Multiple Use

Harry Drabik

I first learned about the useful management plan known as Multiple Use when I was in college. At the time there was contention over application of Multiple Use to include wilderness areas, in particular the Boundary Waters. The political battle over the Boundary Waters was bitter and intense enough to impact Minnesota politics in all parties and continue on to exert an influence well after the main dust had supposedly settled in the final compromise of the 70’s. Before that took place divisions were stark and at times antagonistic to the verge of hostility. Federal policy makers were too far away for protesters to reach. Federal presence in the form of the Forest Service (USFS) became a convenient target for protest. The mood was grim and hot. USFS offices were barricaded by local protesters. In Ely the “wilderness” author Sig Olson (not a firebrand to my knowledge) was hung in effigy. Things got nasty as opposing sides dug in. But unpleasant as things could get, open and heated contention is a better route than forbidding fiery expression. Forbidding hot (not violent) expression has the effect of bottling feelings with the risk of that repression eventually growing to violent expression. This is a problem polite civil society has is reluctant to face (as it unveils a weak area in an ideal) and is often powerless to counter when pressure finally overwhelms restraint.

Some of that conflict lingers into the present in the form of occasional flare ups over elements of wilderness regulation. Having been caught (to a minor degree) in so of that contention I reflect at the simplicity of the basic disagreement. Both sides of the Boundary Waters clash believed in the same underlying principle of Multiple Use. Yes, I do think both sides were guided by the same ideal. The problem was interpretation. The concept of Multiple Use is a great idea. An individual home can be seen as an area of Multiple Use serving a variety of harmonious purposes or uses. The concept works beautifully until one of the uses is stretched. Start keeping a few goats in a spare bedroom and see how long that space in the scheme of Multiple Use remains a bedroom. If a diesel engine is dismantled in a living room that area becomes a form of garage. Not all uses are equal or compatible. As a simple rule, the most consumptive or disruptive use will dominate a specific area. In planning for Multiple Uses of public land I think you’d find it useless to combine logging with a picnic area. People on an outing wouldn’t find attractive peace, quiet and scenery in a logging yard and loggers would find a picnic site and outhouse inconvenient to work around. 

The guiding principle of Multiple Use doesn’t mean allowing all uses at the same time and in the same location. The design is overall rather than absolute. Forest harvest is one of the allowed and desired uses, but this use stops short of the edge of a stream or lake. Shoreline is understandably preserved in order to protect water quality. Some concepts and practices connected to following Multiple Use as a guide are easy enough to figure out, but some distinctions are quite stark. A clear cut forest will not quickly become attractive to wildlife or suited to recreation. It takes time. And even when forest harvest, wildlife, and recreation are balanced out there may be uses that get little attention in the overall plan. I call this the birdwatcher effect. Organized groups such as birdwatchers and hunters are able to have their needs addressed, but that does not mean a less popular or vocal groups gets considered at all. Does Multiple Use manage with a view toward serving those who use the public forests to seek out Morels, Chanterelles, or Honey Mushrooms? There’s no Audubon Society for fungi, meaning that some essential (fungi are an important part of a forest system) areas get less formal consideration than others. It’s fortunate that in following an overall Multiple Use strategy less popular concerns are included by default.

One of the interesting Multiple Use questions is that of answering the “highest use” issue. This is usually a matter of numbers and economic judgment, but frankly figuring out highest or best use isn’t so simple. We want the best and most economical result from management of public land, but how do we get it? The resources in dollars and managers available will always be limited, so how best to use them? That requires looking at the nature of what you’re managing. Any farmer can tell you what a forester also knows. Not all plots of land are equal in productivity. Back when I lobbied for the cause of wilderness use I thought it a fair argument to defend wilderness as a sole use based on the soil types and terrain of Canoe Country. Why put effort into forestry of a poor production area when attention would be better spent on land better suited to producing a result? Why put 30% of your effort into an area that will only give a 5% result? While I find that a defensible argument I balk at the idea of narrowing things down to economic results. As with any preserved area, saving an area of wilderness has (at least for me) a value that I’d put above a figure on a spread sheet. In the real world, however, we often have to calculate things in that way despite the difficulties and possible flaws. How do we calculate the value of one large forest harvest every thirty years versus thirty smaller yearly results from tourism?

The questions posed are of interest in other applications where a narrow or single minded approach might prove ruinous if it shuts off debate and challenge to its premises. You or I may feel wholly confident of our positions, but that does not mean other or opposing views (no matter how wrong they might seem) are in fact empty and without value or ability to contribute to a better understanding. Sadly, claiming fairness and impartiality is easier said than practiced.