The top of the hierarchy (strategic level) focuses on the long-term planning horizon and large spatial scale or national planning. Strategic planning must be translated to specific tracts of land (such as a forest estate, a forest concession): the tactical level performs this translation task, the purpose of which is to produce a spatially feasible schedule of management operations that can be implemented in specific areas and on a finer time scale, considering the wood and non-wood products and ecosystem services to ensure. An output from the tactical plan is a set of stands to be further inventoried in detail and passed to the operative planning level.


Each level of this management hierarchy can involve the development and application of optimisation models. These models typically aim at exploring management alternatives as well as multi-objective trade-offs. 


However, this hierarchically-based modelling to support forest planning has critical issues: when decisions taken at different levels are confronted, many differences may appear, and solutions at one level may be inconsistent with the results at another level. 


It can be also stressed again that, at tactical and operational levels, a current major challenge, at least as far as the management of naturally originated forests is concerned, is to move from approaches based on forecasting (the root of the traditional anticipatory management idea) to approaches based on monitoring, by accepting that optimisation models actually have low ability to effectively support the management of natural renewable resources.And this means again to straddle from a strictly ruled hierarchical forest planning to adaptive management.


Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is a methodological approach that views practices as if they were experiments to be studied, so that the results from one monitoring inform subsequent decisions. 


To accomplish this, the adaptive management literature advocates that a cyclical approach to management can be adapted as circumstances change and people learn. 


Adaptive management systematically integrates results of previous interventions to iteratively improve and accommodate change by learning from the outcomes of experimented practices: differences between how the future actually unfolds and how it was hypothetically envisioned are seen as opportunities for learning; this is in sharp contrast to anticipatory management which sees such deviations as ‘errors’ to be avoided.


In practice, the overall goal is not to maintain an optimal condition of the resource (a concept that becomes meaningless under ever changing environmental and socio-economic contexts) but to develop an optimal management capacity. 


This is accomplished by: (i) trying to maintain ecological resilience, so that the system is able react to stresses; (ii) generating flexibility in institutions and stakeholders’ expectations, to allow for the management to be adaptive when external conditions change; (iii) maintaining a flexible view of participation (multi-stakeholder participation results in better management plans, and suggests that participatory methods are an effective way of capturing the information and perspectives necessary to manage social–environmental systems).


Relevant steps for adaptive management are reported in pillar textbooks. However, adaptive management is not a theoretical exercise. On-the-ground examples and tools for successful adaptive management are still being developed, even in the perspective of a bio-based economy, in what is a highly adaptive process of experimentation in many locations around the world.


Evolving Perceptions

The appeal for a change in silviculture and forest management is certainly not new, and a comparison of systemic forestry with the main approaches which have been suggested is useful. Recently, management approaches have been classifiedalong a gradient of intervention intensity, suggesting five Forest Management Approaches (FMA) based on the objectives of management and allowed silvicultural operations. 


In this classification ‘intensive even-aged forestry’ (FMA IV) and ‘short rotation forestry’ (FMA IV) correspond to ‘Conventional forestry’, which typically emphasises commodity production and views other objectives as constraints.


Silviculturalapproaches which can be viewed as alternatives to conventional forest management have been developed in various parts of the world, but interest in these alternatives has greatly increased in many regions over the last three decades. 


In Europe, the attention has focused mostly on Close-to-Nature Forestry (CTNF) or Continuous Cover Forestry (CCF). Due to its origin and wide-spread application, CTNF (including CCF) cannot be regarded as an approach with a single commonly agreed definition and a well-defined, established scientific basis. 


According to the classification, the objective of close-to-nature forestry (FMA II) is to manage a stand with the emulation of natural processes as a guiding principle, economic outturn is important but must occur within the frame of this principle. 


FMA III (combined objective forestry) assumes that various management objectives can be combined in a manner that satisfies diverse needs, and, generally, economic and ecological concerns play a major role. 


FMA III includes syilvicultural systems (such as strip shelterwood, group and uniform shelterwood) which to somehave been considered as part of a close to nature approach.


Whereas these definitions reflect an European perspective, a second school of silvicultural approaches originated in Northern America as a reaction to large-scale clearcutting in natural forest ecosystems and its impact on wildlife habitats, visual quality, and other ecosystem functions. 


CTNF has been defined by a set of general principles that are derived from the common goal of managing for high value wood production. Alternative approaches aim to maintain or increase the growth potential of the site, thus conforming to traditional sustained-yield paradigms.


The comparison between systemic forestry and CTNF and ‘Ecological forestry’ shows that although there may be some common points (such as the importance of other values rather than just wood production, an attention to the various components of the forest ecosystem), there are many clear differences. 


In theory and application, forestry is organised around a specific paradigm and a particular set of principles, concepts, generalisations, or assumptions regarding how the system subject to management functions: these have a fundamental influence, among others, on management philosophy, including normative aspects of management, and on how the human-nature relationship is perceived.


