Chris Maser

Forests are being decimated the world over because "conversion potential" dignifies with a name the erroneous notion that unharvested resources have no intrinsic value and must be converted into money before valuation can be assigned.¹ For example, Clyde Martin, of the Western Pine Association, wrote in the Journal of Forestry in 1940:  "Without more complete and profitable utilization we cannot have intensive forest management…. When thinnings can be sold at a profit and every limb and twig of the tree has value, forest management will come as a matter of course."²

Martin's notion still predominates. Anything without monetary value has no value, and anything with immediate monetary value is wasted if left unused by humans. Short-term economic profitability is the bottom line.

Conversion potential is deemed so important because the effective horizon in most economic planning is about five years. Thus, in traditional, linear economic thinking, any merchantable tree that dies and reinvests its biological capital into the soil is an economic "waste."

Ignorance might be excused in the absence of information, but to act in defiance of documented knowledge is inexcusable. The forestry profession is in trouble because of the resistance of many traditionally educated foresters to alter their thinking in terms of the world today. Five major causes of trouble in the profession of forestry are:  (1) the economic myth of forestry, (2) dogmatization of forestry, (3) limitations of science, (4) informed denial, and (5) university training, which perpetuates one through four.


The practice of forestry began with the idea of forests as perpetual producers of commodities. A disciplined economic rationale was needed to legitimize exploiting such commodities as a way of life. The "soil-rent theory" became that rationale.

Economist Johann Christian Hundeshagen devised the soil-rent theory—a classic, liberal, economic theory—in the early 19th century to maximize industrial profits.³ The basis of the theory was founded to two physical impossibilities:  namely, an independent variable and a constant value—both of which are wishful figments of the human imagination. I say this because everything in an interactive system is defined by its every-changing relationship to everything else, which not only defies the possible existence of an independent variable but also that of a constant value.

Since its adoption by foresters, it has become the overriding objective for forestry worldwide. Nevertheless, the theory is based on an additional eight flawed assumptions:  (1) the depth and fertility of the soil in which the forest grows is a non-degradable constant, (2) the quality and quantity of the precipitation reaching the forest is a constant, (3) the quality of the air infusing the forest is a constant, (4) biological, genetic, and functional diversity are nonessential to the long-term sustainability of a forest, (5) the amount and quality of solar energy available to the forest are constants, (6) climatic stability is a constant, (7) the number of trees planted beyond the number cut—regardless of their age or distribution across the landscape—more than account for the economic destruction of forests, and (8) that the only value a forest has is extrinsic because it's value is based on the conversion potential, of living organism into monetarily valued commodities, whereas everything in Nature's forest is based on intrinsic value within the biophysical economy of the forest itself.

Falsely assuming these eight ecological variables can be converted into constant values leads to a misconception that an economically sustainable tree farm is possible by calculating the species of tree, the rate of growth, and the age of harvest that will give the highest rate of return in the shortest time for the amount of economic capital invested—the soil-rent theory. Purposefully chosen as the foundation of forestry, this theory had to be institutionalized in order for forestry to become a controllable discipline. The Germans and the British led the way by institutionalizing the practices, which have been defended for over a century with near-religious fervor—and still are by some in industry and university schools of forestry.


Eventually, however, it became evident that ecological damage resulted from the flawed economic basis of forestry and threatened both the extant economic interests and reputations of the profession's idealized founders. Despite this knowledge, there are foresters who steadfastly cling the outmoded thinking of a dying paradigm. Such antiquated beliefs explicitly forbid taking new information seriously, and so defends old mistakes be declaring all unwelcome information as inconclusive and thus not compelling enough to act accordingly. Those who fear change think they can protect themselves from perceived ecological malfeasance, and its associated political liability, by defeating challenges to forestry's doctrine.

Once the soil-rent theory was canonized, vested interests had effectively institutionalized denial of their economic motives, while alleging scientific legitimacy—a viable claimed only as long as it's protected from testable scrutiny. As a result, students are unknowingly trained in the doctrine of the soil-rent theory, which prevents recognition of the original economic errors in the foundation of today's so-called scientific forestry. Consider, for example, the sentiment expressed by Karl F. Wenger, President of the Society of American Foresters:

The fact is, Nature knows nothing. Nature is deaf, dumb, blind, and unconscious. … It reacts blindly and unconsciously according to the properties and characteristics of its components. These have no intrinsic values, since only the human race can assign values. Nature doesn't care what we do to it. … Clearly, the people's needs are satisfied much more abundantly by managed than be unmanaged forests.⁴

What is taught implicitly perpetuates the sanctified tenets. To help ensure the persistence forestry's credo, one is encouraged, through a system of rewards and punishments, to unquestioningly accept proffered doctrine. A working forester who dares to challenge the accepted creed is initially met with anger, then by a wall of denial, resistance, and rejection.

Despite the fact that a growing number of foresters are today vastly more astute ecologically than their predecessors, much of what is taught in the "traditional" sense perpetuates the economic fallacy upon which the profession was founded. This fiscal deceptiveness becomes the professional foundation for those students who uncritically accept the traditional, exploitive underpinnings of forestry.

To help ensure the persistence of ideas considered sacrosanct, one is encouraged, through a system of rewards and punishments, to unquestioningly accept proffered dogma. Thus, while a forester who openly challenges the old-school ideas may be met with hostility, there is a growing number of enlightened foresters willing to stay the course in spite of the negative comments leveled at them.

Criticism, rejection, and shunning are powerful motivators for keeping a person's questions within prescribed boundaries. Dogma thrives on the fear of spurning by colleagues and/or the loss of one's livelihood. Fear keeps people too frightened to openly voice their intuitive beliefs, and can even prevent them from being in touch with their own inner truths.

