Tuesday, February 19, 2002

Alternative Economies in a Forested Landscape: Non-Timber Forest Products.

Karis McFarlane and Emera Bridger

On Tuesday February 19, 2002, Dr. Marla Emery, a research geographer for the USDA Forest Service Northeastern Research Station, spoke on “Alternative Economies in a Forested Landscape: Non-Timber Forest Products.”  Dr. Emery was thoroughly excited to share her work with students and faculty at ESF.   Her belief in the importance of her work was immediately evident.
For the purposes of her studies, Dr. Emery defined non-timber forest products as any plant or fungal product other than wooden boards or paper.  Her scope did not include wildlife or timber harvested on any scale for any use.  She described four categories of use for NTFPs including: sale in raw form, sale in processed form, personal consumption, and gift giving.  She went on to describe the role of NTFPs in human-forest interactions including the economic and the ecological.
Dr. Emery explained that the majority of NTFPs harvested are not used for market-based sale.  In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example, NTFPs are only used for sale 40% of the time.  This means that traditional Neoclassical economics acknowledges the contribution of NTFPs to harvesters livelihoods less than half of the time.  Alternative economic uses of NTFPs include personal consumption of edibles and medicinals by a harvester’s household, ceremonials, and decoratives not sold for a profit. The use of NTFPs is especially important on the household economy level.  They supplement other earnings, bridge income gaps, and provide a flexible commodity for times of special need.  NTFP harvesting allows people to maintain their livelihood in areas where traditional employment opportunities are scarce.  Individuals’ needs change over their lifespan as do their dependence and use of NTFPs.  Non-timber forest products also support local microenterprises such as a monastery-based jam and jelly business that Dr. Emery provided as an example.
NTFPs also provide people with a detailed and localized knowledge about the forest and it’s plant and fungal species.  They contribute to community and household values.  Provide for the intergenerational relationships and knowledge transfer.  They also allow households an alternative to government assistance and help people to stay in areas where employment opportunities are few.
The common assumption in popular ecology is that productive human activity degrades ecosystems.  Dr. Emery argued that different types of human activity effect the environment in different ways and at different levels.  Most harvesters of NTFPs are aligned with conservation efforts.  They are very concerned with management practices, as these practices have an immediate impact on non-timber species and their ability to harvest them.  NTFPs provide alternative economic development opportunities as well as alternative human-environment interactions.
During the questions that followed Dr. Emery’s talk, she expressed concern over the increasing commercialization of the floral and herbal medicinal industries.  Another source of concern is the trend of the closing of the commons.   As land continues to be transferred into private hands and regulations over the use of public land increase, NTFP harvesters may find it more difficult to harvest and use NTFPs as they have used them in the past.  This could have large impacts on the ability of NTFP harvesters to support themselves, eliminate this aspect of the human-nature relationship, and lead to the loss of vast amounts of local knowledge.