Humpty-Dumpty Had a Great Fall

Posted by Renee Magyar on May 22, 2013

But that's okay. New possibilities are emerging from the old pieces.


Summer is approaching and you might be thinking about your next outdoor adventure - a backpacking trip to Mt. Jefferson, a rafting journey on the Deschutes, or fishing on the Metolius River, perhaps? Whether day hiking, picnicking with family, or climbing a mountain, the Northwest has something to offer everyone.

But something must be in place for this region to continue providing us with exceptional recreation opportunities, scenic beauty, and peace and solitude. It's called, "Resilience."

There's a lot of talk about resilience these days. Resilience for people, for organizations, for nature. What exactly do we mean? Resilience is the ability to thrive in the face of change. A resilient person or organization recovers from setbacks, deals with challenges, and emerges a stronger person or entity. The same is true for nature; a resilient forest is healthy enough to restore and take care of itself, just as a sick but otherwise healthy person recovers from an illness. A resilient forest adapts to natural - or man-made - changes, such as climate change. Because it is resilient, its existence or survival is not threatened by these vicissitudes.

Human interventions like fire suppression over the last century have taken away the ability of nature to be resilient. Consequently, we've made forests vulnerable to bugs, diseases, invasive species encroachment, and uncharacteristic wildfires. For a while, we thought we had to restore the landscapes to previous historical conditions before European and American settlers began changing them. But thinking of restoration in that vein has proven to be somewhat fanciful. The truth is that we don't really know what the landscapes looked like, though we can take some good guesses. And it doesn't consider the fact that Native Americans also managed the land to suit their needs. So what's the "true" landscape we should restore back to?

Sustainable Northwest addressed this question while hosting the Restoring Mixed Conifer Forests conference on last month in Hood River. "We can't put Humpty-Dumpty together again," said Tom Spies, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. "We have to move away from the idea of 'restoration' being a return to the past." Another panelist, John Bailey, Associate Professor at Oregon State University, agreed. "The idea of 'restoration' as returning to a prior condition is misguided. Instead, it's a process of taking us into the future."

Bringing fire back into a system is part of the solution. Evergreen trees depend on fire to reproduce, as their cones need the heat of a fire to burst open and disperse seeds. Before fire suppression policies began in the early 20th century, fires normally burned through Northwestern lands every 7-100 years (depending on the exact forest type). Now the charge is to safely restore the system while averting uncharacteristic wildfires.

And we're doing it through collaboration. Right after the conference on mixed conifer forests, Sustainable Northwest hosted a twin conference on collaborative forestry. As part of his keynote speech, Kent Connaughton, Regional Forester with the U.S. Forester said, "This work is very important - if the American people only knew about this, I think they would wholeheartedly be behind it. CFLRP is more than a program. It is a calling for the American people to deal constructively with their environment in such a way that future generations will be grateful for what we have done."

To that end, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has allocated $4 million in the state's budget towards collaborative forest restoration practices. We have a lot of challenges facing us: dangerously overcrowded forests, radically altered habitats, competing development and agricultural needs, lack of funding, government inertia. But we have achieved many successes as well: millions of acres of lands rehabilitated, hundreds of jobs created, decades of litigation averted.

We are on our way. Scientists, industry representatives, state and federal agencies, non-profits, and collaborative groups came together at these conferences to share knowledge and offer their expertise. By taking the time to figure things out together, we're making ourselves, our communities, and our environment more resilient.

Read more about resilience here:

Fire-Adapted Communities Case Story

Resilience, defined

Stronger non-profits emerge from Sustainable Northwest's organizational leadership program

The Money Doesn't Deliver Itself: The Importance of Intermediaries in Ecosystem Service Programs