Increasingly, people in the profession speak of "progressive forestry," "scientific forestry," and "sustainable forestry." What do they mean? Forestry based on decades-old, economic illusions is no more progressive, scientific, or sustainable today than in the past. How can this be, you might wonder, with all the ongoing scientific research and the reams upon reams of data currently on hand?


The true goal of scientific endeavor is satisfying one curiosity in the pursuit of pure knowledge, which, by definition, demands an unencumbered, open-minded. The greatest triumphs in science are new ways of seeing, thinking, perceiving, and asking questions—not a triumph of so-called facts. At least five roadblocks stand in the way of scientific in its purest sense:  (1) the lure of grants aimed at predestined results, (2) the tendency to by some to become attached to a single hypothesis, (3) the fact that science can only disprove information, (4) the fact that science began as an endeavor to seek knowledge for it's own sake, but too often has become a problem- and method-oriented means of determining politically correct answers to safeguard established dogma; and (5) claiming objectivity, which denies the subjectivity of being human and the unavoidable bias of not only the questions we ask but also our perception of the data as we interpret it.

The lure of grants

Most institutions depend on grant money to defray costs. Ergo, researchers are strongly encouraged to seek grants. Such encouragement sometimes amounts to administrative coercion that link promotions to the dollar amount an individual secures. Consequently, researchers tend to focus on areas of their discipline with the best chance of getting money. This selective pressure results in the allocation of funds being used to control of questions asked and the answers derived, thereby protecting doctrine from unrestrained inquiry.

Attachment to a single hypothesis

To keep the search for truth on a credible track, any phenomenon under investigation must be explored from every conceivable point of view. A serious problem arises, however, when a person not only forms a single hypothesis but also become so attached to it that any criticism or challenge raises defenses mechanisms. The moment that person derives what seems to be an original and satisfactory explanation for a phenomenon, however, the attachment to his or her intellectual "child" springs into existence. The more this explanation grows into a definite theory, the more near and dear it becomes. It is then massaged (as it is often called in government agencies) to make the theory fit the information and the information to fit the theory, which is just another way of making sure it all fits within accepted dogma, to wit:  clear-cutting and salvage logging are vital to healthy, sustainable forests.

Science can only disprove information

Nothing in scientific research can be conclusively proven —only disproven. Thus, we can never unequivocally "know" anything in terms of knowledge, only in terms of intuition—the knowing beyond knowledge, which is not admissible as scientific evidence. Scientific truth, whatever it is, can only be intuited and approached; it can never caught and pinned down. Hence, those who resist change do so by demanding "conclusive proof" that change is necessary or even desirable—knowing full well that conclusive proof (alias scientific fact) is an illusion to be accepted when data are favorable and denied when data are otherwise.

Method-oriented vs. process-oriented questions

People tend to be "method-oriented" rather than "process-oriented" in their thinking and in many of the questions they ask. Method-oriented questions might be:  How can trees be planted to make them grow fastest? What is the fastest way to salvage-log a burned area? A process-oriented question, on the other hand, might be:  How much organic material, in the form of large woody debris, must be left on site following logging to ensure continued productivity of the soil?

Method-oriented questions invariably aim, unconsciously perhaps, at strengthening current belief. Nevertheless, we think we can learn the truth about Nature through method-oriented experiments, when in fact we only learn about our experimental designs, assumptions, and expectations regarding the outcome. As a result, scientific theories are social constructs. I say this advisedly, because many—but not all—scientists come to consensus only when the political, professional, and/or economic costs of refuting the alleged "facts" make further negotiation untenable.

Objectifying Nature

Nature cannot be accurately represented through science. What is observed and interpreted in Nature is a product of the personal lens through which a scientist peers. Although one can attempt to detach oneself from Nature in the name of science and try to become "objective," it is not possible, if for no other reason than every scientist is part of Nature and must interact with Nature in order to study the biophysical world around us. In addition, the very act of observing something changes its relationship to everything else, and hence its behavior, because observation establishes a new relationship. This being the case, it's impossible to neutralize human subjectivity and thereby negate participating with Nature in any way because everything—everything—is defined by its relationship to everything else, a relationship entrained in the eternal current of change.


Opinions most strongly defended usually hide the root of a lie. For example, over-cutting ancient forests has been staunchly defended through such statements as:  "We can increase the timber output today, because we plant ten trees for every one cut, and genetically superior trees that will grow faster tomorrow." Defending such opinions protects a person from awakening to the realization that only truth, even the most uncomfortable, endows a thought and its action with the power to change society, something denial can never do, no matter how well rationalized.

It's interesting, therefore, that so much is ostensibly devoted to gathering scientific information with which to inform the public, while a similar, or even greater, effort is devoted to preventing the spread of that information by diverting public attention to other subjects. Such displacement of focus prevents the public from benefiting from whatever truthful information they may have been given.

Diversion of attention, even by some scientists, is based on fear of the perceived truth. It is easier to scrutinize available information, find it to be inconclusive, and then, based on this "emotionally safe" determination, deny there is a problem of sufficient magnitude to act.

Informed denial serves the purpose of not having to acknowledge the perceived truth of a situation, of rendering it invisible, or at least of describing it as purely "subjective." In this way, voices that openly question established dogma are silenced, and the most "objective" truth—that which is based on the best and/or most recent knowledge—remains safely hidden from public view and understanding.


