Forester vs Ecologist

There is a huge difference between the Industrial Forestry worldview and an ecological perspective. Many people assume that foresters understand forest ecosystems, but what you learn in forestry school is how to produce wood fiber to sell to the wood products industry. I know because I attended a forestry school as an undergraduate in college.

Assuming that foresters understand forest ecosystems is like assuming that a realtor who sells houses understands how to construct a building because they peddle homes.

Foresters usually view ecological disturbance from insects, drought, wildfire, and disease as undesirable and indications of “unhealthy” forests. That is why they work to sanitize forests by removing dead and dying trees and attempt to limit with thinning influences like bark beetles or wildfire.

An ecologist sees these disturbance processes not as a threat to forests, but the critical factors that maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Indeed, one could argue that natural mortality processes like drought, bark beetles or wildfire are “keystone” processes that sustain the forest ecosystem.

Where foresters seek to prevent large wildfires through logging/thinning or what can be described as chainsaw medicine, ecologists see large high severity fires as essential to functioning ecosystems.

Where foresters remove shrubs by mastication (chopping them up) to reduce what they call “fuel”, an ecologist sees wildlife habitat. Indeed, one recent study found mastication reduced bird occurrence by half.

Where foresters seek to reduce tree density to speed growth, an ecologist seeks to maintain density to slow growth because slow-growing trees have denser wood that is slower to rot, hence last longer in the ecosystem.

Where foresters justify thinning to preclude wildfires, an ecologist notes that the probability of a fire encountering a thinned stand is extremely low.

Where foresters advocate logging to reduce “fuels” that they assert contribute to large high severity fires, an ecologist sees high severity fires as essential to the input of dead wood into forest ecosystems.

Foresters, who are joined at the hip with the timber industry, still promote the false assertion that logging can preclude large blazes. Ecologists know that fine fuels drive fires, and under extreme fire weather of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and high winds, nothing stops wildfires.

Where foresters point to the few examples of where thinning is presumed to have halted wildfires without accounting for changes in weather conditions or other factors, ecologists know that extreme fire weather overrides all human suppression strategies. They look at wildfires like the Eagle Fire in the Columbia Gorge which the Columbia River failed to stop or the Thomas Fire in California which was only halted by the “fuel break” known as the Pacific Ocean to support their contention that wildfires are like earthquakes, you can’t prevent them.

Where foresters see wood fiber for the mill, an ecologist sees carbon storage on the ground. Indeed, even burnt forests store more carbon than thinned forests.

Where foresters believe they are “improving” the forest through manipulation, ecologist sees manipulation as degrading forest ecosystems.

If our public forests were deemed nothing more than tree farms, the Industrial Forestry approach might be appropriate. However, since our public forests are often the critical habitat for many wildlife species, important for watershed protection, and biodiversity protection, the Industrial Forestry Paradigm simplifies our ecosystems and impoverishes our public forests.

In short, foresters pursue the Industrial Forestry Paradigm, not an ecological paradigm.

I should acknowledge that there are some forward-thinking foresters who are not captured by the Industrial Forestry mind-set, but they are do not dominate in forestry schools, the Forest Service and elsewhere.




  1. David Neils Avatar

    George, you raise some great points but your black and white approach to forestry versus ecology is not accurate based on my background as a forester and coming from a family that has over a hundred year history of a conservation and sustained yield track record. Julius Neils moved to NW Montana to practice forestry with a conservation mindset. His son, my grandfather, George Neils, introduced top management from Crown Zellerbach, Weyerhause, St. Regis, Kimberly Clark and other companies to the sustained yield practices of shelterwood cuts, seed tree cuts, watershed health and other conservation practices that were considered ground-breaking at that time.

    As a practicing forester in Western Montana I always had a conservation mindset in everything I did and a track record to prove it.

    Again, your black and white depiction of this subject is not completely accurate although I resonate with some of your statements.

    I now work closely with youth and teachers all over the world on conservation issues. We need to have a dark beer and light conversation sometime soon. You’re always welcome at my campfire.

  2. John carter Avatar
    John carter

    George..this is such a great and accurate of your best!

  3. John R Avatar
    John R

    Thank you George.

  4. Natalie Riehl Avatar
    Natalie Riehl

    What I find most fascinating about this “forester” article and your other recent article about the “Launchbaugh range propaganda” is that the official government and university “management” practices of these wildlands is all about what humans can extract from the land … and usually at little to no significant costs for the extractors.

    There is no inherent reverence for the land or its creatures. It’s not a mindset that is much removed from your “outdoor gymnasium” ideas. These people perceive the human at the top of the pile, with humans’ needs, gratification and profits always coming first.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      You’re so right. I also cannot bear the ‘outdoor gymnasium’ mindset either. But it’s who we are, for the most part.

