Agroforestry continues to gain recognition and adoption around the globe. It is a viable production system that can blend economic, social and environmental benefits. But the interest and uptake on publicly-owned lands has been underwhelming to say the least. I believe this stems in large part from the general lack of integrated timber/non-timber tenure opportunities. And it is also partly a victim of the evolution of multiple-use for resource management over the past half century. The prevailing land use philosophy has been one of managing conflicts, not integrating activities to create positive outcomes.
In British Columbia, many of the western United States, and other areas where a high proportion of the land base is still held by the government. Competing and sometimes conflicting land uses have been managed by developing compatible management regimes. Compatible management is not a fully integrated production system. Rather, in keeping with the idea that everyone has the right to access public resources, it is a series of prescriptions to allow overlapping resource interests to be managed with the minimum level of conflict. Or at a minimum, steps are taken to mitigate the negative effects of one resource user on another.
This is a fundamentally different approach from agroforestry management. In agroforestry, integrated timber with non-timber systems are designed, implemented and managed to create production synergies. Agroforestry can reap the benefits of integration, be it through enhanced production, economic returns or other postive outcomes.
Costs and Benefits
Although superficially integrated, multiple use (also sometimes referred to as integrated resource management, or coordinated resource management) also does not capture the full potential of agroforestry systems. This is because most often the costs and benefits of production fall onto different balance sheets.
Consider for example, the widespread practice throughout western North America of forest grazing by livestock. Overlapping forage and timber tenures are a common occurrence. Historically they’ve also been a common source for some very vitriolic management conflicts. Because, unless those tenures happen to be held by the same interest, there are some strong disincentives for each party to adjust their management beyond their regulatory obligations.
Compatible management, based on decades of research and management experience, does allow for the rancher and the logger to peacefully coexist. But it rarely allows for true silvopasture, and the benefits from full integration, to flourish. Livestock grazing can reduce competing vegetation from around young trees. But the livestock manager has no direct incentive to adjust the timing, intensity or duration of the grazing to achieve maximum benefits. Because they simply don’t directly benefit by enhancing the survival and growth of trees permitted to someone else’s tenure. And likewise, forest managers have no incentive to adjust tree stocking or spatial arrangements to enhance forage production. These changes may bring about greater total production (and revenues) of timber and forage per unit area. But their only returns are generated on the future timber revenues, not annual livestock grazing.
Lack of Forest Farming on Public Lands
Similar situations exist and can be used to explain the lack of forest farming systems. Fully integrated agroforestry management can create ‘virtuous circles’. These happen when the silviculture undertaken generates benefits for the non-timber resources (NTFR – berries, mushrooms, etc.). And the management of the NTFRs is of direct benefit to the quantity and/or quality of the timber resource. But when the costs are borne by only one party through additional planning or management inputs. And these do not line up with direct benefits to that same party, they will most certainly gravitate towards implementing the minimal amount of integration activity necessary to allow continued access to their public land tenure.
Agroforestry Tenures Are Required
Compatible management is clearly superior to the conflict and resource management chaos of a more laissez faire management. And I’m not suggesting that agroforestry will supplant conventional timber and non-timber interests any time soon. But, if agroforestry is ever to really become firmly established as an option where the public owns and dictates land use standards, then new integrated agroforestry tenures need to be created. Then the costs and benefits will fall on the same balance sheet, and management can be dictated by a clearer system of risks and rewards.