A curriculum can be purposefully designed and used to liberate a student's imagination to question ideas and soar with new possibilities, or it can be designed and used to imprison that imagination in the rut of worn-out dogma or "business as usual." In the hands of any special interest, it can be used to liberate or to confine. Unfortunately, the selection of courses offered in most forestry curricula is academic ritualism aimed at confinement and compliance with the decades-old, flawed economic dogma on which musch of today's forestry is based.

By exposing a student to selected information through the courses both offered and required, a mind is molded in the shape of the prevailing dogma. At the same time, the opportunity to examine information opposing the deified doctrine is effectively thwarted for trusting students.

A case in point, I was a guest lecturer in a forest management class at Oregon State University in which I discussed large woody debris, small mammals, mycorrhizal fungi, nutrient cycling, and the effects of gross habitat alterations in coniferous forests. When the class was over, an angry young student—face red, fists clenched—approached me.

"I'm a senior," he almost shouted, "and I'm going to graduate in a couple of weeks. How come this is the first time I've heard any of this? I've just spent four years in what they call forest management! You just showed me that I don't know a damn thing about how a forest works! And now I'm supposed to be a forester! What in the hell am I going to do out there?"

This student was astute enough, when given opposing information, to let his intuition speak and thereby penetrate dogma's armor and see the economic lie of forestry's reliance on the soil-rent theory. In terms of his university training, however, his insight came too late.

Another way dogma is perpetuated through a curriculum is to offer a course, such as Forest Entomology, in which only a few species of insects are selected and treated as economic pests that threaten the survival of the forest. By thus teaching one facet of a broad subject, dogma is again protected and spread.

Another way tenets are perpetuated through a curriculum is to offer a course wherein carefully selected areas are covered, to the exclusion of others. For example, in a course like forest entomology, only a few species of insects are selected and treated as economic pests that threaten forest survival, thereby upholding the sacrosanct concept of sustained yield. Herein, focus on the economics of trees is so narrow that we lose sight of the forest.

Before discussing "pest" insects in the context of landscape patterns in forested areas, it must be clearly understood that, since biblical times, most insects that feed in one way or another on plants have been considered to have only negative effects on the resources that are valued for use by humans. The term pest reflects this traditional bias and perceived battle for control of the resources. Only within the past decade or so has evidence emerged to show that many of the so-called pests provide largely unrecognized benefits to the forest, even during apparently destructive epidemics.

Patterns on the landscape influence populations of insects in three general ways:  (1) through the degree of diversity in the distribution of their sources of food, (2) through the quality and quantity of habitat provided for their predators, and (3) through influencing how insects move across a landscape. Not surprisingly, insects multiply and disperse much more effectively when suitable food plants are uniformly distributed. "Suitable" in this sense may mean a given species of plant or a group of species of a certain age or size and evenness of spacing.

The implications of "homogenizing" forested landscapes as related to insect activity are interesting and instructive. Taking a landscape of diverse, indigenous forest and homogenizing it through clear-cutting and planting single-species monocultural plantations has the effect of eliminating predators and such physical barriers to insect dispersal as fire-maintained habitat diversity. Loss of such habitat diversity increases both the survival of forest-damaging insects and the likelihood of region-wide outbreaks.

Ancient forests in the Cascade Mountains support far more predatory invertebrates (mainly spiders) than do plantation "forests." This raises the question:  how much help foresters can expect from invertebrate predators in controlling insects, which originate in stands of ancient trees. Although the consequences of reduced numbers and kinds of predators are impossible to predict with any certainty, it seems likely that severe epidemics of plantation-damaging insects will become increasingly frequent.

How might this work? First, the success of plantation-damaging insects increases when the landscape is intersected with roads and planted in young, single-species monocultures of trees, thus decreasing the average size of the trees and the diversity of species and age classes. This simplification makes it easier for the insects to find suitable host trees by removing the confusion factors inherent in a diverse habitat, thereby reducing the time it takes the insects to locate food.

Second, simplification of the forest also reduces the diversity of habitats and the variety of species of prey that are necessary to maintain the populations of generalist, opportunistic predators, such as spiders and birds. These predators are more important in preventing outbreaks of insects than are host-specific predators, such as parasitic wasps, which are dependent on finding a particular species of prey to exploit.

Patterns of the forested landscape also influence the habitats provided for birds and mammals that prey on defoliating insects. For example, bird communities in coniferous forests of the west are dominated by species that feed on insects in the foliage. Roughly eighty percent of the food consumed by northwestern birds is animal prey, mostly foliage-feeding insects. It would cost about $2,000 per 1.5 square miles per year in insecticides to kill the same number of spruce budworms that are eaten by birds in forests of the Pacific Northwestern United State, and this does not even count the predaceous ants that complement the birds. These insect-eating birds and mammals, such as bats, depend on forests in certain age classes for nesting and roosting, and their numbers are declining where the landscape no longer contains the required habitats.

Moreover, there is a caveat to the use of insecticides, which I must digress for a moment to present as a battery of questions that require substantive answers:

  1. What is the biophysical fate of the various chemical compounds used to manufacture the insecticides once they enter the forest soil and thus groundwater?

  2. How toxic to the ecosystem are the chemicals?

  3. Is arsenic, which is used as one of the ingredients in most control agents, such as insecticides, present? Is arsenic cumulative in animals' bodies? If so, what form is it in? If so, how does arsenic move upward in the ecosystem through the food chain? If so, how does it affect the food chain?

  4. How biodegradable, in fact, are the chemicals in the insecticide applied to the forest?

  5. Have the "active "ingredients of the chemical compounds been tested for their toxicity to the forest ecosystem and its food chain?

  6. What recombinations can and/or might the "active" ingredients make with the chemicals already in the forest ecosystem? Could they become more toxic than the chemical compounds discharged in the name of pest control?

