Chris Perley talks to NFA (Native Forest Action) and Greens in Dunedin, New Zealand, about sustainable forest management, from preservationist and alternative conservation paradigms. Using the example of Timberlands West Coast's beech plans, he argues for moving towards ecosystem-based management paradigms that emphasise ecosystem health as the paramount objective while providing for people in communities. He promotes a positive vision about investment in natural resources.

Does Timberlands represent a Positive Vision?
Presentation to Native Forest Action Meeting, 12 October 1999.1
(A version of this paper was published in the International Forestry Review)

                    Chris Perley

In attempting any communication there is a need to establish a common ground of assumptions. Disagreements occur, and any solution must come at that level. Arguing at a higher level without reference to assumptions always involves arguing past each other: you say "Timberlands are bad" - I say "Timberlands are good."

Please bear with me as I outline some of the assumptions that lead me to the conclusion that Timberlands is "good".

A Sustainable Vision?

All environmentalists have one thing in common: they want a sustainable future for the earth's ecosystems. Where there are differences lies in the position of the human species (is it included or not?), and in the respective paradigms of 'nature' to which people subscribe.

One type of environmental perspective has dominated the "Timberlands Sustainable Beech Management" debate, in fact most environmental debates, at least in New Zealand. It is the preservationist perspective. It fails to acknowledge human communities embedded in ecosystems. It fails to encompass wider considerations of a sustainable future. It fails totally to acknowledge any view other than that any extractive 'use' of a forest will inevitably result in a forest decline, even its ultimate destruction. Preservation posits a simple alternative between use and forest 'protection', with therefore a simple conclusion that all extractive human practices must cease.

The whole preservationist perspective essentially advocates an ever-increasing area placed under preservation - it seeks to allocate more land to the single function of preservation, where observation remains one of the few acceptable human activities. Extractive resource use is out; the belief being that such is mutually exclusive from the desired end of protection.

With this advocacy comes corollaries, and it is within these corollaries wherein lies the failure of vision that preservation represents. It allocates parts of the environment to a singular function. Implicit in that choice is an acceptance that human demands must be met from heavily modified environmental systems, for humans - like any animal - have demands. The preservationists' choice is use or protection. Given the same human demands for resources, more preserves necessitates more intensive land management outside the preserves - even the bogey of some forms of genetic engineering.

This is a logical corollary of a preservation/allocation model under existing resource demands. The preservationists share the stage with those advocates for intensification (narrower objectives and more inputs) of land management. In New Zealand that means advocating a perennially under-funded preservation land use administration (the Department of Conservation) that has demonstrated an inability to reverse our indigenous biological decline on the 25 percent of New Zealand over which it has jurisdiction. Combine that advocacy with an implicit encouragement of the intensive land use practices that have been associated with our major environmental problems - nitrate pollution of waterbodies, soil erosion, and intensive management's own influences on biodiversity decline (Taylor & Smith, 1997). Preservation rewards a failure which is not protecting our environment, and fails to challenge another failure which continues to cause environmental problems.

Preservation does nothing to change the overall ethical approach to ecological and resource management. Yet it is the simplest concept as an environmental paradigm or model (the simple assumption being that "preserving it will save it, and then we'll all be all right"), and therefore enjoys the greater share of public support, at least in New Zealand. This does not make it right.

There is an alternative conservation paradigm. It is more complex, and requires, inter alia, a change of perspective in our human relationships with the environment (an ethical change). This model is to broaden our environmental considerations across the widest landscape, with a commensurate move away from intensification and preserves toward creating a society (a group with some commonality of values) and an economy that works within the world's ecological limits. I believe it also requires a change toward an ecological economics and an environmental ethic which treats humanity as part of the environment.

Others environmentalists have argued for such an approach, not least Leopold's "land ethic", Nash's "new environmentalists" (1967), and Norton's "new environmental management paradigm" (1992). They represent a paradigm shift in environmentalism, involving working with people as well as ecosystems, away from the rather puritanical, authoritarian, finger-pointing perspectives which prefer apparently quick-fix, rule-based solutions rather than more complex consciousness-changing solutions. What we as a species do is a function of our belief systems and perspectives. Therefore, a sustainable future requires that we change these fundamentals, instead of applying band aids that do nothing to change the perspectives. Unfortunately, the preservation paradigm attempts to force compliance within a system that keeps encouraging the wrong perspectives. Changing perspectives requires a positive vision, not a negative bible thumper.

