12 Feb 2010, 1:22am
Forestry education
by admin

Another Crack Showing in the Old Paradigm

We have frequently described the New Paradigm in forest science and ecology as the recognition of historical human influences.

Ecology is an historical science, in that it attempts to describe how vegetation and animal populations change over time. The Old Paradigm, which we have called Clementsian [here], holds that ecological dynamics have always been “natural”, at least up until recently, because Modern Man has only recently messed with Mother Nature. Or so the Clementsians say.

In the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: History of Western Landscapes [here], we have presented scientific papers and reviews of books written by the leading proponents of the New Paradigm. They hold that human beings have been modifying vegetation and animal populations for many thousands of years.

For example, the Old Paradigm considers the Amazon Basin to be a wilderness untouched by Man. But intrepid New Paradigm researchers have found mounds, canals, and human-modified soils called terra preta that are evidence of vast Amazonian populations in pre-Columbian times [here, here, here, for instance].

Similarly, the Old Paradigm maintains that the Pacific Northwest was also an untouched wilderness prior to Euro-American settlement. It’s ridiculously a-historical and a-scientific of course, but that’s the myth that has dominated PNW forest science for 80 years. To counter that myth, we have posted numerous papers and book reviews that express New Paradigm findings in the PNW [here, here, here, for instance].

In particular, historical anthropogenic fire gave rise to open, park-like forests, savannas, and prairies [here, here, here, here]. Frequent, seasonal, deliberate, expert, traditional Indian burning created conditions whereby trees could live to old ages, i.e. the old-growth trees extant today [here, here, here, here, for instance].

Sometime we feel like we have beat this drum to the point of boring readers excessively, but truthfully the New Paradigm has not yet supplanted the old one. There have been some notable cracks in the old facade, however [here, here, here, for instance].

Last month another crack appeared, as some Old Paradigmers gingerly dipped their toes in the new waters. A paper was published wherein the old guard finally admitted there might be something to this historical anthropogenic fire after all.

The paper is: Duncan, Sally L., Brenda C. McComb, and K. Norman Johnson. 2010. Integrating Ecological and Social Ranges of Variability in Conservation of Biodiversity: Past, Present, and Future. Ecology and Society 15(1): 5. It may be downloaded in its entirety [here].

Some excerpts:

The “historical range of variability” (HRV) has been proposed as a concept that can be used by forest land managers to guide the conservation of ecosystem functions and biodiversity (Morgan et al. 1994, Landres et al. 1999, Swetnam et al. 1999). HRV is defined as the estimated range of some ecological condition that occurred in the past. …

The role of humans in the HRV is somewhat murky and unsettled. In the past, the concept was often called the “natural range of variability,” raising questions as to whether humans were part of nature in the past, which led to further questions about when they fell from grace. This question is revealed in cases such as the foothills of the Willamette Valley, Oregon, in which humans may have been the dominant disturbance force in the distant past. The term “historical range of variability” makes the issue of the role of humans somewhat less apparent, but it still remains. …

Although the ability of humans to influence landscapes varies with time and place, we tend to think that we have much more influence today than people had in the past. The human imprint on the earth has a very long, only partially known, history. …

In oak savanna in the past, wildfire from lightning, wind, and Native American (Kalapuya) burning are the disturbances most often identified as shaping the ecological range of variability. Some argue that frequent low-intensity burning by Native Americans was the dominant force in shaping the structure and composition of this ecosystem (Zybach 2004). We can only speculate about the role of social negotiation in modifying the ecological range of variability. Given the communal nature of much Native American land and the importance of this ecosystem to their sustenance, we would expect that they tried as a group to influence and control the ecological states that were expressed. …

The role of burning by Native Americans is a subject of debate, but the general consensus is that humans individually and collectively had only a marginal impact on the creation of this condition. …


Zybach, B. 2004. The great fires: Indian burning and catastrophic forest fire patterns of the Oregon Coast Range, 1491–1951. Dissertation. Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon, USA.

Yes, I know. The pseudo-eco-babble in this paper is extreme, and it is nothing like the capitulation we have all been waiting for. However, there are two notable take home points.

First, one of the authors is Norm Johnson, the OSU forest economist in part responsible for the Northwest Forest Plan. Norm is definitely Old Paradigm and up until now has been deaf to the New Paradigm music.

Second, New Paradigmer Bob Zybach is cited! Bob has been teaching and preaching about historical human influences in PNW forests for decades (and is a frequent contributor and commenter at W.I.S.E.). For Norm to cite Bob is a big deal (to the cognoscenti, anyway).

Again, this paper does not represent a major paradigm shift. The verbiage is couched and qualified. Self-contradictory even. The main thesis of the paper has little to do with historical human influences on forests.

But it is another crack in the old foundation, so it is worth noting. The “general consensus” against the New Paradigm, as quoted above, is crumbling.

Inch by inch.

12 Feb 2010, 11:34am
by Mike

One key sentence in the paper cited above is:

The role of burning by Native Americans is a subject of debate, but the general consensus is that humans individually and collectively had only a marginal impact on the creation of this condition. …

What consensus???? You can’t simply declare a consensus. There has to be some proof, like a poll taken. Furthermore, “consensus” means “agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole”, and we have presented solid proof at W.I.S.E. that a sizable portion of “the group” contends the opposite of the authors’ contention.

If anything, the consensus is exactly the opposite, and it’s the authors of the above paper who are in the tiny minority.



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