Shifting conceptions of complexity in forest management and silviculture

Robert T. Fahey, Brandon C. Alveshere, Julia I. Burton, Anthony W. D'Amato, Yvette L. Dickinson, William S. Keeton, Christel C. Kern, Andrew J. Larson, Brian J. Palik, Klaus J. Puettmann, Michael R. Saunders, Christopher R. Webster, Jeff W. Atkins, Christopher M. Gough, Brady S. Hardiman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


In the past several decades, a trend in forestry and silviculture has been toward promoting complexity in forest ecosystems, but how complexity is conceived and described has shifted over time as new ideas and terminology have been introduced. Historically, ecologically-focused silviculture has focused largely on manipulation of structural complexity, but often with the functional role of features in mind. Recently there has been a shift toward viewing complexity in an “adaptive” or “resilience” context, with a focus on understanding forests as complex adaptive systems. As new concepts and terminology are introduced it will be essential that silviculture researchers understand their dissemination into silviculture research, experimental design, and treatment implementation. With this goal in mind we set out to better understand: (1) how complexity terminology and ideas have shifted over time in silviculture, (2) how different conceptions of complexity have been incorporated into silviculture experiments and treatments, and (3) how various complexity concepts are being reconciled with each other in practice. We conducted a multi-stage review of the silvicultural literature for the time period 1992–2017 that included: (1) a broad keyword analysis, (2) a detailed review of a narrower subset of publications, and (3) a thorough review of a set of silvicultural experiments that included a focus on complexity in their design. We also developed a set of case studies that illustrate shifts in complexity conceptions in silvicultural experiment design and analysis. Our analysis indicates considerable lags in incorporation of complexity-focused terminology and ideas into silvicultural research and experimental treatment design. Very few silviculture-focused studies have incorporated adaptive complexity concepts explicitly into design or analysis, even though these concepts were introduced nearly a decade ago and are widely discussed in the literature. However, in our case studies we document how silviculture experiments and research programs that were not designed explicitly around complexity concepts have begun to incorporate these ideas into analysis of treatment outcomes. Silviculture researchers should focus on reconciling conceptions of complexity through analysis of existing experiments and with modeling studies, as well as attempting to better understand mechanistic relationships among structural, functional, and adaptive conceptions of complexity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)59-71
Number of pages13
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018


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