Here is what Donnela Meadows (1996) said in relation to the current predominant environmental message and philosophy. She is one a co-author of the Club of Rome report on the Earth's environment - particularly relating to resource depletion. Her environmental credentials are established.

"Environmentalists have failed perhaps more than any other set of advocates to project vision - which may be as much a statement about the culture into which environmentalists are trying to communicate as it is about their communication ability. The general public associates environmentalism with restriction, prohibition, regulation, and sacrifice. When I ask people what they think a sustainable world might be like, I usually hear about tight, centralized control, low material standard of living, and no fun.....Whatever the reason, hardly anyone seems to envision a sustainable world as one that would be nice to live in. The best outcome of reaching sustainability that the public perceives, is the avoidance of catastrophe. Survival, but not much more. THAT IS A FAILURE OF VISION."

The lesson? Unless people can be given a positive vision about a world where natural resources are invested in and protected, they will be unlikely to want to be part of any social change that moves us in that direction. That social change has to involve a new way of managing ecosystems to achieve sustainable ends - it does NOT mean a model of 'natural' preserves and 'commercial' deserts which fails to accommodate humanity.

Integral to this need is a new environmental ethic modeled perhaps on such philosophers as Aldo Leopold and the ideas of the American environmental and social essayist Wendell Berry (1971, 1977, 1981). These ideas represent a radically different perspective of our place on this planet - reconciling the existing hubris and dominion with a dose of humility. Leopold's famous reference is land as part of our 'community' of concern.

Wes Jackson is another visionary whose research interests lie with community and ecological sustainability, especially in the American Mid-west. In his books (Jackson 1987, 1994) he argues that our separation from nature is an essential part of the environmental problem we currently face. He makes direct reference to the dichotomy of which the preservationist/allocation paradigm is part - and the apparent easy generalisation which apparently only lets most of us see nature as either Madonna or whore. An equal marriage is apparently not an option.

"Most of us have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored. ... this often subconscious mindset has helped alienate us from nature and led to many of our current problems with agriculture and resource management"

Becoming Native to This Place (Blazer Lectures,1991) by Wes Jackson

The above quote raises a subtle, but perhaps very important question for many New Zealanders. Are we yet native to this place? Or are we so removed from the environment and the environmental history of this country that we are really just European tourists on a 70 year holiday?

Europeans accept that they use their continent's resources - including their forests - and have done so for thousands of years. Simon Schama in his excellent book Landscape and Memory (1995) presents a compelling thesis of the European's integration with their own environment. By contrast, some environmentalists in New Zealand will proudly proclaim to have no furniture made from New Zealand timber, yet comfortably acknowledge that they possess oak - or worse - metal and petrochemical substitutes. Is this the perspective of a 'native' of New Zealand, or a tourist?


A sustainable future demands a number of steps:
  1. an understanding, and acceptance, of the problem - i.e. initial facts;
  2. an understanding of how environment, society and economy relate; and
  3. a move to resource conservation, including such actions as reduced use, increased recycling, and more ecosystem-based management approaches.
These steps are discussed below.


A number of facts are, I think, irrefutable. They are these:
  • Most of the earth's natural resources are finite
  • Humans use natural resources
  • Natural resources are reducing through either human over-exploitation or indirect harm through such activities as pollution
  • Use of resources is most often associated with environmental degradation
(Markets tend to over supply goods with negative externalities and undersupply goods with positive externalities. It is cheaper for the producers not to pick up the tab for their own environmental and social costs external to their operations. For example, markets tend to create an incentive for intensive land management where the real cost of production in terms of environmentally adverse effects falls outside the land manager's accounts - either to society downstream or to generations as yet unborn.)

