What Does Sustainable Forest Management Mean: Principles and Practice

by Nicola Temple on May 29, 2012

The sustainable use of resources, whether fish or forests, is always fraught with controversy and sustainable forest management is no exception.

This is largely because sustainability means different things to different people. Different stakeholders may agree to concepts in principle, but when it comes down to drawing lines on a map, implementing policy and generally going from concept to action, negotiations can break down.

Perhaps more than any other resource, however, there has been a global recognition of the need to manage our forests sustainably.  Forests provide vital ecosystem services such as providing oxygen, carbon storage, providing food, wood products, water filtration, and providing habitat – not a day goes by where we aren’t impacted by forests.

This article provides an overview of sustainable forest management in terms of its definition, elements and practice.

sustainable forest management

Sustainable forest management doesn't mean we have to return to the days of hand saws and horses, but it does mean a change of practices to ensure our use of forests today doesn't compromise forests for future generations. CC image courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management Oregon on Flickr.

SFM by definition:

A definition of sustainable forest management was agreed to by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, which has since been adopted by other groups including the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization. SFM is defined as follows:

the stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.”

In other words, SFM practices make use of our forests today in a way that does not compromise forests for future generations. Though definitions may vary slightly in wording, there is general consensus globally in terms of this definition.

The elements of SFM:

Of course once a definition is in place, the elements or criteria must be established to help conceptualize what the definition may mean in practice.  These are the criteria or themes to SFM that have been acknowledged globally by the UN General Assembly:

  1. The maintenance and enhancement of forest resources and their contribution to global carbon cycles. This is essentially recognition for the need to maintain and in some cases increase the extent of global forests due to their role in carbon sequestration and storage.
  2. The maintenance of forest ecosystems’ health and vitality. As I mentioned above, forests perform many vital ecosystem services, which are dependent on their health.
  3. The maintenance and encouragement of productive functions of forests and forest resources (wood and non-wood).
  4. The maintenance, conservation and appropriate enhancement of biological diversity in forest ecosystems.
  5. The maintenance, conservation and appropriate enhancement of protective functions in forest management, such as conservation of soil and water.
  6. The maintenance of other socio-economic functions of forests.

Global agreements to SFM:

In 1992, a set of Forest Principles were adopted at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. Though the final document doesn’t call for the development of a future treaty, it does show a commitment by governments to the principles and their future assessment.

In 2006, the UN Forum on Forests set four global objectives on forests that: (1) address the global loss of forests and forest degradation, (2) consider the economic, social and environmental benefits of forests, (3) address forest protection, and (4) enable the implementation of sustainable forest management through provision of adequate financial resources.

In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Non-legally Binding Instrument on All Types of Forests. The agreement was an affirmation by member states to make progress toward four global objectives by 2015: (1) reversing the loss of global forest cover, (2) enhancing forest-based economic, social and environmental benefits, (3) increasing the area of protected forests worldwide as well as the proportion of sustainably managed forests and forest products, and (4) reverse the decline in official development assistance for SFM.

What SFM means in practice:

Despite global agreements and worldwide recognition for the need to manage forests sustainably, the implementation and practice of SFM has been more of a challenge at a global scale.

This is largely because the interpretation of the definition of SFM is not only different in different regions, it also differs between people, cultures, and across time; what might not seem important now, may be of critical importance twenty years from now based on new knowledge and understanding.

So, the key is to keep in mind that SFM is a process rather than a clearly defined end result and the actions that get you there may be fluid and change regionally and across time.

That being said, I’ve noticed some common threads among examples of sustainably managed forests that I thought I would share:

Preservation of critical areas: This addresses issues of ecosystem function and biological diversity as well as cultural concerns. For instance, this might include preserving riparian habitat to insure hydrological processes aren’t disturbed as a result of forestry practices. It might mean the protection of an area of forest as it is known as critical habitat for endangered species, or it might be preservation of an area that has cultural significance.

Local control: We see time and time again that resources are best managed by those that live there and depend on them.  When I say depend, I mean that it is integral to their existence and way of life, not that it means a slightly larger profit margin to make shareholders happy. Of course, there are also examples where this hasn’t been the case, but for the most part it’s true.

Local processing:  The best economic return and value for the product is when the product is processed locally. Processing lumber and wood products locally means more jobs for the region, reduced carbon emissions as a result of shipping, and usually better return for a premium product.

Selective harvest: Being selective about what trees are removed and when can help to preserve soil integrity, maintain habitats and lead to an overall increase in the actual biomass within the forest and therefore future returns.

Assessment: This practice can be vague as it can mean a range of things. For governments this might mean a set of measurable objectives and criteria founded on scientific evidence that help assess the success of policy implementation around SFM. For a local woodlot owner this might be more anecdotal in terms of wildlife observations or annual cubic feet being harvested. Either way, the key is that there needs to be some feedback mechanism that then leads to changes in practice (or not) to ensure objectives are met.

Recognizing SFM:

For most of us, our relationship with SFM is in terms of the products we buy. Luckily, there are more than 50 certification standards globally that help us recognize products that have come from sustainably managed forests. The two biggest certification programs globally are the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Products with these labels have been certified by a third-party and meet a set of strict standards.

This video, brought to you by the panda folks, gives a nice background on sustainable forest management and the origins of FSC.

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