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Sustainable forest management and the ecosystem approach –
an Australian perspective

S.M. Davey, J.R.L. Hoare and K.E. Rumba

Stuart M. Davey is in the Bureau of Rural Sciences, Kingston, Australia.
James R.L. Hoare and Karl E. Rumba were also working for the Bureau of Rural Sciences at the time this article was being conceived. James Hoare is now with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry Australia, Canberra, while Karl Rumba is now with the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources, Canberra.

Australia has effectively incorporated the principles and operational guidelines of the ecosystem approach into its National  Forest Policy Statement, regional forest agreements, certification standards and other institutional
arrangements for sustainable forest management.

Around the world, governments are seeking to achieve an optimal balance between environmental management, economic development and social values to meet the needs of society on a sustainable basis, and this is particularly true for forests. Internationally, a balanced approach to forest issues is being discussed mainly in two United Nations arrangements: the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Sustainable forest management is an important concept of the first arrangement, while the ecosystem approach is an important concept of the second.

Australia has effectively incorporated the principles and operational guidelines of the ecosystem approach into the concept of "ecologically sustainable forest management" (see Chikumbo et al., 2001) under the National Forest Policy Statement, and the ecosystem approach now underpins Australia's regional forest agreements (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000). This article explores Australia's approach to sustainable forest management and describes how Australia has applied the ecosystem approach systematically to the management and conservation of its commercial forest regions.


Australia's National Forest Policy Statement (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992) defines the concept of ecologically sustainable forest management and provides for ecologically sustainable development of forests based on the principles of maintaining ecological processes, maintaining biological diversity and optimizing the benefits to the community from all uses of forests within ecological constraints. It seeks a balanced return to the community from all forest uses within a regionally based planning framework that integrates environmental, commercial, social and heritage objectives so that, as far as possible, provision is made for sustainable management for all forest values. It is Australia's national strategy for the sustainable forest management and use of forests as envisaged under CBD (Article 6a) and the Forest Principles1 agreed at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992.

The ecosystem approach - a strategy for the integrated management of land, water and living resources that promotes conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of resources in an equitable way (CBD, 2001) - is an important component of the statement and of Australia's implementation of sustainable forest management. The Box on p. 4 outlines the principles and operational guidance of the ecosystem approach. The ecosystem approach can refer to any functioning unit at any scale (e.g. forest stand, forest, landscape).

The Australian concept of ecologically sustainable forest management can be defined as "the integration of commercial and non-commercial values of forests so that the welfare of society (both material and non-material) is improved, while ensuring that the values of forests, both as a resource for commercial use and for conservation are not lost or degraded for current and future generations" (Davey et al., 1997).

Incorporated into ecologically sustainable forest management is the concept of sustainable use as defined in CBD, meaning "the use of components of biological diversity in a way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations" (CBD, 2001). The primary goals of ecologically sustainable forest management are:

• maintaining the vitality of the forest ecosystem (i.e. ecological processes within forests, including the formation of soil, energy flows and the carbon, nutrient and water cycles);

• maintaining the biological diversity of forests;

• managing the net social benefit derived from the mixture of forest uses within ecological constraints for many years.

Principles and operational guidance for the ecosystem approach


1. The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choice.

2. Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level.

3. Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.

4. Recognizing potential gains from management, there is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context.

5. Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to main-tain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach.

6. Ecosystem must be managed within the limits of their functioning.

7. The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales.

8. Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag effects that characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.

9. Management must recognize that change is inevitable.

10. The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity.

11. The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.

12. The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.


1. Focus on the functional relationships and processes within ecosystems.

2. Enhance benefit sharing.

3. Use adaptive management practices.

4. Carry out management actions at the scale appropriate for the issue being addressed, with decentralization to the lowest level, as appropriate.

5. Ensure intersectoral cooperation.

Source: CBD, 2001.


Australia's regional forest agreements (RFAs) (Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, 2003) are an example of an ecosystem approach (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000). They provide a mechanism for achieving an equitable balance between conservation and sustainable use of forests for natural, cultural, economic and social values in Australia's commercial forest regions. Twenty-year agreements are now in place for 11 of the country's 12 commercial forest regions (Figure 1). (The forests outside RFA regions are managed and protected under state and commonwealth legislation.)

