What is Sustainable Forestry?
Peter J. Smallidge, NYS Extension Forester
Cornell Forestry Extension Program
While many organizations and agencies have defined sustainable forestry to emphasize their desired attributes, all definitions share the essential elements of ensuring that the forest resources (with "resources" broadly defined) that society enjoys today are available now and in the future. Understanding long-term availability requires an understanding of a number of factors that together make the fabric of sustainable forestry discussions. Foresters, loggers, and landowners have long had the capacity to maintain the productivity of the forest for current and future needs. Historically, the extent to which sustainable forestry was practiced depended on a complex inter-mingling of factors, such as owner attitudes and needs, work force potential, market or regulatory forces, governmental incentives, and local or regional input. These factors remain important, and stakeholders are increasingly recognizing the need to address all aspects of sustainable forestry and not a simplified subset of the issues.
What do we sustain?
People usually think about sustaining the value of the forest that is most important to them. This might be the value of hardwood timber or softwood fiber growing, it might be the diversity of native species present, it might be recreational opportunities provided in the region, or it might be the socio-economic culture that has developed around a local wood using industry. Sustainable forestry addresses all the resources provided by the forest. Someone probably advised you at some point to "not burn your bridges", and this advice is at the heart of sustainable forestry where you strive to retain all your options. This includes the option for timber or fiber production, the option for certain species, the option for jobs, the option for clean water, the option for recreational resources, and the option for aesthetic qualities. Because forests change, by the nature of forests, sustainability emphasizes the need to keep viable all the options and opportunities.
Does sustainability happen on every acre?
Sustainable forestry can happen on every acre, but every acre managed under sustainable forestry won't look the same. Part of the explanation for this is the dynamic nature of forests. As forests mature, a landowner's ability to manage the forest and extract certain resources may result in a change in the way the forest looks. In addition to extractions there are also occasions for inputs or investments. Extraction often includes timber or pulpwood harvesting that will remove some or all stems from an area as part of a silvicultural prescription. As juvenile forests grow into maturity investments are often appropriate to ensure the forest produces the desired levels of resources. Sometimes this will include pruning for high-quality hardwoods, trail building for recreational access, thinning for optimal timber production, or habitat enhancements to stabilize or expand desired wildlife populations. Change is often viewed with resistance, but we know with certainty forests will change even if we don't take any action. A reasonable goal then is to use management activities in appropriate areas and at appropriate times to ensure we retain all our options while producing our desired resources.
Who must be involved in sustainable forestry?
The short answer is everyone. If you recall the factors that influence sustainable forestry, then you can start to generate a list of people, organizations, and agencies that affect the way our forests are managed. Quickly you see that sustainable forestry starts with the landowner and moves through everyone who enjoys the outputs of forests, such as clean water, and everyone who buys forest products, such as paper. Thus, everyone is affected by the way our forests are managed.
The direct or first tier of decision makers usually involves a forest owner, forester, and logger. The landowner defines the management objectives, the forester prescribes activities that help the forest owner achieve the ownership objective, and the logger implements the prescribed activities. The decisions made by the landowner and the recommendations and practices applied by the forester and logger reflect a second tier of influence. The second tier is more complex and intertwined. Tier two includes the educational institutions available to practitioners and stakeholders, the markets that are available for the forest products, the attitudes of owner and family, the local and regional culture about forestry practices, and governmental regulations or incentives that affect which and how forest management practices can be applied. The United States holds a belief system in the rights of private property owners that differs from attitudes in other countries that embrace a more significant role of the community in deciding the desired actions on private lands. Even so, the variety of people and stakeholders who influence the social, economic, and political climate around forestry can have a substantial influence on if and how it is practiced.
How do we know if sustainable forestry is happening?
Knowing if sustainable forestry is happening on the ground depends on knowing the starting condition of the forest and the forest community, the plan for managing the forest, and an acceptable standard of what the forest should look like under sustainable forestry practices. Recognizing these three components is the starting point, but then certification of sustainable forestry practices require some level of verification, by a clearly identified reviewer. Knowledge of the reviewer and their process permits others a known level of confidence in how thoroughly sustainable forestry practices were achieved. These three components, together with verification, provide a logical arrangement of information, but the devil's in the details, and different systems view these components in different ways.
The starting condition of the forest and forest community involves data collection by approved techniques to document the character of the forest, features and habitats of the forest, economic and cultural characteristics of the local community, and the political climate of the management area. Traditionally, foresters would focus their data collection just on the characteristics of the forest, but with sustainable forestry often include input from wildlife biologists, sociologists, community economic development, and other stakeholders.
The plan for managing the forest will necessarily include a broader array of features than were often found in more traditional forest management plans. In addition to characterizing forest and wildlife habitats, the sustainable forestry plan may also address, for example, health and safety for forest workers, education programs for practitioners, landscape-level awareness of unique species or habitat, or local/state ordinances that affect certain forestry practices.
The "look" of a sustainably managed forest is more difficult to define. As a basis for considering the criteria of sustainability we must first reject the human tendency to equate visual appeal with the sustainability of ecological or biological health. The experiences that shaped our attitudes of "what's pretty" have no bearing on the health, productivity, or sustainability of the forest. While the visual impacts of forestry practices are a component of sustainability, they should not drive the evaluation.
What then does define success in sustainability? The organizations that endorse and validate sustainability each have their own set of criteria to evaluate properties, owners, or managers on their efforts. Because each forest is different, and thus functions somewhat differently, the criteria usually emphasize the process to manage sustainably rather than what the forest looks like. The process might include how to measure and inventory soils, vegetation, and insect; the involvement of owners or principles in stakeholder groups; or how to document the acceptable level of change, at a property or landscape scale, in a species that will respond to changes in a forest habitat through time.
Sustainable forestry is a valuable tool and management posture to help ensure we retain for the future the forest resource opportunities we have today. The debate on sustainable forestry is intense, yet those involved usually share a common sense of the value and beauty of the forest.
return to homepage