“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 performing practices that maintain and/or incrementally maintain and restore a forest’s productivity, diversity and quality.

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

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

Source: US Forest Service (1993)

For forest sustainability is to be successful, we must monitor and assess the outcomes of what we do.
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 knew people need to make a living from the land, while providing food, and shelter. 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.

Our principal challenge is to recognize this blind spot, which will help prevent 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) Unaccountable decision-making.
Sustainability needs to answer the questions – for what and whom; and for where and how long? Once this is known, then management objectives, forest and monitoring practices can be implemented.

For what and for whom?
Although people generally want to sustain forests, what they really want depends on what they/we value. Alternative approaches to conserving and managing forest land include integrated use, timber production, parks and watershed protection, wilderness and wildlife reserves. What is sustained can range from commodity outputs, to spiritual values, to 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.

The concept of “forest sustainability” can be applied to stands, watersheds and landscapes. Understanding how forests function at different spatial scales is therefore critical. 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 in practice, must overcome five interconnected problems – scale, balance, diversity, quality and health. These problems cannot be separated. To solve one, the other four must also be solved.

For scale not 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 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.

Photosynthesis is the only large-scale producer of material quality, made possible by the concentration and structure of matter. Stocking levels in forests, which control this, must correspond to objectives – what is best for one outcome, will under perform for another.

Anticipating the causes of stressed forest health is critical. Practices that prevent problems, add organic matter and increase diversity are vital. The greater the vigour of trees, the more rapid the recovery from stress, and the more robust a forest’s health.

Optimum outcomes in well-managed conifer forests occur at about 100 years – where what is good economically is also good ecologically and socially. These optimums, 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 in the larger trees.

Many problems of forest mis-management occur because people try to force an idealized (i.e. cultural) paradigm on to an independent natural ecosystem. This does not work. To fulfill the purpose of sustainable forestry, humanity must learn to work with nature, be humble and pay attention to the consequences of what we do. Think big, like a mountain.

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.”