Conserving the South’s Forests in a Rapidly Changing Future

Achievable Future Conditions: A framework for guiding future forest management

Fire management in relation to he Georgia Bay Complex Fires, which burned almost 600,000 acres across federal, state, and private lands under drought conditions in 2007, provides a case study on applying the AFC framework. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Fire management in relation to the 2007 Georgia Bay Complex Fires, which burned almost 600,000 acres across federal, state, and private lands under drought conditions, provides a case study on applying the AFC framework. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ensuring the sustainability of the world’s forest ecosystems in these times of rapid environmental, economic, social, and political change presents considerable challenges. In particular, rapid and unprecedented change portends a future where many of the principles and conditions that we’ve relied on to guide future management may never exist again, rendering traditional approaches to forest conservation and management inadequate.

To help address this dilemma, U.S. Forest Service scientists and collaborators developed a new risk-based framework for contemplating and guiding forest conservation and management in a way that focuses on anticipating and guiding ecological responses to change. At the core of the new approach is mapping out the Achievable Future Conditions (AFCs) in relation to biophysical, socioeconomic, and political scenarios that frame the future.

The new thinking underlying the AFC approach took place at the Ichuaway Conference held in Georgia in 2013. Co-authors of the  recently published article in the journal Forest Ecology and Management include Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) scientists Jim Vose, David Wear, Katie Martin, and Kier Klepzig.  Stephen Golladay from the J.W. Jones Ecological Research Center served as lead author of the article, with additional co-authors from the University of Western Australia and several U.S. universities.

“We have to realize that things are likely to be very different and that management approaches need to adapt. The AFC approach gives managers novel and flexible approaches for sustaining forests in the South under rapidly changing conditions,” said Vose, project leader, with Wear, of the SRS Center for Integrated Forest Science and Synthesis. “We’re trying to establish a management framework that more effectively anticipates and responds to changing biophysical, socioeconomic, and political conditions.”

For example, though a primary goal of ecosystem management is to sustain ecosystem structure and function, in some cases ongoing changes may make it impossible to sustain an existing forest ecosystem. In these cases, maintaining ecosystem services in “novel” ecosystems with species and structures unlike those now existing will present management challenges that span traditional and technical boundaries.

An inherently forward looking and risk-based approach, AFC expands on the principles of ecosystem management, Best Management Practices, adaptive management, and landscape scale management to give managers the ability to use different risk-based scenarios of the future to evaluate management options.

Actually attaining AFCs developed in the process depends on some important shifts in organization and thinking, including:

  • The engagement of science-management-public partnerships;
  • A risk-based approach to assessing current conditions and developing conservation strategies in the face of future uncertainty; and
  • Using Achievable Future Conditions as the foundation for prioritizing conservation and management actions.

The South provides a good template for the AFC framework because of its abundance of forest area and forestry operations, the dominance of diverse private landowners, and the dynamics of land use.

“Our conceptual approach assumes that future socioeconomic and climate conditions will define unprecedented or novel conditions for ecosystems,” said Wear. “To ensure that southern forests will continue to provide essential ecosystem services such as clean water and air, planning will need to anticipate the future and develop forward looking, interdisciplinary, large-scale strategies that include both mitigative and adaptive elements.”

The authors use two case studies from current conditions – fire management and the Georgia Bay Complex wildfires, and water resources in the Flint River Basin of North Carolina – to illustrate how the AFC framework can be applied to address landscape-level situations that cross multiple ownerships and affect essential resources.

Read the full text of the article.

For more information, email Jim Vose at or David Wear at .

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