  7. Have "inert" ingredients in the chemical compounds discharge in the forest been tested for their toxicity to the ecosystem and its food chain?

  8. What recombination can and/or might the "inert" ingredients make with chemicals already in the forest ecosystem? Could a recombination become more toxic than the chemical compounds discharged in the insecticide? If so, what are the results?

  9. How biodegradable, in fact, is a potential recombination?

  10. Where in the ecosystem do the discharged chemicals accumulate?

  11. What are the synergistic, biophysical effects (positive and negative) of the chemicals' concentration?

  12. Assuming that plants absorb the chemicals in the insecticide, how does the consumption of the contaminated vegetation affect wildlife?

  13. Will the discharged chemical compounds from the insecticide be transported through the forest soil into the aquatic ecosystem? At what distance from the point of application will they cease to have a negative effect?

  14. At their farthest detectable point, what other chemicals might recombine with applied chemicals on their journey through the soil from the point of discharge?

  15. How toxic might a potential recombination be?

  16. How will a potential recombination affect the micro plants and animals that form the basis of the food chain in the forest soil and aquatic ecosystem?

Thus, old forests in the Pacific Northwest, with their complex array of species of both trees and predators, large size of stands, and high diversity of age classes, are less vulnerable to epidemics of forest-damaging insects than are the simplified plantations that are being creating over vast areas and through which the landscape pattern is being altered.

Circumstances may be somewhat different, however, in forests outside of the Pacific Northwest. Some old forests in the Rocky Mountains, for example, are epicenters in which insects build in numbers, but these same forests survive the damage of the ensuing epidemics.

Can plantations, forests, and landscapes be designed in such a way that problems of forest insects are minimized? Yes, but it will be neither simple nor easy because different insects respond differently to a given landscape pattern. In turn, a pattern that reduces problems with one insect may well create problems with another. Further, air pollution and change in the global climate will stress some forests and further stress some plantations—stress that often translates into increased problems with forest-damaging insects.

In addition, global influences extend in unforeseen ways beyond those mediated by the atmosphere. For example, the most serious threat to insectivorous birds in the Pacific Northwest may not be the loss of their habitat once they reach the Northwest, but rather the loss of their habitat in Central and South America, where they spend the winter. Roughly one half of the species of insectivorous songbirds in the Northwest is migratory and spend the winters in tropical forests. The large-scale destruction of the tropical forests means lower numbers of insectivorous birds in the temperate forests, where they return for the summer to breed.

So it is that insects, even those causing damage to trees, not only are natural components of the forest in an ecosystem sense but also are necessary to the long-term health of the forest because they embody a whole complex of organisms that forms the forest's "immune system," which includes diseases, parasites, and a variety of predators, such as spiders, bugs, beetles, flies, wasps, ants, birds, and bats, to name a few. Nevertheless, damage-causing insects are still viewed solely as pest in the narrowly focused values of exploitive forestry, which are still taught in most North American universities.

In fact, the great majority of courses required for a degree in forestry at most of today's universities are aimed at producing wood fiber with the economic underpinnings of rapid tree growth, genetic "improvement," economically efficient harvest, cheap transportation, and maximum utilization of wood. The prime objective is the greatest, short-term profit for the least outlay of economic capital in the shortest possible time. The forest—as an ever-evolving, living organism—is discounted as having no intrinsic economic or ecological value over the long run.

Most colleges of forestry are training "logging technicians," "industrial tree production managers," and "plantation managers," but not foresters in the sense of nurturing a forest as a whole, living organism and educating the general public about the wonder of it all. Now is the time to ask where current management practices are headed, what kind of forest landscape is being created, and how sustainable it will be for future generations. Once an impoverished landscape pattern is established, it will be too late.

Moreover, forestry is no longer just a matter of cutting trees, or cutting and planting trees. It has progressed far beyond solely the economic—or even the ecological—aspects of forests. It has become a profession of people working with other people who want many different values from forests, especially national forests, which are owned by the public. Yet proficiency in communication, such as writing and public speaking, the most important human tools, are left to chance in many forestry programs. Little or no emphasis is placed on learning the skills of interpersonal relationships, how to conduct public meetings, or even the importance of professional ethics.

In short, most colleges of forestry are years out of date because those courses needed by current and future foresters are seldom required, or even available, in the core forestry curricula. If colleges of forestry refuse to change, acquiring these courses may necessitate a fifth year of training outside of the college of forestry.


Yesterday's linear-minded foresters were trained as utilitarian servants of industry. Their job was to protect the commercial value of the timber from fire and insects and to get out the maximum cut. They saw trees only in terms of their immediate conversion into money—their "conversion potential" into products, such as lumber. With this view, they assume that liquidated, indigenous forests could be indefinitely replaced by plantation "forests" and/or "fiber farms" that are forever renewable on a continual, short (less than 100-year) plant-cut-plant-cut cycle. "Managing" a forest in this manner further assumes that trees constitute a variable independent from the ecosystem itself—provided enough herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are applied.

The problem with this assumption (both than and now) lies in the linearity of the forester's thinking, as well as the linearity of their predictive models, when married to a cyclic forest that occupies a sphere of unpredictable novelty vastly different in time, space, and function from the linear, economic models of yesterday's and today's exploitive forestry. By "exploitive forestry," I mean the practice of forestry that abuses both the forest and the land in the human drive for immediate profits, without regard for the negative consequences passed forward to the next generation. In this sense, exploitive forestry is the most economically efficient and repeatable commodity extraction attainable in which the conversion potential of trees into such products as lumber is realized in the shortest possible time—in essence, use it or lose it.

