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Seeing the forest and the trees

It's handy to have a forester on the faculty.


fischerThat’s what SPEA discovered when it decided to honor Environmental Protection Agency icon Bill Ruckelshaus through the creation of a “carbon grove.” This stand of trees would be designed to counterbalance the amount of carbon produced by the School’s major symposium last spring, a celebration of 35 years of the EPA; the trees would, in effect, make the symposium a “carbon neutral” event and serve as a lasting and fitting tribut to the first and fifth administation of the EPA.

Good thing SPEA had recently hired clinical professor Burnell Fischer, a practicing forester and the first of his kind on the faculty.

Fischer designed the tree planting, enlisted students from his silviculture class to lay out the grove at the IU Research and Teaching Preserve in Bloomington, got the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to donate the trees (four species, 700 seedlings in all), drove to the DNR nursery in Vallonia to pick up the seedlings, and helped organize and train the volunteers who, shovels in hand, planted all 700 trees just in time for the April 19th symposium.

In the end, Bill Ruckelshaus got a carbon grove and SPEA got its money’s worth out of Burney Fischer. Energetic and extroverted, Fischer believes he’s a good fit for SPEA’s faculty. “That’s because I can deal with the natural environment or the built environment,” he says “I cover urban forestry, forest management, and public administration. SPEA has been talking about forests for a long time, but there’s never been a practicing forester. I’m enriching the School’s forestry perspective with a more applied side.”

Fischer applies that perspective locally and globally. He is currently helping the city of Bloomington create an inventory of all its street trees. The data collected will serve two purposes: aiding in the day-to-day management of the trees, and fueling a new Forest Service model on urban forest effects. “The model, a suite of computer programs called ‘i-Tree’, will help us better determine the value of the trees to the city and campus,” Fischer explains. “How much the trees are worth in terms of the oxygen they produce, the pollutants they absorb. It’s an extremely scientific model and it’s on the leading edge of forestry research.”

His other major project has implications far beyond the Bloomington city limits: the certification of sustainable forests, a concept that continues to evolve after it was first introduced roughly 15 years ago. This is the forestry equivalent of certified organic; a forest must fulfill a range of carefully monitored criteria to be certified as sustainable, which earns it an official blessing from a recognized third-party certifying organization.

“Sustainable forestry means that the forest is being managed for tomorrow,” explains Fischer, “so that tomorrow’s forest is equal to or better than the same forest today, in terms of species diversity and soil protection, and that the forest is sustainable ecologically, economically, and socially.”

It’s an issue that affects private forests as well as public ones. “Companies that hope to be socially responsible will want to demonstrate that their forests are sustainable,” says Fischer, who is working with sustainable forestry projects in South America. “Once companies get their forests certified, they can sell their products with the stamp of approval.” Fischer predicts that within ten years, certified secondary manufactured products such as furniture—not merely certified lumber—will be promoted as the environmentally friendly choice.

Sounds simple enough. But there is nothing simple about measuring and monitoring a forest’s sustainability, in itself a politically charged issue. “You have lots of groups with very different perceptions of how a forest ought to be used. How do you provide for a broad mix of users in a limited space? In public forests, for instance, you have people who want to ride horses, people who want to camp, those who want to hunt, and some who want to harvest timber—all in the same area. It becomes an interesting competition. And if you’re a private landowner, how do you make sure that whatever is done on your land doesn’t negatively affect the adjacent land owner? It’s interesting that in many countries ‘sustainable forests’ is defined as those that provide a broad array of services that are mutually supportive of one another, while in the United States these same services are battled over and considered mutually exclusive by most stakeholder groups.”

In the United States, Pennsylvania’s state forest system has become a model for the rest of the country; it has been certified and recertified and is known for a rich inventory system that encompasses not only trees, but all wildlife. Outside the U.S., Scandinavian countries are the standard-bearers. Among emerging countries, Bolivia—which, with over two million hectares and growing, has more certified tropical forests than anywhere else in the world—has made certification a national priority.

Closer to home, Fischer is concerned about Hoosier forests. “Indiana is currently 20 percent forested,” he explains. “Most people would describe that 20 percent as the only natural landscape in Indiana; all the rest is heavily influenced by humans. In my mind, that 20 percent is what’s holding the world together, providing places for recreation, a carbon source to offset carbon sequestration, a wood resource for forest products industries, and the best soil protection we have for clean water in Indiana. It’s all there on that 20 percent.”

“It would be nice if we could increase our percentage of forested land in Indiana,” says Fischer. “Optimally, you’d like to see it grow to 25 percent or 30 percent. But the real priority is making sure that 20 percent doesn’t get any smaller, and that takes commitment from our leaders. They need to recognize that forests are truly important for all the goods and services they provide to people here and all over the world.”

Burney Fischer’s teaching, service, and research focus on the practice of forestry, particularly the Central Hardwoods. His 15 years of experience as state forester and director of the Indiana Division of Forestry provides a basis for both biological and policy analysis of forestry practices. He served as president of the National Association of State Foresters (2003-04) and worked with Congress, federal agencies, and NGOs on national forestry issues. He teaches silviculture, urban forestry, and sustainable forestry at SPEA and provides expertise in forest resources policy at the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, where he is an affiliate faculty member. He is an adjunct professor at Purdue University’s Department of Forestry and Natural Resources.