These agreements apply to all forms of landownership and provide a strategic plan for the conservation and sustainable use of forest biological diversity as envisaged under Article 6b of CBD. They strive to achieve balanced and long-term resolution of government, industry, environment and community interests in forest management and use based on comprehensive regional assessments while meeting legally based specifications. Outcomes include a conservation reserve system whose coverage exceeds that recommended by the World Conservation Union (IUCN); secure access to forest resources; opportunities for the development of an internationally competitive forest industry; and a long-term basis for sustainable management of forest resources.

The National Forest Policy Statement (Commonwealth of Australia, 1992) provides the principles for assessing the sustainability of forest management in regard to management practices, resource conservation and management and industry development through which the principles of the ecosystem approach are addressed.

Scientific assessments and stakeholder involvement underpinned the development and negotiation of Australia's regional forest agreements (Davey, Hoare and Rumba, 2002). A number of new assessment techniques and negotiation tools were developed, for example in relation to provision of information to stakeholders (Pressey, 1998). The negotiation phase often proved to be the most protracted part of the process of arriving at an agreement, in some cases taking longer than the phase of scientific, social and economic assessments. Stakeholder input and involvement in developing agreements varied from state to state and within regions of a state. How stakeholder views were incorporated in the finalization of agreements has contributed significantly to their relative level of success.

Australia’s forests and woodlands and regions with signed regional forest agreements
Source: National Forest Inventory, 2001.

Comprehensive regional assessments

In the development of the regional forest agreements, scientifically based comprehensive regional assessments were carried out in alignment with the principles and operational guidelines of the ecosystem approach. Regional assessments addressed the full range of forest values and their functional relationships (Operational Guideline 1) considered important by society and involved all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines (Principle 12). Engagement of the public in strategic planning was an important element. An objective of the regional forest agreement process was to increase the net social benefit derived from the mixture of forest uses and values (Operational Guideline 2) within ecological constraints, in terms of management of land, water and biological resources in forest regions (Principle 6), while maintaining options for the future. Society was involved through comprehensive arrangements for public participation; the mechanisms for public involvement varied among regions and included regional stakeholder fora and workshops, representation on technical and steering committees, and stakeholder involvement in the integration of information and development of resource planning options that were released for public comment (Operational Guideline 5). The public and stakeholders were given the right to comment on the information collated through the comprehensive regional assessment process and options that were to be considered in arriving at the regional forest agreements (Principle 1).

Independent scientific assessments of the state's forest management systems and processes were carried out to determine the extent to which sustainable forest management had been achieved for the full range of forest values. State management systems and processes were benchmarked against the requirements of the international environmental management system model (AS/NZ ISO 14001) (Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand, 1996), seven criteria for sustainable forest management from the Montreal Process (1995) and two overarching principles (see Box above). Where deficiencies were identified, recommendations for improvement were made and incorporated into the final agreements. These included a requirement for continuous improvement of forest management systems and the use of criteria and indicators for assessing progress towards achieving sustainable forest management. Criteria and indicators were developed for application at both the national and regional scales. Environmental management systems that were capable of responding to varying temporal scales, lag effects and changes of forest ecosystems as a means of achieving sustainable forest management (Principle 8) were established on public lands (Operational Guideline 3). Typically the environmental management systems for production forests had to comply with the ISO 14001 standard (e.g. Resource Planning and Development Commission, 2002).

Criteria and principles used in Australia's
regional assessments of forest management


• Protection and maintenance of biological diversity
• Maintenance of the productive capacity of ecosystems
• Maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality
• Protection of soil and water resources
• Maintenance of forests' contribution to global carbon cycles
• Maintenance of natural and cultural heritage values
• Maintenance and enhancement of long-term socio-economic benefits to meet the needs of society


• Precautionary principle for the prevention of environmental degradation
• Intergenerational equity to ensure the needs of the present generation are met as far as possible without compromising the needs of future generations

Australia’s reserve system was designed to protect a range of
biodiversity conservation values as well as old-growth forests –
shown, a reserved old-growth mountain ash
(Eucalyptus regnans) forest
in the Central Highlands Victoria regional forest agreement region
(Photo: M.F.RYAN)

Conserving biodiversity

Conservation of biological diversity both on and off reserves is a key element underpinning the ecosystem approach and sustainable forest management.