Such product-oriented foresters fail to realize or refuse to accept that their "management" is primarily directed toward what they see above ground, but they cannot alter the ecosystem above ground without simultaneously altering it below ground, a fact largely omitted from the management equation. In turn, they fail to understand or refuse to accept that each tree, each stand of trees, each forest is a mirror reflection of the soil's ability to grow that particular tree, stand, or forest just one time! Nevertheless, some of today's foresters, while receiving essentially the same economically exploitive training as those in times past, are beginning to question the philosophical premises of the old school. What about the foresters of the 21st century?

The 21st-century forester must be a bridge between the ecology of the forest in relation to the dynamics of the landscape and the cultural necessities and human values of society. Tomorrow's forester is the guardian of the forest and the trustee for all generations because, in the final analysis, the great and only gift we can give the children of today, tomorrow, and beyond through all the generations to come is the right of choice and some things of value from which to choose.

In 1968, for example, forestry professor Richard Plochmann described the painful dilemma faced by German foresters in trying to respond to changing cultural conditions:  "Our [German] forestry will be carried on even under bad economic situations. We could better the return if we would be willing to give up the high intensity now maintained or if we gave up the principle of sustained yield. We cannot do both and we do not want to do either. The first seems imperative for the multiple uses of our forest and the second for the benefit of following generations.…"⁵

By 1989, however, Plochmann could report a truly remarkable response by the Central European forestry profession to the pressures of the European people:

"Many writers have described the poor state the [Central European] forests were in, often in quite drastic terms. One writer claimed that on 10,000 acres of a certain forest district, no tree could be found strong enough to hang a forester on.… It was in the 1960's that forestry came under public criticism. This boiled down to the general reproach that forestry solely oriented towards the maximization of profit can no longer meet the expectations and needs of society.… Forestry by itself came to the conclusion that a new concept of management should be found to meet future demands and developments.… The realization of our changed view will take a long time. After a century of forest rehabilitation, we have now another one of conversion ahead of us. We are convinced that the new concept is a fair compromise of ecological, social, and economic goals and therefore can by jointly carried out by a large majority of our public. We started it on its way. We hope too it will be a success.⁶

To accomplish this kind of philosophical revolution in the United States, university colleges of forestry must be imaginative and daring. They must lead the profession of forestry toward a new vision, one that harmonizes human culture and Nature's forest beyond the dogma of exploitive forestry and the economics of commodity extraction embodied in the notion of conversion potential. This can best be done by helping students realize their dreams of finding a nurturing philosophy of life within the profession as trustees of forest health and productivity as a "living trust."

A living trust is like a promise, something made today, but about tomorrow. In making a promise, we relinquish a little personal freedom with the bond of our word. In keeping our promise, we forfeit a little more freedom in that we are limited in our behavior. To break a promise, however, is to lose some of our integrity and a bit of our soul. The reason people hesitate to make promises lies in the uncertainty of circumstances on the morrow. Helping to quelling the fear of uncertainty is the purpose of a living trust.

A living trust, in the legal sense, is a present transfer of property, including legal title, into trust, whether real property (such as forestland) or personal property (such as livestock, jewelry, or interest in a business). The person who creates the trust (such as the owner of forestland) can watch it in operation, determine whether it fully satisfies their expectations, and, if not, revoke or amend it.

A living trust also allows the trust to be administered by a professional "trustee," such as a "managing" forester. The persons who ultimately receive the yield of the trust are the legal beneficiaries. The viability of a living trust is the legacy passed from one generation to the next, which means we must think in terms of potential productivity instead of constantly focusing on monetary valuation, maximizing the profit margin, and potential economic waste.

Though a trustee may receive administrative expenses from the interest of the trust, the basic income, as well as the principle, must be used for the good of beneficiaries. In our capitalist system, however, natural resources are assumed to be income or revenue, rather than capital. Nevertheless, a trustee is obligated to seek ways to enhance the capital of the trust—not diminish it. Like an apple tree, one can enjoy the fruit thereof, but not destroy the tree. A living trust, after all, is about the quality of life offered to the generations of the future; it is not about the acquisition of possessions.

Because a forest is a living entity, it can be thought of as a "perpetual, biological living trust," in which individual people (as well as their relationships among one another, Nature, their communities, and generations) have value and are valued, as are all living beings. For forestry to survive the twenty-first century as an honorable profession, it must accept the moral essence of a biological living trust. It must also advance beyond resisting change as a condition to be avoided and embrace change as a process filled with hidden, viable, ecological-social-economic opportunities in the present for the present and the future—the beneficiaries. Although people are rare who have the courage to unconditionally accept change, I met one in 1992 in Slovakia.

I had been asked to examine a forest in eastern Slovakia and give the people my counsel on how to restore its ecological integrity after years of abusive exploitation by the Communists. During the process, I worked with employees of the Slovakian Federal Forest Service. The Chief Forester, then near the end of his career, had been in charge of the forest during the Communists era. As I was about to leave Slovakia, he took me aside and, with great emotion, said:  "Chris, if I learned one thing from you, it's that the forest is sacred—not the plan. Thank you." With that, this man reversed the thinking of his entire 40-year career. I have seldom encountered such courage, humility, and dignity.

We all need such courage, humility, and dignity if we are to be worthy trustees of the world's forests. If we have the courage and the willingness to adopt and implement the concept of a "biological living trust," we are practicing sustainable forestry in which ever-adjusting relationships—ecological, social, and economic—become the creative energy that guides a vibrant, adaptable, ever-renewing forestry profession through the present toward the future. After all, forestry could be a profession that constantly opens the mind with growing, conscious awareness because the forests of tomorrow will be created out of the inspirations, discernment, choices, decisions, and activities of today. In addition, sustainable forestry honors the integrity of both society (intellectually, spiritually, and materially) and its environment, thereby fitting the concept of a biological living trust in that it maintains positive outcomes for both the forest as a dynamic system and the beneficiaries who depend on it for their well-being.

