Lewis on Jones and McLain and Weigand, 'Nontimber Forest Products in the United States'

Eric T. Jones, Rebecca J. McLain, James Weigand, eds.
James G. Lewis

Eric T. Jones, Rebecca J. McLain, James Weigand, eds. Nontimber Forest Products in the United States. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002. xxv + 424 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7006-1166-9; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-1165-2.

Reviewed by James G. Lewis (Visiting Scholar, Forest History Society, Durham, North Carolina) Published on H-Environment (December, 2003)

Exposing Nontimber Forest Products to Daylight

Exposing Nontimber Forest Products to Daylight

In 1992, when the U.S. Forest Service adopted ecosystem management as its guiding policy for managing its lands, the Forest Service deliberately went against its traditional principles of forest resource management that aimed at generating high volumes of lumber and wood fiber. The decision has meant that the Forest Service and the sixteen additional federal agencies that followed suit now must "account for the effect of any management actions on a much broader array of species and harvesting activities than in the past" (p. 349). Instead of environmental impact statements, environmental assessments, and other land planning documents concentrating almost exclusively on timber, nontimber forest products must now be given equal consideration.

Much the same can be said for the study of nontimber forest products (NTFPs) in forest and conservation history as well. NTFPs (which include thousands of plants such as wild mushrooms, cones, boughs, maple syrup, and hundreds of medicinal plants) have been an integral part of forest ecosystems and vital if underrated players in American cultural and economic history. But until recently they have received little attention from historians and social scientists in the United States. The editors note in the preface that scientific research on NTFPs in the United States is fragmented and underfunded, and the number of scholars claiming expertise in NTFP issues is naturally small. Because the focus of the majority of the field's historiography has been on timber and the traditional forest resource management sciences inaugurated during the nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century conservation reforms, the study of NTFPs has long been overshadowed by the study of timber. In forest and conservation historiography, in other words, one could not see the nontimber forest products for the trees.

Nontimber Forest Products began in 1997 as an effort to gather papers for an international NTFP workshop for North America. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the workshop's sponsor, backed out in 1999, and the Canadian and Mexican partners soon thereafter dropped out because they lacked funding. The U.S. team decided to continue and shifted its focus away from a description of state-of-the-art scientific and management knowledge about NTFPs to a harder "analysis of key U.S. policy issues, research directions, and management concerns" (p. xiv). The effort produced not only this book, but also a website, www.ifcae.org/ntfp, that houses data initially gathered for and by the authors, and which has since been expanded and is set up to aid other researchers.

In setting the parameters for the project, the editors chose to use the FAO's definition of NTFPs, which encompasses five broad product categories: foods; floral greenery and horticultural stocks; medicinal plants and fungi; fiber and dye plants, lichens, and fungi; and oils, resins, and other chemical extracts from plants, lichens, and fungi. The definition is broad enough to include everything from forests relatively unmodified by humans to those that exist only because of human intervention. In addition, the authors narrowed the definition and limited the discussion to include botanical species only. Because the focus in several essays is on food and medicinal products, not "historical" or industrial products like naval stores, some forest historians may be disappointed. Again, it should be emphasized that this work was not intended as a historical survey or examination, but rather as an introduction to the state of research on NTFPs.

Though the book includes the work of more than thirty contributors drawn from the fields of economics, ecology, law, history, forestry, anthropology, and other social sciences, the editors can rightfully boast that they have for the most part avoided the kind of wild stylistic variation that can easily mar compilation books. The contributions are grouped into five sections: "Past and Present," "Commerce and Conservation," "Native American Claims," "Policy and Management," and "Customary Claims to Use Rights on Public Lands." The section named "Policy and Management" is a bit misleading, however. That section focuses on NTFP tenure issues at the federal level; the editors decided not to include a discussion of issues at the state level, but note in their introduction the need for further study on that level. Because of space considerations, they also opted not to examine private and non-government organization (NGO) sector resource management policies, international resource management and trade policies, and other issues like labor and human health and safety issues, but urge that comparable efforts dealing with them be undertaken.

Each section begins with one or more essays designed to provide context for the case studies that follow. (The exception is the last section, which consists of just one essay. The author includes some case studies within the essay.) The case studies further explore some of the ideas presented in the essays and point toward areas for further study. For example, "Past and Present" contains two instructive essays: one on the historical uses of NTFPs in the northeastern United States and the other on the relevance of sociocultural variables to nontimber forest product research, policy, and management. They are followed by eight case studies that deal with various regions or locations, including ones on the American Pacific Tropics and the Caribbean Basin. That James Weigand wrote five of the eight studies serves to underscore the dearth of experts on NTFPs in the United States.

Given the paucity of studies and secondary source material on NTFPs in the United States, the inclusion of essays and a case study that discuss conservation and economic models developed outside North America further highlights just how little attention American policymakers and leaders have devoted to the topic. Nan Vance's essay, "Ecological Considerations in Sustainable Use of Wild Plants," scrutinizes ecological sustainability issues in the face of rising consumer demand for herbal medicines and other NTFPs. And, in their essay, "The Paradox of Market-Oriented Conservation: Lessons from the Tropical Forests," Carolyn Crook and Roger Alex Clapp warn that American land managers should be aware of certain perils in managing forests for the commercial exploitation of NTFPs before embracing any overseas model. Thomas Love echoes that assertion in his case study of western Amazonian rubber tappers and Brazil nut harvesters.

Nontimber Forest Products is an important work, and its problems are very minor. For example, while each essay and case study has its own bibliography, considering the need to encourage further scholarship in the field, a bibliographic essay or a list of additional readings that point the reader to other leading works would have been helpful. However, given the very lack of secondary sources, this may be easier to ask for than to carry out. Though common and scientific names of plants are incorporated into the text and are also compiled in two handy appendices, it is not clear why the small amount of information found in the other appendices (such as "Estimating Commercial Quantities of Floral Greens" or "Traditional Forestry Methods to Inventory Tree Characteristics") were not simply incorporated into existing essays. Nonetheless, inclusion in any form is welcome. Minor organizational problems aside, the book fills a substantial void in American forest and conservation history literature. By bringing attention to a neglected topic, it charts the course for future study not only by historians, but by anthropologists, economists, ecologists, forest management and policy specialists, and others as well.

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Citation: James G. Lewis. Review of Jones, Eric T.; McLain, Rebecca J.; Weigand, James, eds., Nontimber Forest Products in the United States. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. December, 2003. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=8544

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