Social values must be considered in managing forest

Kreg Lindberg /

Recent editorials have highlighted controversy regarding the D-Bug timber sale project on the Umpqua National Forest. One comment was headlined “Let Forest Service experts manage our public lands.” When considering the desirability of this approach, it helps to remember that public land management (and public policy generally) involves two fundamental components.

First, there is the scientific or technical component. For example, if we take Action A, then Outcome X will occur. Alternatively, if we take Action B, Outcome Y will occur. As the D-Bug case illustrates, the science on these relationships is not always clear, but there are reasonably good processes for developing, critiquing and modifying the science.

Second, there is the social values component. Between Outcome X and Outcome Y, which is preferred? The relative desirability of the two is an issue of social values, not science. If we assume Forest Service experts are omniscient (know every citizen’s preference for X versus Y) and unbiased (impartially integrate preferences to arrive at a decision), then we might leave decisions to them. However, experts have biases, as well as limits on their ability to obtain and process information, just like all humans.

Congress passed laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act in part because experts were making decisions that were inconsistent with important social values. This is illustrated by the Monongahela case. As summarized on the Society of American Foresters website, local residents protested the use of clear-cutting practices in the Monongahela National Forest, based on concerns regarding aesthetic impacts and loss of habitat for hunted turkeys and squirrels. Finding the Forest Service unresponsive to their concerns, residents sought recourse through the courts. NFMA was one result of the Monongahela controversy.

These laws do not guarantee genuine public participation, but they at least provide an opportunity for expression of social values and alternate views of relevant science. The “Citizen’s Guide to NEPA” notes that two major purposes of NEPA are “better informed decisions and citizen involvement.”

NEPA is imperfect; I would like to see it both strengthened and streamlined. However, the present debate leads me to a modification of Churchill’s famous quote: “public-responsive decision making is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” We tried leaving both science and social values to the experts, and the Monongahela case illustrates that it did not always work well. Genuine public participation is not easy, but I believe it is the best option for managing lands that are collectively owned by us as citizens.

There are Central Oregon examples that illustrate collaborative approaches for “working through” differing social values and scientific uncertainty, rather than litigating after a decision has been made. These include past vegetation projects on the Sisters Ranger District and the current Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project spanning the area between Sisters, Bend and the Three Sisters Wilderness.

More broadly, common concepts that some view as the domain of experts, including “sustainability” and “managing for the good of the land,” in fact have substantial social value components and cannot by resolved solely with technical knowledge. As Martin Luckert notes in a Journal of Forestry article “one only need examine the current ... shifts toward sustainable forest management to realize that what is good for forests is subjectively determined by society.” That determination includes the diverse views expressed in recent Bulletin editorials.

“Wicked problems” exist in public lands management, and Luckert stresses that they “require careful consideration of social values, inclusive decision making processes, and professional and scientific judgments on alternative forest management approaches.”

There clearly is a role for experts, but decisions cannot be left to them alone.