A biological living trust is predicated on systemic "holism," wherein reality consists of an organic and unified whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say, the desired function of a system defines its necessary composition. The composition, in turn, defines the structure that allows the functional processes to continue along their designated courses. Consequently, wisdom dictates that we must learn to characterize a system by its function, not its parts. The basic assumptions underpinning a biological living trust—all externalities within the current economic framework of forestry—are:

  1. Everything, including humans and nonhumans, is an interactive, interdependent part of a systemic whole.

  2. Although parts within a living system differ in structure, their functions within the system are complementary and benefit the system as a whole.

  3. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts because how a system functions is a measure of its ecological integrity and biological sustainability in space through time.

  4. The ecological integrity and biological sustainability of the system are the necessary measures of its economic health and stability.

  5. The biological integrity of processes has primacy over the economic valuation of components.

  6. The integrity of the environment and its biological processes have primacy over human desires when such desires would destroy the system's integrity (= productivity) for future generations.

  7. Nature determines the necessary limitations of human endeavors.

  8. New concepts must be tailored specifically to meet current challenges because old problems cannot be solved in today's world with old thinking.

  9. The disenfranchised, as well as future generations, have rights that must be accounted for in present decisions, actions, and potential outcomes.

  10. Nonmonetary relationships have value.

In a biological living trust, the behavior of a system depends on how individual parts interact as functional components of the whole, not on what each part, perceived in intellectual isolation, is doing. The whole, in turn, can only be understood through the interactive relationship of its parts. Hence, to understand a system as a functional entity, we need to understand how it fits into the larger system of which it is a part. This understanding gives us a view of systems supporting systems supporting systems, ad infinitum. Consequently, we move from the primacy of the parts to the primacy of the whole, from insistence on absolute knowledge as truth to relatively coherent interpretations of constantly changing knowledge, and from an isolated personal self to self in community. At this point, you might wonder if a forest can be a living trust in the legal sense? The answer is, "Yes."

A Forest as a Biological Living Trust

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt convened the first meeting of all the state governors to address environmental problems, particularly industrial forestry. His opening address is a pertinent today as it was then. He began:

I welcome you to this Conference at the White House. You have come hither at my request, so that we may join together to consider the question of the conservation and use of the great fundamental sources of wealth of this Nation.

So vital is this question, that for the first time in our history the chief executive officers of the States separately, and of the States together forming the Nation, have met to consider it. …

This conference on the conservation of natural resources is in effect a meeting of the representatives of all the people of the United States called to consider the weightiest problem now before the Nation; and the occasion for the meeting lies in the fact that the natural resources of our country are in danger of exhaustion if we permit the old wasteful methods of exploiting them longer to continue.

Later in his speech he said, "Just let me interject one word as to a particular type of folly of which it ought not to be necessary to speak. We stop wasteful cutting of timber; that of course makes a slight shortage at the moment. To avoid that slight shortage at the moment, there are certain people so foolish that they will incur absolute shortage in the future [the timber barons], and they are willing to stop all attempts to conserve the forests, because of course by wastefully using them at the moment we can for a year or two provide against any lack of wood." He went on to say, "Any right-thinking father earnestly desires and strives to leave his son [children] both an untarnished name and a reasonable equipment for the struggle of life. So this Nation as a whole should earnestly desire and strive to leave the next generation the national honor unstained and the national resources unexhausted. …"⁷

All we have to offer our children and all the generations of the future—ever—are choices to be made and things of value from which to choose. Those choices and things of value, both biological and social, can be held within the forest as a living trust, of which we, the adults of the current generation, are the legal trustees for the next generation. Although the concept of a trustee or trusteeship seems fairly simple, the concept of a trust is more complex because it embodies more than one connotation; consider a forest as a legal living trust.

The forest, as a trust, represents a dynamic process, whether in the sense of a legal document or a living entity. We humans inherited the original living trust—planet Earth—long before legal documents were invented, which means that we, as trustees, are all responsible it's well-being. Our trusteeship, in turn, is colored, for better or worse, by the values our parents, peers, and teachers instilled in us, our experiences in life, and the ever-accruing knowledge of how the Earth functions as an ecosystem.

Even so, the administration of our responsibility for the Earth as a living trust has throughout history been progressively delegated to professional trustees in the form of elected or appointed officials when and where the land has been, and is, held in legal trust for the public—"public lands." In so doing, we empower elected or appointed officials with our trust, our firm reliance, belief, or faith in the integrity, ability, and character of the person who is being empowered. Such empowerment carries with it certain ethical mandates that in themselves are the seeds of the trust in all of its senses—legal, living, and personal. Here, I use "public lands" as an example:

  1. "We the people," present and future, are the hereditary beneficiaries, whereas the elected or appointed officials and their hired workers are the appointed trustees.

  2. We have entrusted these people to follow the letter and spirit of the law in its highest possible sense.

  3. We have entrusted the care of our lands (those owned by all of us), whether forested or otherwise, to officials and professionals—planners, foresters, and other people with a variety of expertise, all of who are sworn to accept and uphold their responsibilities and to act as professional trustees in our behalf.

  4. Our public lands—and all they contain, present and future—are "the asset" of the trust.

  5. We, the people, have entrusted these officials and professionals with our lands as "present transfers" in the legal sense, meaning we have the right to revoke or amend the trust (the empowerment) through the courts, if the trustees do not fulfill their mandate, which is:  Our lands are to remain healthy and capable of benefiting all generations.