      We can point the finger at ranching, logging and the Forest Service, et al, but they are serving a market, which is the public. The public is not an innocent bystander in this, and it is rather patronizing that people would do the right thing if only they weren’t being ‘duped’ by so-and-so group, as if the beef industry is forcing people to eat it, etc. Or that people are too stupid to realize what is happening to the environment.

      The public knows full well the consequences of these activities, and carries on anyway, because they’ve been told ‘people are more important’.

      What would have been questionable activities for the environment but recoverable and somewhat sustainable with the smaller population of the past, is totally unsustainable with the skyrocketing population of modern times.

      Thanks George, for these great articles – we know that we are not the only ones who are concerned about these things thanks to you and others.

  5. Bill Cunningham Avatar
    Bill Cunningham

    As a professional forester who has both laid out timber sales and fought against them I applaud this excellent summation of two very different world views. Most foresters do regard forests as a place in which to maximize human benefit. The irony is that only by leaving wild forests alone will human benefits be maximized, for the greatest number for the greatest good in the longest run (to paraphrase the patron saint of foresters, Gifford Pinchot).

    1. Bob Hitchcock Avatar
      Bob Hitchcock

      Hello Bill. But the “country” (financial institutions) run on growth($) of quarterly profits.

  6. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    YESSSS! It’s the difference between thinking and believing, hubris, self-righteousness, ad nauseam.

    One point, however, about mastication. It creates a gigantic store of perfectly-sized and lightweight ember/flying firebrand fuel. Like much knee-jerk, folkloric “management,” it backfires on the managers. Might as well have the aerial tankers drop incendiary bombs on the unburned forest.

    Wayne Tyson

    PS: I boycott Facebook and all “social” media. But I did like it.

    Back in about 1959 or ’60, when I was a tree-surveyor for the Farce Service, my boss, the timber-management supervisor and I were working in separate canyons in Northern California. He was forestry-trained; I was ecology-trained, subordinate to him a little bit in age and with about fifty percent of the amount of education he had.

    We met at the pickup for lunch. He handed me a twig, asking if I knew what it was. He said “I spent most of my time “releasing” a sugar pine by girdling the thing.” The girdled tree was Torreya californica. In all the many transects I had run, I had never seen one. I haven’t seen one since. ###

    Wayne Tyson

  7. David Blackwell Avatar
    David Blackwell

    Thank you for articulating, George. I will be further circulating it. The way you have so clearly and communicatively articulated the distinction is commendable, and should be helpful to others trying to protect our embattled forests and woodlands, not least from the viewpoint of relatedly articulating well and effectively themselves.

  8. Wayne Tyson Avatar
    Wayne Tyson

    Have y’all read this one too? I was a “white pine delineator” in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s.

  9. Slowly Trees Avatar
    Slowly Trees

    I have a bachelor’s degree in ecology and a master’s degree in forest management and operations but I try not to let education inflate hubris. However, I have tasted the sweetness of both schools of thought and practiced it. I have found these two schools not at odds with each other in many ways.
    I think the author agrees with the following statement: forestry = industry = economics in the author’s eyes. Industry operates on economic principles. You know what else operates under economic principles? Nature. Ecosystems are totally economics. They aren’t monetary but operate on the same principles of scarce resources, competition, survival of the fittest, etc. These principles in the ecological realm produce the “inherent reverence for the land and its creatures” in some people. Many people also see that industry and human economics also contains things to revere (that the ecological world does not) such as mercy and forgiveness to name a few. To say ecology and economics are something that’s different; and, to say that forestry doesn’t have ecology’s side is something definitely simple and misleading.
    What’s our problem with the forest and with harvesting the forest? Is it because we don’t have enough time; we are spread so thin in our daily lives; we don’t get to go out and study the forest and study a harvest. We don’t trust the people who do this every day and who watch the forest change from pre harvest to after harvest and beyond. Nature also doesn’t have much to do with trust.
    A further issue is we tend to trust the ideas we want to trust. We don’t do deep introspection to question whether our feelings and thoughts are actually true always and at all times. Ask yourself, “How did an ecologist become a forester?” I was a preservationist and so why did I get interested in forestry?
    I did some deep introspection and questioned my beliefs; these thoughts and feelings I knew to be true; I accepted I could be wrong about the underlying science involved in my decisions (although it is more than knowledge of principles that determines our beliefs). You can’t just look at an individual study and apply it broadly. The scale of the forest property as a whole really matters. What are you doing across the entire 12,000 acres for example? Are you treating it all the same? Over what time scale? Are you doing different things in different areas to get diversity of outcomes? It’s a lot more complex than you can do in such a small article (or in a singular scientific study, or compendium of scientific studies, that gets published). We make decisions based on imperfect information. As we learn, we realize the less we really know.
    What do we really want here? Public lands to be preserved so the ecology can have its economic system which operates much like a human economic system operates (only without the mercy and forgiveness and other strictly human things that might arise)? We want to have more room for the animals and the plants and interactions to take place undisturbed by man and the economics that go on there? We want to be able to reverence the animals doing economics while keeping ourselves out of it (in certain preservation situations)? There’s questions for me.

