"The preservationist approach has about run its course."
Chad Oliver and Chas Vincent discussing an old burn scar. Photo - Julia Petersen

"The preservationist approach has about run its course."

Chad Oliver, PhD, Silvicultureist and preeminent Forest Stand Dynamics scientist in an Evergreen interview - following his tour of a grizzly bear habitat restoration project on Hecla Mining Company forestland in Lincoln County Montana, May 14, 2024

We first interviewed Chad Oliver for an Evergreen Magazine cover story in 1993. He was then a Professor at the University of Washington College of Foresty and was heavily involved in crafting a management alternative to the draconian Clinton/Northwest Forest Plan, which was largely the work of Jerry Franklin, a PhD forest ecologist and teaching colleague.

Oliver’s ideas, which were rooted in Forest Stand Dynamics, were rejected by Clinton’s politically selected Ecosystem Management Assessment Team which crafted the Northwest Forest Plan.

Franklin and Oliver frequently disagreed. By coincidence or serendepity, Chad was soon invited to join the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment as the prestigious Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies.  He’d earned his PhD at Yale under the tutelage of the late David Smith in 1975.  David Smith was a forestry legend who pioneered forest stand dynamics in the 1940’s.

Oliver retired from Yale in 2020 as Pinchot Professor of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Director of Yale’s Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry, a post that allowed him to travel, research, and teach the principles of Forest Stand Dynamics in 22 countries on six of Earth’s seven continents.

Forest Stand Dynamics is a vastly different approach to forestry than anything Franklin has ever done. When I interviewed him for an Evergreen cover story in 1990 I found him to be egocentric. He admitted that he viewed himself as “a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.”

Franklin borrowed Oliver’s ideas when it suited his purpose but he preached what he called “a kinder and gentler forestry.” He was more interested in naturally regenerated forests, which he called “complex ecosystems,” than in the actual practice of forestry, a bedrock principle in Forest Stand Dynamic that relies on a mix of human-directed and natural disturbances designed to increase structural and biological diversity: the conservation of complex ecosystems versus more of a “hands off, leave it to nature” approach.

In this question and answer interview, Oliver discusses the role of Forest Stand Dynamics in creating and maintaining fish and wildlife habitat niches on Hecla Mining Company timberland in Northwest Montana.

Evergreen: Chad, when we talked after our May 14 tour of Hecla forestlands in Lincoln County, Montana you said you thought that Chas Vincent and his crew were doing a very good job of demonstrating what was possible and doable in terms of creating diverse habitat niches in Northwest Montana forests. Can you elaborate on this for us?

Oliver: Chas and his crew are employing principles and practices that have been at the forefront of my writing and teaching for close to 40 years. It’s based on earlier work pioneered by the late David Smith in the 1940s. It’s known as “Forest Stand Dynamics.” Smith was my major professor and advisor at Yale. His Yale advisor had been Harold Lutz, a brilliant forest ecologist.

Evergreen: So there’s really nothing new in what Chas and his crew are doing?

Oliver: In principles behind what he is doing, that’s correct. Chas is creatively applying the principles in a way that makes sense on the Hecla ground he’s working.

Evergreen: Is it accurate to say that Forest Stand Dynamics is about the same as the Adaptive Forest Management ideas you and a few others introduced in the August 1992 report you co-wrote for the late Booth Gardner, who was then Washington’s governor? I believe it was titled, A Landscape Approach: The Key to Ending the Forestry War: A Primer for Policy Makers.

Oliver: I remember the Gardner Paper quite well. It was presented as an alternative to the Clinton Northwest Forest Plan. Had the principles we advanced been adopted, the impacts on forests and the Pacific Northwest economy would have been less severe. More broadly, Adaptive Management measures and adjusts the principles of Forest Stand Dynamics applied to specific situations, which was the case with our alternative to the Northwest Forest Plan.

