Community Forestry, or Not?


A new buzzword phrase appears to making the rounds in the natural resource policy world. The phrase is “social license”. I wasn’t sure what the phrase meant, so I looked it up on where else…Google. Here is what I found. Apparently it originally came to mean the unwritten approval that a corporation needed to gain from a local community to operate in that community.

Today, it appears to have been broadened to refer to acceptance by society, where that society is nonlocal. And, it isn’t limited to corporations. Now, the term has entered public land policy discussions. My first reaction was somewhat cynical, thinking that it was another academically led attempt to create a sub-sub-sub field or published-based reputation by inventing new jargon to describe something we all knew. But actually it seems more to be an attempt to restore the glory days of foresters in charge of forests, this time producing trees to fuel the bio-fuel revolution.

As one rather truculent and perceptive Forest Service friend told me, social license means “letting foresters do what they used to do, in the role they used to have”. I wonder if this isn’t a mistake. We have moved away from the Older Days of trained professionals who “knew best” how to manage our natural resources. Instead we have seen a thousand collaborative experiments, of talk of “civic environmentalism” or building “civic capacity” where these projects involve those who are willing to do the back breaking work of trying to build a community’s resiliency for problem solving. In fact, we might go so far as to argue that a whole lot of expert/professionals licenses have been revoked socially because this is a different era with different problems, solvable by those with a certain attitude and mindset, rather than the right “license” to make decisions. Let’s see how this plays out.

Anonymous says:
Mar 26, 2010 07:28 PM
By and large I think the social contract has evolved to the point where we actually no longer recognize the value of professionals whether they be foresters or doctors. The proliferation of information has allowed non-professionals (meaning those without formal education and training in a discipline) to become partially informed. In many cases, unfortunately, this befits the old adage that 'sometimes a little bit of knowledge is dangerous'. And I think that's largely because the partially-informed don't know what they don't know.

It is certainly true that even within a profession like forestry there have always been people with different takes on the application of the practice. But frankly, few people outside the profession are willing or able to get the kind of comprehensive education necessary to understand applied forest ecology. In many cases this reluctance to get a full background results in divisiveness in developing and applying natural resource policy as people put forward just single-issue mandates rather than a comprehensive plan.

Forestry has evolved to the point where it will never be what it used to be. While it is a fairly conservative profession (I'm not speaking politically though that might be true as well), it is a science-based practice that has made large strides in not only understanding ecosystem function but the practical application of this knowledge as well. Much of the issues surrounding wildland fire are not new to the profession, for instance even though they are currently in vogue in the popular press.

At some point we have to decide if we really value the knowledge-base of professionals and if we do, we need to put our money where our mouth is and at least respect, if not trust, their collective opinions. It's kind of pointless to require the professionalism and then not actually use it.
Anonymous says:
Mar 27, 2010 01:40 PM

I think your suggestions will work in practice if we can come to some sort of agreement as to what we want our forests to be "for" to parapharase Pinchot. Then, I think, the knowledge of professionals is invaluable.

Anonymous says:
Mar 27, 2010 04:33 PM
....arriving at a reasonable consensus of what we should use the forests for. As a profession, foresters have been pushing multiple-use, sustained-yield concepts since the 1950's though admittedly it was often 'How can we do the other things while getting timber' rather than 'How do we keep everything functionally intact and whole' with timber being a secondary output. However, we evolved to the ecosystem management stage some 2 decades ago yet the general public still seems to paint the profession simply as lackeys of the industry. Even the granting of 3rd party certification akin to an 'organic' label has made seemingly little impact.

All too often today I hear the mantra, 'No Logging' without many of the utterers really understanding that manipulating the environment to achieve any goal in a forest often involves altering the structure and composition of the overstory. And it often seems said with a real naivete about where the wood products we use will come from if we don't harvest anything here (see Indonesia), nor a recognition that wood products are both renewable and carbon sinks.

I think we'll see (nor wish to) a return to the 'We know best just stay out of our way' mentality but the input of professionals is important in policy and certainly when it comes to actual on-the-ground implementation. I do hope that their knowledge will be respected at some point.

Anonymous says:
Mar 27, 2010 04:35 PM
I *don't* think we'll see (nor wish to)......

Anonymous says:
Mar 28, 2010 09:47 AM
Yes, I think so. A lot of the work I'm doing these days revolves around the role of science in public policy making. Its really a fascinating area. To overgeneralize just a bit, I do find that professionals and scientists who have been struggling with this for a long time...i.e. foresters, biologists, have great insights and are way furher along towards helping find a set of solutions than some of the folks cught up in the Climategate affair.