Toward a Social-Ecological Theory of Forest Macrosystems for Improved Ecosystem Management

Kleindl, W.J.; Stoy, P.C.; Binford, M.W.; Desai, A.R.; Dietze, M.C.; Schultz, C.A.; Starr, G.; Staudhammer, C.L.; Wood, D.J.A. (2018). Forests 


Forests are changing around the world. Increasingly, communities are aware of the impacts of those changes on the ecosystem services that support local economics, recreation, and clean air and water. Suites of local and regional management schemes are often applied to address these changes (for example, changes in rules about logging and the day-to-day management of wilderness area). Local authorities and regional and national governments throughout the globe are trying to manage these changes in the world’s forests. Understanding the consequences for our integrated social and ecological systems requires the use of ecological theory and economics, as well as a clear understanding of resource management issues.

As communities, we have become increasingly aware of the ways in which the dual effects of land management and climate variability lead to overall global change. As our awareness has increased, so have concerns about environmental management at multiple levels. For example, we have developed expertise in planning and managing forests at the local and regional levels, but we do not know how these planning and management approaches translate to larger-scale national, continental, and global systems. Scientists, economists, policy makers, and (on a broad basis) many local communities all recognize that people play a central role in the dynamics of social-ecological systems in which they live. The reason is that the world’s diverse ecological systems are interconnected with the world’s equally diverse social systems.

Habitat conservation and carbon sequestration are two examples of macroscale forest management initiatives, both driven by market incentives. These initiatives focus on improving a forest’s functions, habitat integrity, and carbon sequestration at largescale geographic levels (throughout a country or even a multi-country area such as the European Union). However, while these initiatives often affect the same forests, they do not necessarily share the same goals. For example, fast-growing cottonwood plantations are very good for carbon sequestration, but not for habitat. On the other hand, a mixed patch of fire and mature forest is good for habitat but not necessarily for carbon sequestration. Thus, many of the components of these forest management initiatives may be in harmony or at odds with one another. For effective management, it is critical that we understand the landscape as a system and the ways these macrosystem attributes interact.

We should be asking at least three questions to help us understand social-ecological macrosystems:

  • What aspects of ecosystems operate at the macroscale and how do we observe them?
  • How do systems at one scale respond if altered at another (e.g. if a system is altered at the continental level, how is it impacted at the regional or local level)?
  • How can we incorporate our understanding of these components and their interactions into policy and management across scales?

If we are to successfully manage forests in a world of shifting climate and cumulative land-use decisions, it is imperative that we integrate our understanding of ecosystems, markets, policy, and resource management in the context of the social-ecological systems that actually exist.