We also wrote a separate report that was published in the September 1992 edition of the  Journal of Forestry that was perhaps more scholarly. It was titled A Landscape Approach to Achieving and Maintaining Biodiversity and Economic Productivity. Both reports draw on Forest Stand Dynamics principles advanced years earlier by David Smith.

Evergreen: In our Evergreen reports we’ve interchangeably used many terms to describe what Chas and his crew are doing including sun-filled openings, mosaics, meadows with trees and patch cuts to increase structural and biological diversity. Are we wrong or is there more specific terminology we should be using?

Oliver: No, you’re not wrong, but there will always be people who want to argue semantics and fine points. Some people simply enjoy arguing over sematics and terminology, and others cavil where political agendas are at play.  That is, they seek to be divisive to cast suspicion on forestry’s motives. But I do think the tide is turning. In scientific progress, we often say there are four stages to the acceptance of a change in theory:

·       “We don’t believe you.”

·       “It’s not important.”

·       “We knew it all along.”

·       “Yes, but we call it something else.”

In other words, they rebrand the theory as their own rather than give proper credit where it is due. We saw shades of this during the development of the Clinton Forest Plan.

Evergreen: We remember it well.

Oliver: Scientific fields become stagnated as early pioneers grow old and try to dominate the field, disallowing new ideas that could keep it vibrant.  Paraphrasing the late German physicist, Max Planck, old scientists retire and new ideas they discounted become more accepted. This is why the preservationist approach has about run its course. People are asking serious questions about what’s happening and not happening in federal forests.

Evergreen: We sense the same thing, but what’s your more scientific take on what you see?

Oliver: It’s conservation versus preservation. Preservationists believe that nature exists in perfect balance and that nature knows best, so they take a hands off approach, especially as it concerns forest management. Conservationists believe nature is propelled by dynamic (chaotic?) events--some very destructive events and others quite benign: wildfires, hurricane-force winds, flooding and erosion, insect and disease infestations as well as plant growth, fruiting and seeding, warm and cold weather, rain and sunshine.  These affect forests and the habitats they provide for wildlife, aquatic species, birds, reptiles and amphibians.

Evergreen: How does Forest Stand Dynamics fit this discussion?

Oliver: We acknowledge natural chaos in forests, then manage the disturbances, regeneration, and other factors in ways that protect or create structural and biological diversity in combination with other values we want in forests. The goal is to increase forest resiliency and thus the ability of a forest to protect and repair itself while providing natural and human values.

Evergreen: And this is what Chas Vincent and his crew are doing?

Oliver: Yes, on Hecla Mining Company timberland. The company has said to Chas: “Help us create more habitat and more food for grizzly bears but do it in a way that also provides other values including safe and secure travel corridors for seasonal bear migration."

The bonus is that creating more grizzly habitat and food also creates more habitat and food for many other species that populate Hecla’s forests. And in demonstrating what can be done, Chas is showing what is possible on other private and public lands in Western Montana.

Evergreen: What is this project’s greatest weakness?

Oliver: There is no financial core of money. You need funding for monitoring, field trips and communication at the local, state and national level. Conservation leaders and members of Congress need to see this project. It’s really quite remarkable. So are the partnerships your group is assemblying. There is clearly great interest among state and federal natural resource management agencies. That’s quite significant.

Evergreen: Money has been hard to find in recent years.

Oliver: I’m quite certain there are conservation groups that will provide funding once they know more about what Chas is doing. That’s the great value in field trips but what you really need is a line item appropriation from Congress that covers the duration of the project.

Evergreen: A line item would be wonderful but it seems very unlikely. If wee had it we could move well beyond Hecla land. How about closing thoughts. Do you have any?

Oliver: None of us is getting any younger. Despite the scientific soundness of what Chas and his crew are doing, we can expect to be held back from time to time by the doubters who still cling to their belief that forests must be left to nature with no human intervention. But you have a marvelous asset in Chas. He’s young, enthusiastic, very bright and politically savvy,

Evergreen: Can we count on your continued help?

Oliver: Absolutely. This is very exciting work.

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