  6. To revoke or amend the empowerment of our delegated trustees if they do not fulfill their mandates is both our legal right and our moral obligation as individual, hereditary trustees of the Earth, a trusteeship from which we cannot divorce ourselves.

  7. As citizens, we have additional responsibilities to critique the professional trusteeship of our lands because we are taxed to support the delegated trustees and to provide public services with respect to those lands. Moreover, because elected officials make the dollar allocations on our behalf, their decisions about where and how to spend "our" money are reflected in both the present and future condition of our lands.

How might this work if we are both beneficiaries of the past and trustees for the future? To answer this question, we must first assume that the administering agency, public or private, is both functional and responsible. The ultimate mandate for the trustees, be they employees of an agency or otherwise, would then be to pass forward as many existing options (the capital of the trust) as possible.

These options would be forwarded to the next planning and implementation team (in which each individual is a beneficiary who becomes a trustee) to be protected and passed forward to yet the next planning and implementation team (the beneficiaries that become the trustees), ad infinitum. Thus, the maximum arrays of biologically and culturally sustainable options continue in perpetuity. In this way, the carefully considered effects embodied in our decisions as trustees of today could create a brighter vision for the generations to come. In order for this to happen, the notion of a biological living trust must become a "big idea."

A Biological Living Trust as a Big Idea

Real learning—the remembrance of things forgotten and the development of things new—occurs in a continuous cycle. Learning encompasses theoretical and practical conceptualization, action, and reflection, including equally the realms of intellect, intuition, and imagination. Real learning is important because overemphasis on action, one part of which is competition, simply reinforces our fixation on short-term, quantifiable results. Our overemphasis on action precludes the required discipline of reflection, a persistent practice of deeper learning that often produces measurable consequences over long periods of time.

Many of today's problems result from yesterday's solutions, and many of today's solutions are destined to become tomorrow's problems. This simply means our quick-fix social trance blinds us because we insist on little ideas that promote fast, symptomatic results, regardless of what happens to the system itself. On the other hand, society needs "big fixes" in the form of systemic ideas that promote and safeguard social-environmental sustainability, such as a collective vision of world forests as a biological living trust.

Where, asked the late publisher Robert Rodale, are the "big ideas," those that change the world? They probably lie unrecognized in everyday life since our culture lacks sufficient free spaces and time for general thought.

A "big idea," according to Rodale, must:

  1. be generally useful in good ways:  a biological living trust translates into a healthy environment and available resources;

  2. appeal to generalists and give them a leadership advantage over specialists:  a biological living trust requires an understanding of the system as a whole and so necessitates an amalgamation of generalists and specialists, with generalists in charge;

  3. exist in both an abstract and a practical sense:  a biological living trust is practical it its outcome, but also abstract in that its outcome requires people to work together with love, trust, respect, humility, wonder, and intuition, as well as their intellect;

  4. be of some interest at all levels of human concern:  a biological living trust requires the continual building of relationships, which is all we humans really do in life and so touches all levels of society and Nature;

  5. be geographically and culturally viable over extensive areas:  a biological living trust is a worldwide necessity if the natural world is to remain viable and habitable for the generations of the future;

  6. encompass a multitude of academic disciplines:  a biological living trust requires the integration of all disciplines, from soil science to mycology, philosophy, sociology, theology, education, politics, ecology, forestry, and economics;

  7. have a life over an extended period of time:  a biological living trust is, by definition, an instrument of continuity among generations⁸

A biological living trust seems to fit all of Rodale's requirements. It also helps people understand that life is not condensable, that any model is an operational simplification, a working hypothesis always ready for and in need of improvement. When we accept there are neither shortcuts nor concrete facts, we will see communication as a connective tool through which we share experience, ideas, innovation, cooperation, and coordination.

When people speak from and listen with their hearts, they unite and produce tremendous power to invent and manifest new realities through collective actions. While today's environmental users with narrow, special interests will not be around by the end of this century, all of the environmental necessities will be, and that makes "trusteeship," critically important.

"Trusteeship " is a process of building the capacity of people to work collectively in addressing the common interests of all generations within the context of sustainability—biologically, culturally, and economically. A biological living trust, in turn, means honoring the productive capacity of an ecosystem within the limitations of its ecological principles. That said, every forest could be on a trajectory toward sustainability, if we begin now to treat them as living trusts, which is a "big idea." After all, sustainability is only a choice—our choice, but one that must be carefully and humbly planned if it is to endure the often shortsighted, contradicting political vagaries of humanity.

Remember, to protect the best of what we have in the present for the present and the future, we must continually change our thinking and our behavior to some extent. Society's saving grace is that we all have a choice. Accordingly, if we err, we can always choose to choose again, which means we can do whatever needs to be done—if enough people want it to be done and decide to do it.

A person who serves the people, whether as a federal judge, politician, scientist, or caretaker of a forests, must pass the tests described in the eulogy that Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine delivered on the death of Senator Foot of Vermont in 1866:

When, Mr. President, a man becomes a member of this body he cannot even dream of the ordeal to which he cannot fail to be exposed;

of how much courage he must possess to resist the temptations which daily beset him;

of that sensitive shrinking from undeserved censure which he must learn to control;

of the ever-recurring contest between a natural desire for public approbation and a sense of public duty;

of the load of injustice he must be content to bear, even from those who should be his friends;

the imputations of his motives;

the sneers and sarcasms of ignorance and malice;

all the manifold injuries which partisan or private malignity, disappointed of its objects, may shower upon his unprotected head.