One of the main distinctive issues of systemic forestry is precisely the reference paradigm, which for conventional forest management, CTNF and ‘Ecological forestry’are fundamentally based on predictability, and the emphasis of management, mainly shaped by technical considerations, is on continuity and stability. 


Instead, systemic forestry explicitly refers to the complex adaptive systems paradigm, recognises unpredictability and uncertainty, and shapes forest management and policy decisions on an adaptive co-management approach based upon interaction between actors. 


But the most radical difference is in the human-nature relationship: in Conventional forestry, CTFM and Ecological forestry, the forest is finally considered an entity with instrumental value which can be shaped by silviculture and management to respond to human aims and expectations. 


Instead, in the systemic approach, the forest is considered an entity with intrinsic value. We believe that this new ethical outlook, which is unique, as far as we know, to systemic forestry, can provide it with the cohesion and consistency of a general philosophy of forest management and conservation.


Many more points in common can be found between systemic forestry and ‘resilience thinking’ which has been proposed as a possible approach to dealing with sustainability challenges in forestry. 


In both cases, the reference paradigm is to complex social-ecological adaptive systems, uncertainty and unpredictability are acknowledged and strong emphasis is on adaptive co-management, as well as adaptive governance. But we believe that systemic forestry goes further on the operational level by defining silvicultural and management criteria and procedures. And, finally, resilience thinking does not explicitly refer to the human-nature relationship.


In the last decades, there has been a growing attention towards the need for a change in the way forests are viewed and managed. 


Systemic silviculture, first theorised in the 1990s’, is based on the assumption that forests are complex biological systems and as a consequence, silviculture and management must change both the reference paradigm and operational approaches. 


Systemic silviculture anticipated the increasing attention that complexity theory is having at present in the forestry agenda. In addition, systemic silviculture urged for a change in the human-forest relationship, recognising that forest ecosystems have intrinsic value. This latter aspect, concerning the ethical foundations of forestry, has only very recently come to the fore. 


Based on the concept that forest ecosystems are complex social-ecological systems, ‘systemic forestry’ expands the scope of the systemic approach to include the planning and policy levels.


Our analysis shows that compared to other ‘alternative’forest management and silvicultural approaches which have been recently suggested, systemic forestry can embody a conceptual and operational framework which is coherent with complex adaptive systems theory, allows for uncertainty, is based on a co-evolutionary view of ecosystems and society, and includes ethical considerations.


Series Of Actions

Summing up, a series of actions will be needed to implement the systemic approach, depending on the changes that are expected, specifically:

1.Forestry is considered within a broader landscape approach: multi-sectoral coordination is achieved through developing connections between forestry action and other systems, at the broader level of a landscape.


Action required: Develop forestry strategy and forest management programmes as part of a landscape approach.


2.The logic of forestry action changes from norms to process: this results in a move from juridical/technical norms into a process of analysing links between ecology and social aspects, changing the way management plans are elaborated and applied, and considering the type of policy to be implemented (link policy-governance). 


Actions required: New methodology for integrated forest management plans; new approach for forest policy formulation and assessment (depending upon demands for change expressed by stakeholders).

3.Conservation is viewed as a search for resilience: while forestry faces internal/external changes, the forester’s role is to look for optimal technical solutions for adapting without losing identity.


Actions required: New approach for conservation confronting experts in resilience (social, ecological) to stakeholders’ expectations and demands; definition of local dynamic criteria and indicators to be used to assess the capacity of the system to absorb perturbations whilst maintaining its integrity.


4.Multifuctionality is re-defined through a multi-entry approach: instead of counting on the supposed wake effect of either timber production (single entry through economy) or biodiversity (single entry through ecology), promote a multi-entry integration (ecology, economy, society) using a combination of optimisation (experts’ modelling) and negotiation (stakeholders’ involvement) based on interrelated impact analysis. 


Action required: New methodology for cross-checked impact studies integrating ecological, economic and social aspects.


5.A re-framing of forestry institutions focusing on changing interactions: change from juxtaposed services with segmented tasks and expertise, to a new type of technical action linking people, sectors, and levels of decision making. 


Actions required: Re-organise the public body support to stakeholders by type of interactions; promote inter-connections between sectors (such as agroforestry development, or land use and land use changes coordination).


6.A shift from the conventional anthropocentric world view to a more respectful relationship between humankind and forests. 


Actions required: An open discussion on the ethical dimension of forestry and forest management.


We are aware that our proposal, being a conceptual framework, must not be considered a one-size-fits-all solution: it will surely need to be adapted to the very different situations which characterise forestry, both from an ecological and institutional point of view. 


Developing a systemic forestry approach especially requires changing the role and work of the forest department in charge of accompanying the adaptation of the system, thus directly impacts the institutional and organisational structure, as well as the curriculum, training and education of foresters. Such a change is needed in order to link together sustainability and change, which are two basic components of the forestry issue.


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