Institutional Knowledge is Fading – A Working Forest Concern

By Dr. James D. Arney, Forest Biometrics Research Institute (FBRI)

As a working forester, researcher and educator for over fifty years, there are a number of trends which are occurring in plain sight, but appear to be hidden from view.  These trends are occurring without regard to the kind of forestry organization – family tree farm, corporate, tribal, county, state or federal.

Some of these trends were highlighted in the 2002 National Research Council Report and 2017 US Endowment Report.   Both reports noted that it is becoming increasingly well documented nationwide, that the depth and breadth of research and development in active support of working forests is on a decline everywhere.

  • In the committee’s opinion forestry research capacity is at a crossroads, if not a precipice.” This was a quote from the 2002 National Research Council Report on forestry research and development.  Little has changed since that assessment made seventeen years ago.
  • The paucity of innovation stems from a decline in research and development funding and a subsequent drop in R&D capacity.”  “Re-building the research and development capacity of the U.S. forest sector requires fundamental changes.”  “The sector needs new models and a new culture of enterprise.”  The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities called for working with partner organizations to lead a sector-wide commitment to implement their 2017 Report recommendations and foster American leadership in forest sector innovation.

To recognize these trends, please consider how management in any organization desires to see its team evolve over time:

  1. The in-place managers and staff strive to gradually improve the forest resource regarding economic stability, sustainability, health and accrued local knowledge as necessary to the mission of their organization.
  2. As a direct result of Item (1) the organization grows in confidence, resolution and outlook.
  3. Over time, existing staff and managers begin to exceed their own professional life expectancy.  Staff evolves to managers and managers evolve to retirement.
  4. An expected and natural trend occurs by bringing new staff into the organization, usually at entry levels.  Typical in this transition are two factors:
    1. The usual source of new staff is from forestry colleges and universities.
    2. The new staff knowledge base was derived from the educational institutions and is commonly observed to be general in nature regarding forestry practices.
  5. Purposeful and active mentoring of new staff becomes essential to successful transition of the organization’s mission, historical local knowledge, confidence, resolution and outlook.
  6. Where Item (5) is not well exercised, the organization begins to re-evaluate and re-discover its position, role and outlook.  Past organizational knowledge may not be readily available as the new staff begins to take leadership in all decision-making roles, large and small.

Now link in the trends in recent forestry research and education over the past five decades.  The most recent two decades have seen a significant shift in both research and education emphasizing passive forest management, rather than active forest management.  Since the 1994 Clinton-sponsored Northwest Forest Plan, the emphasis has evolved to a “hands-off” policy on much of the public forest landscape. Rotation-length (life span), forest-wide planning has faded away to be replaced by “restoration forestry” and “desired future condition” practices.  These silvicultural actions are strictly “single entry” management practices. There is no active analysis of the long-term management requirements to “maintain” a healthy forest. There is no such thing as a “desired future condition” on a forest landscape.

Trees and forests are dynamic.  Trees grow, decline and die. Forests are always in a state of flux and will always need tending.  Active forest management can only be accomplished using a current, forest-wide inventory and an annual (or at least short periodic) assessment of forest dynamics and forest health.  This assessment must result in an active silvicultural program where regimes are applied over the life-span of each and every stand rather than a single entry “restoration” treatment with no future silvicultural regime.

Now come back to your own organization, its past and its future.  Take into consideration that many of the faculty members at our forestry colleges have attained their positions strictly through a transition of forestry student to graduate student to assistant professor.  This is occurring without these faculty members ever experiencing and exercising the daily and annual skill sets essential to managing a dynamic, working forest

I have personally and professionally been leading forestry workshops on the basics of inventory, silviculture, growth and planning for over forty years.  In the past two decades, the working forest knowledge level of these B.S. graduate forestry participants has been on a declining trend. All of these workshop participants arrive as fully employed staff from across the forestry profession.  However, it has evolved to an average of over one-half of these foresters have never applied and updated a forest-wide, stand-based forest management plan for any forest ownership.

Combined with these trends in research, education and in-house staff experience is a parallel trend in down-sizing of the number of working foresters within each organization.  It has been recently stated in several discussions with several organizations, that much more reliance on forestry skills are being out-sourced to consultants and contractors. The underlying, implicit assumption is that these consultants are knowledgeable and experienced in the essential components of managing a working forest.  The same trends observed in the loss of institutional knowledge within forest management organizations, is also occurring in the forestry consulting organizations.

What is the solution?  The main point in this article is to be aware and manage accordingly.  Make the effort to mentor new staff and managers. Make the organizational history, knowledge and experience readily visible to new staff and managers.  Interact directly and consistently with college forestry faculty to build and strengthen the educational experience provided within the under-graduate programs.

Most importantly, remember that the forest is dynamic and, like a garden, requires constant tending to maintain health and sustainable capacities in wood, water, wildlife, recreation and economic stability.  This requires an active life-span forest management program by a knowledgeable and experienced forestry team.

Further discussions and comments may be directed to Jim Arney at FBRI.