“The secret of success is constancy of purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

The fundamental purpose of forestry is to serve the needs and values of future and present generations, while using practices that maintain and/or incrementally restore a forest’s productivity, diversity and quality – its ecological condition.

Good decisions are based on sound information, can be successfully implemented and will have a positive impact.

Source: US Forest Service (1993)

Sustainable forestry is about people organizing themselves to perpetuate a forest’s desired attributes for specific purposes. Forests do different things better at different stages of forest succession (stand development), so the way forward is to align human needs and values with a forest’s capacity to deliver these benefits.

For forest sustainability is to be achievable, we must know how to assess its outcomes.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was an American author, philosopher, conservationist, ecologist and forester. He was professionally committed to using land without degradation. In the 1930’s, he established the discipline of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949).

Leopold understood that people need to make a living from the land, but also need food, shelter, and clothing. He also understood that land provides purpose, community and beauty, the foundation of sane and honourable lives.

Leopold invented the phrase “Thinking like a mountain” – which means having a deep appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of the processes and patterns of nature.

The main barrier preventing sustainable forestry is cultural. In our western culture, humans value constancy and predictability, while nature prefers diversity. When solely managed for a constant production of trees, a forest loses its resilience.

The principal challenge is to recognize this blind spot while preventing the negative cumulative effects, permanent mill closures, unemployment in forest communities and more endangered species.

Most of this damage can be attributed to two causes; (1) lack of understanding of the relationship between ecology and economics, and (2) Uninformed leadership.
Sustainability needs answers to the questions – for what and whom?; and for where and how long? Once terms are defined, management objectives, forest practices, and monitoring measures can be implemented.

For what and for whom?
Although people will generally want to sustain forests, what they really want will depend on what they value. Alternative approaches include integrated use forestry, timber production, parks and watershed protection, wilderness and wildlife reserves. What characteristics should be sustained can range from commodity outputs, to spiritual values, producing mushrooms and whole forest ecosystems.

Where and for how long?
The concept of “forest sustainability” can also be applied to stands, watersheds and landscapes. Understanding how forests function at different spatial scales is therefore critical to assessing the impact of forest practices on sustainability. Usually sustainability concepts are developed at the stand level and then applied at the watershed and landscape level.

These four US Forest Service ecological principles developed by Columbia Basin Ecosystem Management Plan for National Forests in Washington, Idaho and Oregon provide a sound foundation for sustainable forestry:

Ecosystem Principles and their Implications for Management

  • Ecosystems are dynamic, evolutionary, and resilient;
  • Ecosystems can be viewed spatially and temporally within organizational levels;
  • Ecosystems have biophysical, economic, and social limits;
  • Ecosystem patterns and processes are not completely predictable.

Sustainable forestry, must overcome four interconnected problems – scale, balance, diversity and health. These problems cannot be separated. To solve one, the other three must also be solved.

For scale to be a “problem”, forest management units cannot be too big or too small. Management units must be large enough to cover the overhead costs, but small enough so decision makers and practitioners can understand the diversity, complexity and limits of their forests.

Solving the problem of balance means ensuring that forest depletion does not exceed forest growth, so the rate of use is in balance with the carrying capacity of the land.

Ensuring diversity is maintained while preventing its loss will enable a forest to be resilient to stress from fire, insects, disease, wind and excessive logging. This means respecting the limits of nature while ensuring as many species, and forest conditions are present as possible.

Anticipating the problem of stressed forest health is very important. Practices that prevent problems, add organic matter and increase diversity are vital. The greater the vigour of trees in a forest, the more rapid will be its recovery from a stress, and the greater its health.

At about 100 years plus, in healthy conifer forests, what is good for people economically is also good ecologically and socially. These positive outcomes (when combined with commercial thinning) include:

  • reduced land area in regeneration and early development stages (reduced visual effects; lower regeneration and pre-commercial thinning costs; less need for herbicides and slash burning; reduced frequency of ecological gaps that reduce biodiversity);
  • interim revenue and greater long-term economic and social benefits;
  • larger trees and higher quality wood;
  • opportunity to improve present unbalanced age distributions;
  • improved habitat for some wildlife species;
  • hydrological and long-term site productivity benefits;
  • increased carbon storage associated with larger trees.

Many of the problems of forest mis-management continue to occur because of people trying the force an idealized (i.e. cultural) paradigm on to an independent natural ecosystem.

To fulfill the purpose of sustainable forestry, humanity must learn to work with a forest’s natural patterns and processes. We will need, however, to be humble and pay attention to the consequences of what we are doing.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “When land does well for the owner, and the owner does well by his (sic) land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other does poorer, we do not.”