18 June 2012 Science Briefs

SNAMP Publication #11: Perceptions of forest health among stakeholders in an adaptive management project in the Sierra Nevada of California

Article Title: Perceptions of forest health among stakeholders in an adaptive management project in the Sierra Nevada of California

Authors: Adriana Sulak and Lynn Huntsinger

Research Highlights:

  • Interviews of SNAMP participants and non-participants showed 4 different but overlapping definitions of forest health:

    • Definitions focused around diversity, natural process, historical references, and human management.

  • These definitions were not clearly linked to divergent opinions of what participants consider appropriate forest management tools.

  • Definitions were not mutually exclusive or rigid, revealing opportunities for reconciliation and social learning.

  • Those most active in the program showed signs of shared norms, understandings, and expectations, indicating the possible development of a “hybrid culture” among project participants.


Forest health is a term used broadly in forest management throughout the United States. There is, however, little consensus on a specific meaning or on criteria that define what a healthy forest is. This is important for adaptive management because at the conclusion of a project, participants will assess its success or failure based on their understanding of the goals for the project. If a goal is forest health, disparate understandings of the term could lead to very different assessments of the results.

Forty-two qualitative in-depth structured interviews of participants and non-participants in the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) were conducted. SNAMP involves the public in a 7 year study of the effects of forest fuels treatments on wildfire, forest health, water quality, wildlife and people. Purposeful selection from the population of individuals believed to have an interest in Sierran forests was used. Interviewees were: researchers, Forest Service employees, agency representatives, other frequent participants, other infrequent participants (2 or fewer attendances at meetings), non-participants who were connected to the SNAMP forest sites or activities in some way, and Native American representatives, with four to ten individuals interviewed from each category. Care was taken to assure that environmental organization representatives, forest industry representatives, ranchers, unaffiliated individuals, local government representatives, news reporters, fire safe council members, and recreation group representatives were all included in interviews. Interviews were conducted between June 2008 and October 2010.

All but one interview was conducted by phone and interviews generally lasted up to two hours. With regard to forest health we asked: “Have you heard people use the term forest health? What comes to mind when you think of the term forest health? Do you have a particular way that you think of forest health? What would you look for to determine if a forest was healthy?” Though participants typically made comments that fit more than one theme they were categorized by their major emphasis when responding to questions about forest health.


Four distinguishing themes in definitions of forest health emerged: 14 respondents related forest health most strongly to diversity or biodiversity. A different 9 interviewees tended to emphasize that functioning natural processes or resilience are indicative of forest health. A separate 11 participants focused on historical conditions, often mentally comparing pictures of pre-suppression forests with those of today. The remaining 8 respondents were more focused on active management as a requirement of a healthy forest. We termed these the “diversity”, “process”, “historical”, and “management” themes respectively (see the end of this document for quotes exemplifying each theme). In addition to these four major viewpoints or themes, 9 interviewees mentioned that the term forest health was politically motivated and had negative connotations for them, and, as some added, the term really meant “cutting down trees”.

All but six interviewees mentioned that the state of the forests of the Sierra were generally poor, and that they were overstocked with too many smaller trees and/or brush, and many respondents attributed this to the Forest Service’s policy of fire suppression. Most participants felt that what they considered natural or controlled and prescribed fires could be beneficial to the forests. However, almost all felt that catastrophic fire was a serious threat to the forests. Five interviewees who did not feel that fire in the Sierra was a danger all felt that fire was a natural part of the ecosystem and would be good for the ecosystem in the long run. A few interviewees specifically felt that high severity fire was good for the forests.

There was agreement across the board that some level of active management is necessary to improve Sierran forest health. The most common active management strategy mentioned by interviewees was to decrease tree density, usually by thinning, while the second most popular was controlled or prescribed burning.


  1. Our results show more possibility for convergence than other researchers have reported in similar studies in Southwest Virginia and Idaho: we found considerable overlap among the interviewees and none advocated the complete hands-off approach.

  2. The respondents who talked of a distrust of the term forest health were represented within each theme category, whereas in other research they were connected more with hands-off views of forest health. Half of those who hold this opinion do not actively participate in the adaptive management program, and this may be one reason why they choose to abstain. While improving forest health is an attractive concept for many, proponents should be aware that it is a turn off for some and that to reach this group, they need another term.

  3. While scientists and managers uniformly felt that intense fires were not a good thing, there is a stakeholder group that believes otherwise. This group also has little motivation to participate in a program aimed at reducing such fires.

  4. Those who have been most active in this adaptive management project tend to link healthy forests to functioning ecosystem processes which might be explained as the beginning of development of a hybrid culture: shared meanings, norms for operations, and expectations about the process of working together.

  5. Those who are process-oriented in their definition of forest health also use difficult to measure concepts such as resilience and biodiversity as criterion for success, and are less likely to use specific outcomes for trees or forest structure and fire hazard as measures of the success of the project. This means that the basis of their assessments of success or failure is less quantifiable and specific This flexibility could leave more room for compromise.

Full Reference:

Sulak, A. and L. Huntsinger. In Press. Perceptions of forest health among stakeholders in an adaptive management project in the Sierra Nevada of California. Journal of Forestry.

For more information about the SNAMP project and the research portion of the Public Participation team, please contact: Adriana Sulak at sulak@berkeley.edu.

Quotes exemplifying each forest health theme:

Diversity - “[To me, forest health is] biodiversity, maybe not too heavy a dying rate… Healthy forest equals a mature climax forest. [I would look for…] again, number of dead trees, large trees, bird pops, thickness of the duff for good water retention and little run off, lots of diversity all the way down to microscopic and then up to larger animals, the opposite being a forest clear-cut.” (Interview #7, environmental NGO active participant)

Process - “[To me forest health is] resilience in the face of change. Diversity in terms of stand structure, landscape make up, species composition. Disturbance processes – are they active? Can I see that they are functioning? Successional processes - are they operating? They are really important.” (Interview #24, industry active participant)

Historical - “I think of a healthy stand of a variety of species of trees that are appropriately spaced, what I mean by that is, when I go back and look at historical photos of Mark Twain or Teddy Roosevelt traveling the Sierra you see a landscape with fewer larger trees and a grassland mountain meadow vegetation type.” (Interview #19, agency representative)

Management - “Forest health is better management” (Interview #25, local government attended zero SNAMP meetings) and “…It is managed, not preserved, especially managed and not preserved.” (Interview #41, fire safe council volunteer and rancher active participant)

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