Increasingly in the coming years, the value of the region's forest lands will be measured by more than their worth in dollars and cents; they will be valued for their ecological roles and aesthetic qualities as well.

That, at least, was the message from a recent conference, "An Ecosystem Approach to Forest Management." The session, sponsored by the Governor's Executive Committee on Trees and Forests in Maryland and the Maryland Association of Forest Conservancy District Boards, was to begin a dialogue with landowners as to whether woodlands in the mid-Atlantic should be managed through a new "ecosystem" approach.

Traditionally, forest planning has sought to achieve a sustained yield for a particular woodlot owned by a single person or company. Ecosystem management emphasizes sustainability over a larger, ecologically linked region which may have multiple land ownerships.

"This approach requires us to step back from an individual forest stand or site and look at its role in the entire ecosystem," said Allen Schacht, director of the Northeastern area of the U.S. Forest Service.

The new approach represents changing societal values, conference speakers said. People believe that past forestry practices have emphasized production at the expense of other values, such as biological diversity, water quality - and even protection of the Chesapeake Bay.

How forests are managed - and whether they remain or are converted to other land uses - is important to the Chesapeake. On an per-acre basis, computer models indicate that forests contribute less runoff pollution than any other land use. Forests along streams also provide important habitat for many aquatic species.

"'Ecosystem' is not new, it's been around for a long time," Schacht said. "We are all aware that natural systems are complex. They are difficult to understand and study. An example of that is the Chesapeake Bay."

An ecosystem approach would promote management that takes into account all those complex relationships between organisms - including humans - and their environment. The goal is to maintain a healthy ecosystem that also provides a sustainable level of timber production over time.

But many speakers agreed that exact definitions for the ecosystem approach are vague and difficult to agree upon. Exactly what a healthy forest ecosystem should look like, they pointed out, is highly debatable: Some would say a healthy forest would look like one from 1600 - before European settlement - while others may consider a highly disturbed system as healthy.

"Ecosystem health is a societal value," said Gene Lessard, assistant director for ecosystem management with the U.S. Forest Service. The exact definition will come out of public discussion, he said. "We have to decide where we want to go as a society, and manage our activities so we can get there."

Because ecosystem management is a new approach, speakers emphasized that strategies must be flexible. Management strategies may need to be changed as on-going research changes the understanding of how ecosystems function.

While ecological forest management techniques have become the new emphasis for federally owned national forests across the country, most of the forests in the mid-Atlantic region are privately owned.

As a result, during question-and-answer sessions, many people wanted to know how such lofty goals for broad areas would be translated into decisions affecting harvests on individual woodlots.

Panelists said each situation would be different. "I wouldn't even start talking about that until we were talking about a specific place on the face of the Earth," said Robert Woodmansee, former executive director of the Ecological Society of America's Sustainable Biosphere Initiative.

Keith Argow, president of the National Woodland Owners Association, noted that the concept of ecological management is easier for public lands managers - who may be able to forego economic opportunities to promote other values - than for private landowners.

"I pay property taxes whether or not I'm producing," Argow said. "The point is, regulation for all the right reasons - money for ambulances, schools, national guard armories, etc. - can drive us into a course where the ultimate end is subdivision, subdivision, subdivision."

On a per-acre base, urban and suburban development contributes more runoff to the Bay and its tributaries than any other land use.

But in general, Argow said, the idea of promoting sustainable harvests makes sense for private landowners as well as public land managers. "Ecosystem management is nothing new," he said, "it's just plain old common sense."

He said that private landowners, sometimes out of ignorance, have harvested in ways that hurt future resources. The best solution for that is education, he said, not regulation. And, he called on private landowners to protect their property from regulation through responsible management.

"We earn our private property rights through responsible stewardship every day," Argow said.

Speakers from government agencies did not advocate increased government control to implement such a management shift. "We're against regulation," Schacht said. "We're for cooperation. The protection of the landowner is a priority."

He said ecosystem management objectives may be promoted through public information and education. In Minnesota, for example, he said all forest owners are now provided with information about how their land fits into the large-scale ecosystem. They are not told how to act, he said, merely given the information so they know the implications of their actions. Other states have similar educational programs.

Eric Schwaab, director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' Forest Service, held out the possibility that ecosystem management "may provide new alternatives to regulatory programs."

One example, he said, could be endangered species regulations. By managing forests as a regional resource, rather than on a site-by-site basis, it might be possible to make sure there is enough habitat available for a particular species while still allowing harvests in selected areas. If each site were managed separately to protect the species, by contrast, harvests might be more severely curtailed.

"This may yield, in the long run, a more positive approach to species conservation," Schwaab said.

Larry Hill, director of forest policy for the Society of American Foresters, a professional organization, said foresters needed to promote education among themselves - so foresters can become familiar with ecosystem management principles - and among the public.

Because one of the most challenging aspects of ecosystem management is how to coordinate activities among many landowners, Hill said foresters may need to press for changes in tax laws and other economic incentives to bolster participation. "If we're not part of the solution, we're part of the problem," he said.