Sometimes a Wild Notion: Wilderness vs. Forest Management

Vinh Lang is the son of migrant tree planters who planted trees from the Pacific Northwest to the Southeast and up to Maine. Vinh has worked as a tree planter and forest technician for over 15 years and assisted in the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees. He received his Bachelor’s degree from Stockton University in Environmental Science and a Master’s of Forestry from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Vinh has worked in the public and private sectors, for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the US Forest Service, as a forest researcher in Sri Lanka, and forestry consultant in Ecuador. Currently he works for Pine Creek Forestry in New Jersey as a forestry consultant. In his off time he can be found sharing his love for the outdoors with others, seeking out ecological treasures, and traveling. We are sharing this essay with Vinh’s permission.


Our place on earth and our post-industrial time of leisure are wondrous gifts. These socio-environmental riches have forged our modern society’s character through working the land over time, through recreation, play or seeking out wonder across our landscapes, and through the pursuit of happiness in our environments. It is with these riches in mind that I urge some consideration for responsibility and conservation including dispelling of conservation myths, stewardship of American lands, and social justice and/or political-economic accountability. We risk our global “wildness” if we do not have an honest discussion of the utilization of forest products as individuals, as interested groups, and as nations, especially without the acknowledgement that we depend on these products in our daily lives; increasingly to meet the basic needs of a growing population. One would be hard pressed to name an essential commodity that is not rooted in our forests directly or indirectly – food, water, shelter, medicine, toiletries, and leather to name a few. The fantastic news about forest products is, with proper care, they are renewable!

Myths and symbols of conservation

To understand our national consciousness about natural resources we need to address some myths of conservation. First, our perspective of mutually exclusive entities (humanity and environment) is misleading. Society and the perceived environment are a community to which we both belong and mutually benefit. People and the environment they inhabit are interconnected so much so that it is difficult to discern where society and the environment begin. People rely on nature for subsistence and nature relies on people for dissemination and stewardship of its resources.

Preservation has been regarded by many as the highest form of conservation at least since 1964 and the passage of “The Wilderness Act,” and probably earlier in the conception of Pinchot’s “forest reserves.” However, the integrity of this conservation approach should not be without questions. While I believe that forest reserves and The Wilderness Act were great successes in their time, preservation has made meaningful progress in terms of biodiversity, culturally significant places, and a more robust conversation of land ethic, the strategy also has shortcomings. Preservation is not a cure for all things environmental and even may be detrimental to socio-ecological problems under the wrong context. The balance of resource management strategies requires careful consideration when juxtaposed against the common good.

Since 1964, we have grown our wilderness system from 9 million acres to nearly 110 million acres. In certain places and for certain reasons this is great progress. However, when taking into consideration the detrimental effects of arbitrary preserves and political wilderness designations, people’s livelihoods, freedoms, and lives are at stake. Wilderness areas are not free. Coupled with increasing support to minimize forest management on National Forests (designated to meet multiple uses including forest products, recreation, and biodiversity) through bureaucracy, political boundaries, and misinformation, the private forests are left to supply a disproportionate majority of forest products and values. It would be one thing if our society stopped demanding forest goods, but the fact of the matter is that our appetite remains, and we frequently displace responsibility of natural resource extraction and management on others. Probably, if we were to examine ourselves individually and organizationally with respect to our consumptive needs and made a dedicated effort to remove excess, we would likely still fall short of conservation goals.

Ecological forest management offers us hope to meet the multiple values of the common good, consumptive and non-consumptive, without sacrifice to our conservation ethics. In the absence of a change in consumer appetites for forest products, forest management offers us an opportunity to meet demands in a sustainable way and within political-economic boundaries that we control.

Our national consciousness has been derailed by the question of “which conservation strategy, forest management or preservation is best to pursue?” for far too long. The truth is that it will take a combination of strategies and not always at equal parts to ask more meaningful conservation questions: Namely, where should we be storing forest carbon, why, and is it ethical to put this burden on the politically/economically poor? Which types of biodiversity to conserve and why? What types of conservation issues and wildfire risk should we target to be effective in conserving ecosystem processes, functions, and resiliency rather than individual species or habitats, locally, globally, in the short term, and over the long term? How much of the conservation and management efforts should be shouldered by private land and by public lands to create balance and for the common interest? What data and how can organizational transparency inform public decision making? The answers to many of these questions I suspect involve varying application and consideration of forest management and stewardship of our natural resources as well as those beyond our nation.