All this, Mr. President, if he would retain his integrity, he must learn to bear unmoved, and walk steadily onward in the path of duty, sustained only by the reflection that time may do him justice, or if not, that after all his individual hopes and aspirations, and even his name among men, should be of little account to him when weighed in the balance against the welfare of a people of whose destiny he is a constituted guardian and defender.⁹

Two years after Senator Fessenden delivered this eulogy, his vote to acquit Andrew Johnson brought about the fulfillment of his own prophecy. But then, liberty is always expensive. True liberty demands that each and every leader know when his or her duty to history has been completed and when to step down with dignity and grace so the pivotal idea of a free democracy as the central pillar of our nation can deepen in the centuries to come. It is this kind of democracy that is needed in overseeing our nation's forests for all generations. Part of this democracy means that each generation must be the conscious keeper of the generation to come—not its judge.

As the guardians of the next generation, it is incumbent on us, the adults, to prepare the way for those who must follow. This will entail, among other things, wise and prudent planning in the caretaking our nation's forests as a biological living trust.

The task of those who caretake our nation's forests—both public and private—is to apply our ecological, social, and economic knowledge, imagination, and systemic thinking to the fundamental redefinition and redesign of forestry as it is currently institutionalized and practiced to bring it into accord with Nature's ecological principles as we understand them. The redefinition and redesign of forestry is necessary in order to create a cultural foundation in the practice of forestry that both honors and protects social-environmental sustainability. It is, however, concurrently necessary to understand how today's universities, agencies, and corporations function in order to gain some idea of how to redefine and redesign them in a way that prevents old, chronic problems of simply reoccurring under a different guise in the near future.

To this end, the 21st century forester will need to:

  1. Understand the parts of a forest in relation to its organic whole and the whole in terms of its parts by learning to sit with and in the forest and hear its voice.

  2. Understand the science of each component and subsystem of the forest, i.e., to be able to evaluate and openly question new information in terms of the old, old information in terms of the new, and both in terms of existing ignorance.

  3. Understand enough about the ecological linkages among forest components and subsystems to be able to anticipate effects of management stresses.

  4. Understand and work with a forest as a dynamic component of an ever-evolving, culturally oriented landscape while simultaneously honoring the integrity of the blueprint of Nature's processes and patterns.

  5. Understand that the only sustainability for which we can "manage" is that which ensures the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to evolutionary change, which means managing for choice (maximum biodiversity).

  6. Understand how to "manage" for a desired condition of the landscape and abandon the unworkable notion of sustained ever-increasing yield of natural resources.

  7. Understand how to "manage" for the connectivity of habitats to help ensure the ecological wholeness and the biological richness (biodiversity) of the patterns they create across the landscape.

  8. Be able to abstract, simplify, synthesize, and generalize information about complex systems so that his or her "intuitive mind" can act as the final reality check of relevant information prior to making decisions.

  9. Be able to articulate ideas effectively, clearly, and accurately both in writing and in public speaking.

  10. Be able to work openly and skillfully with people with sufficient knowledge and in sufficient depth to validate their concerns and to give them the critical understanding and trust of the professional rationale behind a decision, even if they are opposed to it.

If university colleges of forestry in the United State can find the courage within the first couple of decades of this century to do their jobs with the professional truth, openness, and excellence all students of forestry both deserve and need, the next 100 years can indeed become the first century of healing forests, both at home and abroad. If the 21st-century forester can stand in the forest of which he or she is the trustee and can truly say in his or her heart "I feel good about what I'm doing here, today, for the forest and for the people of today and tomorrow because, to the best of my ability, it is biophysically sustainable," then, and only then, will forestry as a profession by on a biophysically sustainable and socially moral path into the future.


  1. This essay is taken in part from my books:  (1) Chris Maser. 1994. Sustainable Forestry:  Philosophy, Science, and Economics. St. Lucie Press, Delray Beach, FL. 373 pp. and (2) Chris Maser. 2005. Our Forest Legacy: Our Forest Legacy:  Today's Decisions, Tomorrow's Consequences. Maisonneuve Press, Washington, D.C. 255 pp.

  2. Clyde S. Martin. 1940. Forest resources, cutting practices, and utilization problems in the pine region of the Pacific Northwest. Journal of Forestry 38:681-685.

  3. (1) Richard Plochmann. 1968. Forestry in the Federal Republic of Germany. Hill Family Foundation Series, School of Forestry, Oregon State University, Corvallis. 52 pp. and (2) Richard Plochmann. 1989. The forests of Central Europe:  A changing view. 1989. Starker Lectures. Forestry Research Laboratory, College of Forestry, Oregon State University, Corvallis.

  4. Karl F. Wenger. 1998. Why Manage Forests? Journal of Forestry 96:1.

  5. Richard Plochmann. 1968. Forestry in the Federal Republic of Germany. Hill Family Foundation Series, School of Forestry, Oregon State University, Corvallis. 52 pp.

  6. Richard Plochmann. 1989. The forests of Central Europe:  A changing view. 1989. Starker Lectures. Forestry Research Laboratory, College of Forestry, Oregon State University, Corvallis.

  7. Theodore Roosevelt. The Sunday Oregonian, Portland, OR. July 22, 1990.

  8. Robert Rodale. "Big new ideas—where are they today?" Unpublished speech given at the Third National Science, Technology, Society (STS) Conference, February 5-7, 1988. Arlington, VA.

  9. The eulogy that Senator William Pitt Fessenden of Maine delivered on the death of Senator Foot of Vermont in 1866. In:  John F. Kennedy. 1961. Profiles in courage. Harper & Row, New York, NY. 266 pp.

©chris maser 2006. All rights reserved.

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