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Copyright © 2001 by The Resilience Alliance

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Henderson, B. 2001. Path dependence, escaping sustained yield. Conservation Ecology 5(1): r3. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol5/iss1/resp3/

A version of this article in which text, figures, tables, and appendices are separate files may be found by following this link.

Response to C. S. Holling 2000. "Theories for Sustainable Futures"

Path Dependence, Escaping Sustained Yield

Bill Henderson

Sunshine Coast Forest Watch

Published: June 29, 2001

Salmon have been spawning on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, since long before there was a Columbia or a Fraser River and long before there was a Vancouver Island or a Bristol Bay. People have been co-evolving with salmon in a salmon culture in the Pacific Northeast since at least the end of the last ice age, 12,000 or so years ago. In contrast, the maximum sustained yield (MSY) fisheries framework began only in the 20th century. Nevertheless, our continued co-evolution with salmon and other resources in the Pacific Northeast and elsewhere depends on how we address the legacy of these last 50 years of resource management.

That legacy is evident not only in fisheries but also in forestry in British Columbia. Timber Supply Areas and Tree Farm Licenses (sustained yield management units) and annual allowable cuts (the sustained-yield prescriptive harvesting schedule) persist 20 years after the provincial government declared a shift in management from maximum sustained yield to integrated resource management. Management continues to redesign forests for the flow of commodities.

Dr. Brian Horejsi (1999) eloquently describes how dispersed clear-cutting and road building are extirpating the Granby grizzly bear population in southern British Columbia. The map of planned clearcuts for the area surrounding Granby Park (Fig. 1) could be from any of the province's 39 Forest Districts, from almost any "working forest" in Canada, or from many of the managed temperate forests across the world. Despite sufficient scientific understanding to conserve this population, there is no room in this timber target forestry for grizzlies or for experimentation.

Fig. 1. Planned clearcuts for the area surrounding Granby Park, British Columbia, Canada.

GIF Image (87 K)

These institutional legacies highlight the degree to which "path dependence" precludes effective management of natural resources no matter what name you give it: Integrated Resource Management, Multiple Use, or even Adaptive Ecosystem Management. Before we can address the adaptive management approach to sustainability advocated by Holling (2000), we should take a moment to consider path dependence and our inability to escape from existing unsustainable resource management frameworks and methodologies.

Path dependence results because the bureaucracy and policies set up to support the now-discredited sustained-yield approach have not changed (or not changed enough), and because the power relationships between the companies that benefit from sustained yield and the government have not been addressed. Path dependence is, in fact, a failure to examine the economic and institutional framework within which the resource management regime is set.

Path dependence came about, in part, because we tend to consider the management of natural resources from a perspective that is too narrow. Forests and salmon are ecological resources. Therefore, we have focused (or been directed or funded to focus) on the science of ecosystem management. However, handling uncertainty and complexity in temperature and climate cycles in the North Pacific, while important, is not as important in achieving salmon sustainability as escaping continuing MSY resource management. Not only do we need to improve the science, but we must also adjust tenure systems, consider community development, and weigh the costs and benefits among stakeholders both present and future. Furthermore, we need to do all this in an integrated fashion so that the new institutional structures and policies we design can cope with the uncertainty and unpredictability inherent in the system being managed. The works of Behan (1990, 1997), Cortner and Moote (1994, 1999), Wilson (1999), Lertzman et al. (1996), and Rivlin (1993) offer a more politically pragmatic social science that must be integrated with ecology and economics if we are serious about trying to achieve sustainability.

Acknowledging and addressing the path dependence inherent in sustained-yield methodologies so that we can begin to practice adaptive management should be one of the priorities of conservation ecology and the new Resilience Alliance.


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Behan, R. W. 1990. Multiresource forest management: a paradigmatic challenge to professional forestry. Journal of Forestry (April): 12-18.

Behan, R. W. 1997. Scarcity, simplicity, separatism, science—and systems. Pages 411-417 in K. A. Kohm and J. F. Franklin, editors. Creating a forestry for the 21st century. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Cortner, H. J., and M. A. Moote. 1994. Trends and issues in land and water resources management: setting the agenda for change. Environmental Management 18(2): 167-173.

Cortner, H. J., and M. A. Moote. 1999. The politics of ecosystem management. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Holling, C. S. 2000. Theories for sustainable futures. Conservation Ecology 4(2): 7. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/Journal/vol4/iss2/art7.

Horejsi, B. L. 1999. The endangered Granby-Gladstone grizzly bear population: a conservation biology analysis for recovery. Western Wildlife Environments Consulting, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Lertzman, K., J. Rayner, and J. Wilson. 1996. Learning and change in the British Columbia forest policy sector. Canadian Journal of Political Science 29(1): 111-133.

Rivlin, A. 1993. Values, institutions and sustainable forestry. Pages 255-259 in G. H. Aplet, N. Johnson, J. T. Olson, and V. A. Sample, editors. Defining sustainable forestry. Island Press, Washington, D.C., USA.

Wilson, J. 1999. Talk and log: wilderness politics in British Columbia. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Address of Correspondent:
Bill Henderson
300 Headlands Road
Gibsons, British Columbia, Canada VON IV8
Phone: (604) 886-8036

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