    What’s wrong with public land set aside to incorporate human economic systems and pursuits in the forest? In a society where there’s tons of private forestland, you value the forestland and its economic benefits so you can keep it as forest. If forests aren’t valuable, private owners will put that land to a non-forest use if they can. People will get rid of them. You aren’t arguing for private lands preservation or anything – you’re saying on public lands you want that. But, public lands are great teachers for private lands in how to sustainably manage forests and how to increase value across the acreage. Have you considered that aspect?
    Are we looking at all these studies – even ones that contradict what we WANT to say? Are we waiting for additional, repeatable studies and more repetitions of those studies (across a multitude of scales, ecosystems, and timeframes) to see how ecology and forestry dynamics are developing and changing through time? Are we collecting as much information as we can? Are we getting out of our own comfort zones very much?

    1. Hiker Avatar

      ‘If our public forests were deemed nothing more than tree farms, the Industrial Forestry approach might be appropriate. However, since our public forests are often the critical habitat for many wildlife species, important for watershed protection, and biodiversity protection, the Industrial Forestry Paradigm simplifies our ecosystems and impoverishes our public forests.’ Perhaps George’s last thought answers your question. These lands are more than just trees. They are the sum of their parts. That sum is infinitely greater than we can know with our science. I worked at Yosemite National Park as a Ranger and one of my memories is of a crowd of Germans surrounding one ground squirrel taking pictures. I think sometimes it’s easy to take our public lands for granted. Where I live now I see hundreds use our lands everyday. We should protect what we have at all costs. We don’t know the value they will have when plastics have finally choked our oceans and the climate shifts around us. Also, don’t trust the government experts, they have bias and agendas just like everyone else.

      1. Slowly Trees Avatar
        Slowly Trees

        What are the parts of the ecosystem that don’t come back after a timber harvest?

        1. Hiker Avatar

          You do realize that logging includes miles of roads which increase erosion and displace wildlife. Yes, the ecosystem may recover, given enough time, maybe a few thousand years. Do you know how long it takes to develop soil? In some places it takes many years. Meanwhile weeds will grow and forests aren’t the same. Don’t believe me? Take a trip to the Pacific Northwest where they have logged over and over for decades. Those areas look like tree farms. Then go to Olympic National Park and hike the Ho rain forest trail, it is night and day different. Logging removes biomass in the most destructive way possible. Even forest fires leave most of that biomass behind. Don’t believe me? Go to Yellowstone National Park and hike anywhere that burned in ’88. You will be tripping and hopping over logs for miles. Nature takes care of itself, we tend to screw it up.

          1. Immer Treue Avatar
            Immer Treue

            Add to this the demise of woodland caribou.

            1. Hiker Avatar

              Yes, just one of countless species going extinct right now. All so a few rich can get a little richer.

    2. Mat-ters Avatar

      Slow Trees, Good post, Forestry has been important to me and the private lands I’ve purchased through the years. I’ve worked regularly with the local foresters getting great advice. I’ve reforested some of it myself with a tree spade, closing in on 10,000 trees & managed others with veneer logs in mind.

      It’s sad that the only state of the environment that is “healthy” to some is untouched unmanaged lands. The future of ecology is not going to be that the Jurassic Park mentality the radical “environmentalist” push upon us. Ecologist will and are coming to the realization that trying to create eco-systems based on a Jurassic park mentality will not feed 7 billion people. Eco-system are healthy and diverse, with clear cuts, with select cuts, with thinning’s, with limited predators, managed game herds, and with managed cattle. Nature has always been the highest of highs and the lowest of lows! Ecological writer Emma Marris is on the right track and has the “ecological principles” that I believe will win the day. (See her book Rambunctious Gardens”).

      “Ecosystems are totally economics.” For the last 12000 years MAN has been part of the ecosystems of North America. Leaving him out of the modern day ecology bankrupts the ecosystem its immoral!

