Learning to See the Forest for the Trees: Using a Health Index to Communicate Change

The Forest Health Index helps people understand what constitutes a healthy forest.

Smuggler Mountain in the fall. Image Credit: AGCI

Public perception of what constitutes a “healthy” forest influences support (or lack thereof) for management policies, yet accessible, regional information about forest conditions is not always readily available. A new index helps address this gap.

“Not being able to see the forest for the trees” is a timeworn saying, but when considering forest ecology, the old phrase takes on a new meaning. Jamie Cundiff, forest program director at Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES) in Aspen, Colorado, describes her encounter with this situation a few years ago.

Jamie Cundiff. Image Credit: ACES

“I took a reporter… from New York City out to Independence Pass. He wanted to see what all the beetle kill talk was about. It was a great teachable moment … he said ‘the forest looks like it’s doing pretty well,’… but underlying changes were happening.”

The forest did look green, but Cundiff knew that productive plants are only a single indicator of forest function. Other, invisible factors can also play critical roles in ecosystem survival and human livelihood.

“Beetles and fire are two things that are very in-your-face and easy to see, but some impacts—changes in runoff, dust on snow—are harder to see but still having an impact, not only here but across the West.”

Difference in perception of what constitutes a a healthy forest may seem innocuous, but a simplified understanding of how forest ecosystems function can translate into confusion about the need for management or monitoring.

Aspens and mixed conifers. Image Credit: AGCI

Inspired by the Ocean Health Index, ACES decided to help bridge this gap by creating a quantitative score that would characterize forest change over time—a Forest Health Index (FHI). ACES worked with another nonprofit, the Aspen Global Change Institute, to engage stakeholders from the local community, U.S. Forest Service, and a scientific advisory board to design a framework for an index that would help communicate the idea that “the issues facing our forests are incredibly complex.”

Now in its second year, the FHI is a website that gives a numeric rating to the forest ecosystems of the Roaring Fork Valley in Colorado.  The ratings range from 1-100, with higher scores indicating a more desirable forest state, as determined by comparison of current conditions to either a previous base period or mandated health or safety standards. In the FHI, a healthy forest is defined as “one that is resilient to change and able to provide for local ecology as well as human goals.” Indicators are grouped into four categories: Public Health and Safety, Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Use and Management, and Ecological Integrity.

The index incorporates 15 indicators, drawing from diverse areas such as forest productivity, streamflow, extreme temperatures or elk populations. The diversity of indicators selected is intended to reflect the diverse nature of the components of an ecosystem: plants, animals, climate, and water availability all play a key role in whether an ecosystem functions effectively or not. A suite of 15 indicators does not capture the full scope of those interactions, but it helps offer a context for considering the qualities that make a forest what it is.

“By breaking down the larger system into easily digestible pieces, it helps the public understand the larger picture … and it makes it easier for land managers to gather support from their funding bodies. The “report card” allows them a way to say, ‘This is why we need support. This is why we need to take action,’” says Cundiff.

Although benefits of the index method are evident, there are still complications in designing such a tool. The FHI is not intended to address all issues associated with rating forest health. For example, the qualification of a forest state as desirable or not is a subjective designation. Tourism and recreation are key economic drivers in the Roaring Fork Valley, and the indicators and categories used to reflect health in Aspen may not be appropriate for other forest communities looking to implement a similar methodology.

Although broader, national efforts such as the National Report on Sustainable Forests already exist, the FHI fills a more local niche. It aims to help act as a regional starting point for public understanding—creating a foundation of knowledge that allows local stakeholders to engage with land managers and researchers in discussions that are informed by an ecosystem-level perspective of the forest.

“It’s a little too soon to tell, but an overarching goal is that … it helps create a community that is supportive of thoughtful restoration and management activities,” Cundiff said.

In addition to offering local education, Cundiff also hopes the FHI will act as a model for other forest communities seeking tools for public outreach for management.

Understanding change at a local level is a timely topic, as a warming atmosphere and other human driven activities increasingly lead to changes in forests around the globe. If local communities begin to associate climate changes with their own homes, rather than distant images such as melting ice floes, Cundiff is optimistic that there may be an associated shift toward actions to address climate change.

“Few of us have ever seen a polar bear [in person], but most of us have walked through a forest,” she says. “The Forest Health Index, in a way, brings climate change into their own backyards.”

FHI landing page. Image Credit: ACES

The second iteration of the Forest Health Index is currently available at www.foresthealthindex.org.

Author Bio

Elise Osenga is an Earthzine science writer. She also works as a research associate for the Aspen Global Change Institute in Basalt, Colorado, and has been involved in assisting with the Forest Health Index project.

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