  • We need a functioning environment to provide human resource needs (their maintenance and quality) and as a life support system.
  • The natural world is far more dynamic, and far more entangled in human history than popular beliefs about "the balance of nature" have typically acknowledged.
(In contrast, the popular view is that nature is a stable, homeostatic community capable of preserving its natural balance more or less indefinitely if only humans can avoid disturbing it. That is - humans are separate from nature. The work of ecologists such as Drury (1998) and Botkin (1990) is relevant.)

  • 'Nature' is a human construct. The way we describe, perceive and understand the world is so entangled with our own values and assumptions, that the two (humans and nature) can never be fully separated. The work of environmental historians such as William Cronon (1995) and Schama (1995) is relevant. Both extremes - i.e. nature as 'virgin' 'Madonna' to be 'preserved' 'untouched', and nature as 'whore' to be 'managed' as 'property' for commercial exploitation - represent a Manichaen idea that sets humanity APART as either awestruck observer, or indifferent and contemptuous user.
(For example, the concepts or beliefs that the death of a tree contributes incrementally to the 'death' of a forest - or that use and protection are mutually exclusive - or that aesthetics, and a 'sense of place' may represent natural rather than cultural values - is the lens through which we assess issues, mostly at an emotional level. But our underlying concepts may be wrong, so we ought to question them.)


The ideas of how economy, society and the environment relate underpin human action. The different perspectives are outlined diagrammatically below.

Figure 1: The Neo-classical economic Paradigm

The view above of the economy as encompassing society, with the environment somehow disconnected and set apart is shared by both many economists as well as many environmentalists. Society and economy are separated from nature. That is, the environment is a SEPARATE ISSUE. It is not.

Figure 2: Three Intersecting Rings

Recent attempts to integrate the three have lead to the intersecting rings approach (three legs to the stool). The suggestion is that there is give and take between the environment society and economy, without any hierarchy. Under this model the environment can be continually compromised to favour economics and society. Environmental history has shown that, ultimately, this is a false picture. One relevant forestry example is the role of forests in the civilisations of the Mediterranean (Perlin, 1989). Eventually the economy will come to live within the bounds of the environment - it has the choice of doing it voluntarily, or being forced by circumstances.

Figure 3: Embedded Rings

The embedded rings expresses the view that the environment underpins everything. It cannot be compromised without eventual compromise to society and economy.

Economy is a function of, that is secondary to, both environment and society.

This should, I believe, be the preferred model, and is the direction those who wish to have a sustainable future should be moving toward.


Forestry Management Paradigms

Ecological Preservation

(E.g. NZ Dept. of Conservation)

Wholly Ecocentric

Single objective of protecting ecosystem health/integrity.

Management for
1. Intrinsic forest values - ecological diversity and function - and
2. Non-wood utilitarian values - soil and water, aesthetics, recreation, etc.

No forest wood
product use.

Requires external financing to maintain ecological health
(esp. pest control).
Objective -

Intrinsic ecological values & non-extractive utilitarian values.
Relates to ecosystem functions.
Sustaining ecosystem functions, biodiversity and complexity across space and time.
Nil or negative (Unless green accounting)
Ecosystem Management (Sustainable management)

(E.g. Timberlands West Coast)

Primarily ecocentric:

very long –term and broad perspective.

Primary objective of protecting ecosystem health/integrity.

Management for
1. 'Intrinsic' forest values - ecological diversity and function - and
2. Wider range of utilitarian values, including timber.
Timber management is within ecological disturbance patterns to protect intrinsic values.
Timber harvest set at below sustainable yield levels as constrained by intrinsic values.
Large proportion of funds invested back into the forest system, including its ecological health.
Objective -


Commercial use allowed within that constraint.
Broadest perspective - 'Intrinsic', utilitarian, community considerations.
Below 'sustainable yield' of timber alone.
Relates to ecosystem functions.
Sustaining ecosystem functions, biodiversity and complexity across space and time.
Less (unless green accounting)
Sustainable yield & Multiple Use

(E.g. Some NZ Industry and farm forestry)

Primarily anthropocentric,

but encompassing issues of ecology and intergenerational time periods.