      1. Hiker Avatar

        When I was a kid it was 4 Billion people, now 7. When do we have too many? What happens when bears get a lot of food? They make more bears. Same with people. At what point does all the pesticide and fertilizer no longer work to feed the billions we have now, never find the projected 9 billion in just a few years. You demean us when you say “Jurassic park” mentality. Some of us just have a different viewpoint. Why attack us for that? I’ve lived in Los Angeles and I’ve lived in National Parks so forgive me if I find nature a better neighbor. And who are you to say what the future of ecology will be? I hope you’re wrong about that. No one here said we should leave ‘man’ {humans, don’t forget about women} out of the ecology. That would be impossible. But we can limit our activity in some small areas that we haven’t already used. I know I appreciate those who set aside wilderness and parks in the past. Maybe future generation will appreciate that not every square inch was used for extraction.

        1. Mat-ters Avatar

          Hiker, “What happens when bears get a lot of food? They make more bears.” Are you suggesting that the bread basket of the world stop feeding others? China’s ag Tariff threats may do just that….. that’s how they love their people by spreading a little Trump hate, both of which you seem to be OK with??

          Population growth rates, lowest in decades and continue to decline, are certainly manageable.

          Your sanctimonious attempt at painting me a misogynist is one of the many reasons Hillary lost the election. “man” as in mankind has always included woman and children. Only those who are willing participants can be “demeaned” …. its like Native Americans being demeaned by team names in honor of them like the “Chiefs” and “Redskins”. It’s as ridiculous as the ranchers in Montana being offended by the name “Cowboys”. I feel that if you are offended to the point of demeaning by a descriptive name like “Jurrassic Park ecologist” it says more about the underlying building blocks of your cause…. than me being a bully!

          1. Hiker Avatar

            What I am saying is we have sacrificed the “bread basket of the world” by pumping in too many pollutants {ie. chemical fertilizers and carcinogenic pesticides} only to have even more people to feed. It’s like a hamster wheel that keeps speeding up, eventually it throws the hamster off. Population growth is manageable, using Chinese methods. Being sanctimonious is a birthright of us all, you just proved it. Hillary lost because many knew how horrible she is. It’s laughable that you believe that only willing participants can be demeaned. Can no one be offended anymore? I take offense to that.

            1. Mat-ters Avatar

              You are correct on the birthright and I only used the word as a descriptor to call out your misogynistic ploy. No one including a homeless black female transgender illegal immigrant can be demeaned by anyone unless they let them! Your confusing the act of demeaning with being demeaned. Example: Calling someone a “wolf hater” is demeaning. BUT, some wear it as a badge of honor knowing that they don’t hate wolves, but they do hate wasted Endangered Species tax dollars being spent on non-endangered animals, they know of the undeniable fact that at some point wolves need to be managed, they hate that wolves are being set up for failure and they see and understand the unhealthy repercussions of unnatural unmanaged predators. They (those called wolf haters) are not demeaned.

              I have a friend that has a mildly affected down syndrome adult child. What I have said above about demeaning has been the cornerstone of their teaching to that beautiful productive loving human being!

              Victimhood is more often than not….self inflicted. One can make a study out of those that use, need and create victims.

              1. Hiker Avatar

                I agree that one can choose how one feels about something. However, when someone labels an entire group a certain way, instead of just an individual, then it can become a serious thing. Just ask the Native and African Americans if they chose to be demeaned and then more. Demeaning a group is a put down that reveals insecurity, like all put downs. Put downs are a cheap and dirty way to make yourself feel better at the expense of someone else. I am not nor ever have been a Jurassic Park ecologist {whatever that means}. It sounds ugly. That was what I was responding to. I do think of myself as preservationist. If that makes me a radical then, just like the wolf haters in your example, I wear that as a badge of honor.

                By the way, it sounds like you have done great work on your own land planting trees. I honestly commend you for that. If more people put their money {or time} where their mouth was the world would be a better place.

      2. rork Avatar

        “For the last 12000 years MAN has been part of the ecosystems of North America.”
        This is true, and we set the forest on fire on purpose near me, just like the old ones. But it’s also true that this and some other things you said are used as excuses by those wanting to do things they know are destructive. As in: if we do a thing it must be natural since we are part of nature. Wanting to be fairly protective does not mean being against all extraction and exploitation. Necessity as the plea for wickedness, your backup argument, doesn’t work too well either unless you actually estimate the costs.

  10. Bob Hitchcock Avatar
    Bob Hitchcock

    What we do not understand about forest ecosystems is immense. For example, the relationship of fungus within root systems to the forest community in astounding and difficult to understand.

  11. Larry Keeney Avatar
    Larry Keeney

    The difference between foresters and ecologists doesn’t stop at the trees. Game department wildlife managers are correctly named in that they ‘manage’ wildlife for maximum profit. Everything is done to enhance species for hunting to the detriment of the soil in cases. And also to the detriment of a natural population of carnivores that are nature’s environmental police keeping herds and soil healthy in so many ways. Managers are not ecologists either.


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George Wuerthner