Stewardship responsibility of American lands

Inclusion of provisions for forest management in the Build Back Better infrastructure bill would help restore American forests and perpetuate forest dependent cultures and livelihoods. Specifically, forest restoration, fuel reduction, and forest health, terms alluding to the fact that resources value probably won’t be leveraged to pay for the values desired by the public. Stewardship of our forest resources through forest management is an ecological solution to many of our modern-day problems. Namely, forest degradation, economics, insects and disease, and displacing the natural disturbance regimes of environs. This strategy is not mutually exclusive of other goals in the common good including recreation, sportsmanship, water quality, biodiversity, forest health, or forest preserves-these can all be elevated through ecological management of our forests. Instead of imposing further limitations on our resources and the interactions within those resources, perhaps we should consider incentives to promote/perpetuate natural resources, big and small forest dependent livelihoods, and a diversity of natural resource experiences and/or interactions.

Wildfire caused in part by the nebulous seasonality of our climate always has and will continue to be problematic with regard to losses of forests if we maintain our perspective that it is a force to be tamed in response to the occurrence. Of course, severe weather and climate change play a role in the frequency and intensity of wildfire. Equally important factors of the intensity and severity of wildfires are the imbalance of dead and dying forests (composition), forest structure, and history of land use. An honest discussion might include questions such as: have our land use practices or lack thereof contributed to forest structure and function that encourage wildfire intensification and severity? Under changing climate conditions, what geographic extent should be considered for management to mitigate losses? More frequent record droughts and increasingly severe/rapid winds require more extensive consideration than “normal fire conditions.” Equal consideration should be given to the extent of who might be affected by smoke inhalation (public health), fortifying of homes, and carbon losses.

To me there is a great opportunity to deal with wildfire in a proactive manner. By dedicating funds, we can transition from reactive fire suppression to proactive forest management/wildfire mitigation that puts people and property out of harm’s way. Fewer brave wildland firefighters’ lives would be endangered or lost. And we could work towards addressing the problems of who is liable for forest fire related dangers, classism of wildland fire response, wildland fire related public health, increased carbon flux, and losses of resources requiring importation of forest products to leverage our losses. All of these issues transcend our political economic boundaries and as leaders of a post-industrial nation, they deserve our attention.

Social Justice/Political-economic accountability

How can the United States credibly ask other nations to provide an increase of forest products so that we can increase preservation of our forest resources? We shouldn’t when we have viable domestic solutions in more resilient forests. Thoughtful and deliberate initiative needs to emanate from our national leadership to the public regarding forest related policies to ensure human dignity is upheld. Restrictive legislation and preservation pressure neglect to address the desires of the politically and economically poor, domestically and abroad.

Ironically, we would best serve those politically poor by scrutinizing and sometimes foregoing preserves (establishment of arbitrary forest preserves to which local communities may no longer interact with sometimes economically, culturally, or spiritually) and maintaining their cultures, stewarding their livelihoods, and cultivating their social positions to a higher standard. Ideally, a solution would raise and sustain the standard of living of forest dependent communities such that they would be the arbiters of their livelihoods and their resources’ destiny and the choices of sustainability, carbon, and biodiversity would lie with those closest to their resources, not the geographically and socially distant, or politically and economically powerful, domestically and abroad.

Call to Action: Balance of resources and risk-wildfire

Conservation issues have become increasingly complex. Surprisingly, the preservation solutions, sometimes well-intentioned, proposed so far have been dangerously simple. This simpleness is problematic because the issues require complex solutions, collaborative work, and probably multiple generations to address. At present, the best we can strive for is to provide options for those in the future in terms of resources, biodiversity, and interactions with the environment for work and for play. This will require a strategy of balance of natural resource conservation and use of resources across socio-political boundaries to meet the needs of people. Forest industry and profits are seen as evil, but the demand they meet is driven by the consumptive behavior of the very people who loathe them. It is clear to me that our preservation mentality is a postmodern colonialism when considering that we prefer to impose extraction of natural resources on other countries beyond our socio-political and ethical control.

I am not suggesting we forego preservation altogether. There are many places and resources that benefit from this strategy, and I would happily lobby to keep certain places preserved. Simply, I believe that preservation strategies should be framed properly and thoughtfully scrutinized. Is the preservation of x forest achieving the desired outcomes through x time? What new values should we be considering? Is “untrammeled” an honest requisite or are resources on their current trajectory because of past human disturbance and need subsequent interventions to achieve desired outcomes? I believe that in the black and white dialogue of forest management and preservation, we need a whole spectrum of grays to solve today’s issues.

Inclusion of provisions for forest management in the Build Back Better infrastructure bill would help restore American forests and culture. Indirectly, this would alleviate forest product pressure on forests abroad. We simply need these conservation strategies available to us to address the complexity of forest related issues. Regarding natural resource sustainability, global progress will emanate from thoughtful local decision making. What balance of preserved land to actively managed land remains to be decided by the values of the common good. What proportion should be dedicated to offsetting our global footprint also remains. Perhaps we do not need a resolution today, but to conserve the strategic options and resources for the future would be a beneficial endeavor. It is with these considerations, that I believe we can manage hope for our natural resources.

Sometimes a Wild Notion: Wilderness vs. Forest Management