Mixed environmental, social and economic objectives - respective priorities depending upon particular circumstances.
Management for usually utilitarian values - timber as well as soil and water, aesthetics, recreation.
Timber harvested at or below sustainable yield levels to cater for other utilitarian values.
Intrinsic environmental benefits are usually incidental, though not inconsiderable.
"Health" is measured in utilitarian terms - e.g. aesthetics, wood productivity or individual tree health.
Objectives -

commercial and non-commercial utilitarian -

timber dominant use.
Considers only utilitarian values to owner and wider community.
At or below 'sustainable yield' of timber
Relates to utilitarian forest values - timber, aesthetics, water quality, recreation.
Sustaining crop production (wood fibre, and other utilitarian "crops" ) to owner and community
Sustainable Yield

(E.g. Much NZ Industrial forestry)


longer-term perspective than below.

Single objective on (usually) sustainable timber yield.

Social and environmental constraints, other than sustainable yield, are imposed by regulation/legislation.
Timber harvested at assumed sustainable yield levels.
Any intrinsic benefits to environment are incidental to management objective.
"Health" is related to forest's and trees' wood production.
Single objective –

sustaining timber yield
Considers only utilitarian values to owners
At 'sustainable timber' yield possibly artificially augmented
Relates to timber quality and quantity
Sustaining crop production (wood fibre)


very short term perspective

Single objective of either maximising profit or land use change.

Timber harvest rates at above sustainable yield levels.
Funds not invested back into the forest system - invested in next mining operation.
Ecological health not an issue.
Single Objective -

Maximise DCF Profit.
Narrowest considerations -

utilitarian monetary values of owners
Above sustainable yield for all forest values.
Relates to cashflow and capital.
Sustaining capital and Profit.
More (unless green accounting)

Forestry management paradigms run from mining/exploitation, through utilitarian paradigms to preservation. No sustainable future that includes humans can include too high a proportion of the extremes. Any paradigm that includes a large measure of preservation, must also have an element of short term focussed exploitation to provide for resources. This link appears to be ignored by many preservationists. That is, too much focus on oases of preserves must involve the encouragement of commercial deserts, for the simple reasons that it focuses attention on one, and because the reduction in potential resource supplies inherent in preservation leads to a call to increase resource supplies in those areas that are left.

For a sustainable future we ultimately need to:
  • reduce resource use (including a reduced human population);
  • move toward substituting renewable resources for non-renewable resources, and;
  • move towards ecosystem-based management paradigms that emphasis ecosystem health as the paramount objective while providing for people in communities.
This final point is the exact sentiment of the purpose of New Zealand's Resource Management Act, 1991. This Act provides the legislative framework for all resource management and environmental planning at the local authority level.

Such a shift in management emphasis would involve changes in ethics and our understanding of, and relationship with, nature (e.g. land doesn't "belong" to people. Rather, people "belong" to the land).

The changes in ethics would be:
  • a land ethic to encompass the environment as part of what we consider our sphere of concern. Aldo Leopold called this an extension of the concept of community to encompass "the land". This broader perspective would include 'intrinsic' values i that is, those environmental values not of apparent utilitarian/instrumental value to humans, and
  • to encompass a longer term view (the time period in which ecosystems function)
  • a consumption ethic (with implications for population).
The changes in understanding would involve:
  • An acceptance of a dynamic/functional rather than a static/structural perspective of the environment (that is, the environment is more defined by dynamic processes - ecological, geological, climatological, etc. - which underpin temporary ecological structures within, say, a forest. Change is nature's way, and a focus and belief in a static sameness can lead to exceedingly poor environmental management decisions)
  • An acceptance of humans as part of the environment
  • A global instead of a local perspective on issues
  • An acceptance that human use can be, and must be, compatible with maintaining ecosystem health
  • An acceptance perhaps of ecological health as the primary goal of any management long term where that 'health' embodies both an integration of humanity and an acceptance of the dynamic processes that underpin diversity (see Costanza 1992, Jenkins 1997, Kolb et al 1994).
Timberlands represents that change in perspective. This may shock some with strongly in-built beliefs, and will, naturally, not be accepted, just as fundamentalists will not accept that the bible is not literal. The following section gives a brief precis of their plan and how it relates to other ecosystem-based management initiatives that are occurring around the world.


