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Looking to the Next Century of Forest Conservation

By 3p Contributor

By Dan Stonington

This year marks the centennial celebration of what some have called "America’s greatest idea" -- the National Parks system. Indeed, for those of us lucky enough to have visited one -- or to live close to many, as we do in the Pacific Northwest -- it’s easy to see the truth in this title. The Parks embody a spirit of wildness, beauty and vision that is quintessentially American.

As the country looks back at 100 years of National Parks and the successes and complexities that have come with them, it’s also a chance to look forward to the future. I work on forests, and offer these ideas for what the next century of conservation will include.

1. Humans as a positive, regenerative force on the landscape and each other

The history of our national parks and wilderness areas has been one of protecting places from ourselves. We’ve won critical conservation successes in the past 100 years, but there is no denying that humans have greatly diminished the natural capital assets of the planet. We have come to see the negative and damaging impact we can have on our surrounding environment.

In our work at the Northwest Natural Resource Group (NNRG), the organization for which I serve as Executive Director, we see this history in the beliefs of small family forest owners. Across the country, these landowners (defined as owning 10 to 1,000 acres) are responsible for stewarding more forest land than all the national forests and national parks combined. There’s a national survey that happens every five to eight years of these woodland owners, and it highlights a fascinating phenomenon – the majority of these landowners have conservation-oriented values, but are hesitant to get engaged in stewardship for a fear of damaging their woods.

At NNRG, we have the enjoyable job of beginning to address this fear by showing landowners how they can actually accelerate natural processes and be a positive force for restoration. It is a process of psychological transformation as we walk them through their options for managing their land. Many have opportunities to conduct commercial timber thinning projects – cutting trees! – in a way that is economically viable and also rebuilds the land’s natural capital. In coming decades, as markets for carbon, water quality, and other ‘ecosystem services’ mature, the financial incentives to help drive this transformation will only strengthen.

On the timber markets end of the ecological forestry equation is the revolutionary philosophy behind the Living Building Challenge (LBC) – that we can build buildings that actually replenish our natural capital and have a regenerative effect on our environment and communities. LBC requires the use of Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, which makes sense given the parallel philosophy of FSC to manage forests for a balance of social, environmental, and economic gain. LBC is a sign of the century to come. It provides an opportunity for everyone, not just woodland owners, to begin to face our fear of taking action that might damage our environment and instead helps us understand that we humans can be a positive, restorative, regenerative force on our surroundings and each other.

2. Reconnected landscapes that bring nature to people, instead of just people traveling to parks

There’s an exciting effort making progress in Puget Sound cities – the Green Cities Partnership movement – which seeks to restore native Pacific Northwest conifer forests to urban parks and natural areas over the next decade. The flagship program, the Green Seattle Partnership, is aiming for no less than 2,500 acres restored, and is already half-way there.

NNRG has had the privilege of supporting the partnership by writing plans for the city of Seattle to accelerate the transition from hardwoods like alder and maple that currently fill city green spaces to forests dominated by our charismatic big-tree conifer species of fir, hemlock and cedar. Moving from the cities to the foothills next to Mt. Rainier National Park, these are the same restoration strategies that NNRG and many other partners are coaching small forest landowners to implement.

We each understand intuitively that trees and greenness are good. At the start of the next century of conservation, we are adding to that intuition a powerful body of research showing the huge return on investment of bringing nature back to cities. Over the next century, conservation will come in the form of urban greenery that cleans our stormwater and stores carbon; trail corridors that get us outside, and wind our commutes and weekends through Pollinator Pathways; and recovered access to shorelines and streams that renew our joyful sense of place.

Our descendants will be thankful that they live in 2116. It will be more than a century after we began to truly pursue the enormous health, equity, financial, and quality of life benefits of reconnecting our landscapes, and bringing nature back to the places where we live out our daily lives.

3. Restoration as a story of who we are

Around the time the National Parks Service was founded in 1916, Ellis Island was ushering a million immigrants per year into the country. The new National Parks, the bountiful plains, the plentiful western rivers to be used for power and irrigation, and the defense of our continent from threats abroad – these were a part of shaping our national narrative over the past century. But it was also a history of the displacement of First Nations, suburbanization fueled by burning carbon that we now know is posing an existential threat to the planet, and an economic system that has led us back around to the polarizing wealth disparities of 100 years ago.

Forest restoration is a messy concept because of climate change. We’re already recognizing that restoring plant and animal communities to conditions that existed when the National Parks were founded will be impossible in many places. But if we give the word broader meaning – one that embraces an openness to honestly face our past social, economic, and ecological injustices – then the stories that our descendants 100 years from now will tell about restoration, conservation, and who we are as a Pacific Northwest region and as a country begin to take shape.


Restoration and conservation are being woven into our story in new ways. The sooner we recognize this new narrative, the more it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and serve as the story we pass along to future generations about who we are.

Image credit: Flickr/Phil

Dan Stonington is the Executive Director for Northwest Natural Resource Group.

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