(the following section is an excerpt from a article - Perley, C. 1998 Assessing Timberlands' Sustainable Beech Management using Concepts of Ecosystem Health and Ecosystem Management. NZ Journal of Forestry, November 1998)

Grumbine (1994) identified ten dominant themes useful as criteria for assessing whether an institution is managing along ecosystem management lines. Judging Timberlands (TWC) on the basis of the criteria below does not guarantee that Timberlands will achieve maintenance or improvement in ecosystem health, but it does provide a basis of support as to their intentions. It should be noted that not even the Department of Conservation, tasked with a singular ecological objective, can make any guarantees regarding ecosystem health, such are the impacts of introduced animals on indigenous forests.

Grumbine's dominant themes include the following.
  1. Hierarchical Context: involves a recognition that a focus on only one level of the biodiversity (genes, species, population, ecosystems, landscapes) is not sufficient. A systems perspective is required seeking the connections between all levels.

    TWC refer specifically to "the best possible integration between ecological, economic and social factors required to achieve a holistic and safe starting point for a sustainable system." (TWCL 1998, p57). Other indications of this philosophical systems approach exist throughout the plan, including their research priorities model (TWC 1998, p171).
  2. Ecological Boundaries: involves management working across administrative/political boundaries and defining ecological boundaries at appropriate scales.

    TWC specifies an intention to manage such resources as recreation across administrative boundaries (e.g. TWC 1998, p194). Set aside reserve areas for threatened flora and fauna also indicate a broad management perspective.
  3. Ecological Integrity: involves the conservation of viable populations of indigenous species, maintaining natural disturbance regimes, reintroduction of native extirpated species, and representation of ecosystems across natural ranges of vegetation.

    TWC uses a conceptual approach to management that fits in with natural disturbance over space and time. They state: "The objective of ecologically based sustainable management is to manage in such a way that the human induced disturbances created fall within the short term magnitude of natural disturbance" (TWC 1998, p57). The figure below visualises this objective and principle. It is applied in practice with the harvesting of small-scale, one to 10 tree gap sizes across representative diameter classes, and using low impact above-ground harvesting systems. This stated management intention is contrary to much of the public perception involving ground-based "logging" and "clear fellings".

    Figure 4: A Conceptual Approach to Beech Sustainable Management

    Source: (TWC 1998, p58)
  4. Data Collection: Ecological Management requires more research and data collection than the more commercial focused forestry practices. This includes such research as habitat inventory and classification, baseline species and population assessments, and disturbance regime dynamics.

    TWC have invested, and continue to invest, in these areas of research (TWC 1998, Section 6).
  5. Monitoring: tracking the results of management actions so that success or failure can be evaluated and fed back into management processes.

    TWC appear to both recognise, and provide for, the need for monitoring in any complex natural resource (TWC 1998, Sections 6.2 and 6.4)
  6. Adaptive Management: assumes that scientific knowledge is provisional and focuses on management as a learning process or continuous experiment where incorporating the results of previous actions allows management to remain flexible and adapt to uncertainty.

    This principle is also enshrined in Timberlands' management approach (TWC 1998, p167, p172).
  7. Inter-agency Cooperation: involves cooperation with other administrators and private owners to accommodate wider ecological boundaries.

    TWC specify dealing with recreation concerns in co-operation with the Department of Conservation, and prior to the release for national submissions had consulted widely with local communities.
  8. Organisational Change: implementing Ecological Management requires changing accepted ways of operating, ranging from the simple (putting in place different operational guidelines, or forming inter-agency committees) to the complex (changing professional norms and relationships between community interests).

    TWC has a history of changing operational management over the last four years to include greater environmental value. From the outside the forestry management culture is perceived as being more environmentally focussed and open to such interest groups as members of the environmental movements, than are most other forestry companies.
  9. Humans embedded in nature: Involves the concept that humans cannot be separated from nature. Humans are fundamental influences on ecological patterns and processes and are in turn affected by them. This is a philosophical perspective that accepts that the distinction between 'natural' and 'artificial' is arbitrary in much of environmental history.

    The sometimes doctrinaire reaction that human economic interaction is necessarily harmful, is not accepted by TWC, nor by many other ecologists (Drury 1998).
  10. Values as determinants of behaviour: involves the concept that, regardless of the role of scientific knowledge, human values play the dominant role in Ecosystem Management. This is the concept expanded on by Jenkins (1997).

    It is unclear from the management plans whether TWC explicitly understands the importance of values from an examination of the management plans. What does come through is that those who wrote these plans have these values. Whether they specifically develop them in their staff is not included in these plans.
Grumbine used these ten dominant themes to form a basis of a working definition of ecosystem management; "Ecosystem management integrates scientific knowledge of ecological relations within a complex socio-political and values framework toward a general goal of protecting ecosystem integrity over the long term." Timberland's intentions fit this description.


  • Small 1-10 tree gap harvesting, all helicopter-extracted to minimise disturbance - a low volume, high value management system.
  • Mortality preempted across age-class/size range, in line with natural mortality - i.e. through senescence of old dominants and suppressed subdominants. Large hole nesting trees not targeted.
  • Selection of no more than 50% of the natural mortality of the forest, and removal of no more than 50% of the timber volume of each of these trees. At $95 per tonne for helicopter harvesting the option of chipwood (with a value of no more than $50 per tonne at the mill) will not occur.
  • Reserves of 12 percent for research baselines, highly sensitive area and riparian zones.
  • Professional and innovative monitoring and research
  • Pest and predator control
  • An ecosystem management approach that does not manage to favour any utilitarian value (such as silviculture to "improve" the value or production of timber). The primary objective is the ecological integrity of the forests. The emphasis is on what remains after harvesting, not on what is removed.


The greatest threat to the NZ beech forest (Nothofagus) ecosystems is animal pests. Beech ecologies are noted for their vigour and regenerative capabilities. This is demonstrated by the amount of ex-clearfelled beech that has since regenerated and is now classified as significant by Department of Conservation.

If NZ beech (especially Nothofagus menziesii, N. fusca, and N. truncata), Kauri (Agathis australis), and totara (Podocarpus totara) were European trees they would be managing them as part of their heritage. As species they are entirely compatible with the co-existence of an element of use and protection.

Managed along ecosystem-based lines, with appropriate and continual monitoring, and with an emphasis placed on reducing introduced pest species, Timberlands does not threaten the beech ecosystems. It may well involve an improvement in the health of the ecosystem in comparison with the conservation estate.

One common assumption is that removal of timber represents the loss of considerable nutrients from the system. It does not. Wood is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. Their predominant components are C, H and O, all products of photosynthesis via CO2 and H2O. Eighty-five percent of the nutrients in a forest are in the leaf litter and the crown, including the cambium layers below the bark. The forest grows by cycling nutrients between the crown and the litter layer, with the structure of the tree coming from photosynthesis.

Removing timber, while leaving the crown and litter intact, is analogous to leaving the nutrient rich wheat, and harvesting the chaff. Timberlands are intending to harvest 50% of the forest mortality, and of these trees, only 50% of the wood is extracted (that part of high economic value). More than enough remains for regeneration and other ecological functions. The nutrient removals should be lower than natural additions from soil weathering and atmospheric inputs. That is why forests generally do not need fertilising, and why they often improve the nutrient status of depleted farmland.


We have a choice of continuing the present preservationist vision represented as a rather dour, disapproving, authoritarian, puritanical view (witchhunts included), or of joining what Roderick Nash called the New Environmentalists.

The New Environmentalists have gone beyond the "save the tree" simplicity to actually trying to work toward a sustainable future from a deeper understanding of the environment, people and communities, and an economy that allows us to provide things like universities, art galleries, and yes, even furniture.

1 Native Forest Action is a New Zealand activist environmental preservation movement opposed to all commercial use of NZ indigenous forests, and are active protesters against Timberlands West Coast Ltd.

2 The reference to the published version of this paper is:-
Perley, C.J.K. (2000) Does Timberlands Represent a Positive Vision?
International Forestry Review 2 (2): 129-136


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