In Australia, reserves include protected reserve areas gazetted through legislation, informal reserves identified for protection in forest management plans and private forest reserves. A forest reserve system was the prime instrument for in situ conservation using reserve criteria agreed upon by commonwealth and state governments (JANIS, 1997). The reserve system was designed to protect a range of biodiversity conservation values as well as old-growth forests and wilderness areas based on principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness. Principles, targets, standards and guidelines of comprehensiveness (coverage of the full range of forest communities across the landscape), adequacy (maintenance of ecological viability and the integrity of populations, species and communities) and representativeness (biodiversity of reserved forest communities reasonably reflected across the landscape) were used to design the reserve system outcomes for the regional forest agreements (Davey, Hoare and Rumba, 2002).

Importantly, the conservation of biodiversity across the landscape has been achieved under RFAs not only through the establishment of a formal reserve system, but also through off-reserve management strategies aimed at complementary management of production forests on public and private lands (Principle 3). This was achieved through a combination of approved forest management plans, codes of forest practice and prescriptions for harmonizing production and the conservation and protection of flora, fauna and their communities as well as soil and water values, at both the regional and local scales (Principles 2 and 5 and Operational Guideline 4).

• Forest management plans are developed by forest managers and owners and entail public comment. The approval process varies across the Australian states, but typically government environmental organizations look at how conservation and environmental requirements are incorporated into the plans.

• Within Australian RFA areas, the application of codes of forest practice is mandatory for harvesting in public forests and either mandatory or voluntary for private forests, depending on the state.

• Flora, fauna and species community management and conservation prescriptions are used to manage species and communities that are rare and threatened, that are sensitive to forest harvesting operations or fire, or that require specific management consideration for their conservation management (e.g. protection of nesting and roosting sites). Forest and wildlife managers collaboratively develop these prescriptions, which once developed are incorporated into codes, species recovery plans and/or management plans. Scientific experts also contribute to the development of prescriptions, which are reviewed every five to ten years.

Biodiversity conservation is achieved not only through the formal reserve system, but also through complementary management of production forests on public and private lands – shown, a spotted gum (Eucalyptus maculata) production forest in the southern
New South Wales regional forest agreement region
(Photo: M.F.RYAN)

Balancing social and economic values

An integral part of developing regional forest agreements was the evaluation of economic costs and benefits, regional employment, trade-off options to compensate communities and the forest industry for loss of access to forest resources and loss of income, industry initiatives and restructuring, and improved productivity and economic returns on the sustainable use of forest resources. Assessments of likely social impacts of decisions over resource allocation and intensity of forest use within the regions, particularly in timber-dependent towns, were carried out and used to support final decisions on the amount of forest resources available to industry and how the resource can be used. In line with the principles of the ecosystem approach, the regional forest agreement process arrived at decisions within an economic context (Principle 4), while recognizing that the objectives of management of land, water and living resources were a matter of societal choice (Principle 1). In seeking to achieve a balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity (Principle 10), resource allocations in some regions reflected society's priorities for conservation of biological diversity over economic values, where biological diversity was identified as important, restricted or at risk. The agreements aim to balance social and economic values through the establishment of a permanent conservation reserve system protected by legislation and through the assured availability of the remaining forest resource to industry for sustainable use and management.

Regional forest agreements (RFAs) aim to balance social and economic values through the assured availability
of the non-reserved forest resource to industry for sustainable use and management –
shown, harvesting of messmate
(Eucalyptus obliqua) in the Central Highlands RFA region
(Photo: M.F.RYAN)


The development and implementation of national and subnational (regional) criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management, drawing on the work of the Montreal Process Working Group (officially, the Montreal Process Working Group on Criteria and Indicators for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Temperate and Boreal Forests), is a significant achievement in sustainable forest management in Australia (Montreal Process Implementation Group, Australia, 1998). Indicators were designed to be practical and cost effective and to measure changes in forest values over different spatial and time scales, including lag effects. This approach permits a wide range of ecosystem values that are characterized by dynamic changes to be managed on a spatial and temporal basis (Principles 7, 8 and 9). Indicators apply to all forest areas and are used to monitor and report on trends in forest use and values (e.g. amount of forest, distribution by ownership, forest health and condition, biodiversity and water) and forest management outcomes (e.g. employment, forest industry statistics, forest resource use), including those outcomes achieved under RFAs (Operational Guideline 3). RFA performance is assessed through monitoring of sustainability indicators together with formal review of commitments every five years (see Resource Planning and Development Commission, 2002). Trends of change in indicators are used to determine long-term policy formulation and continuous improvement in forest management (Figure 2).

Establishing linkages between crite-ria and indicators of sustainable forest management and environmental management systems at the forest management unit level (Principle 2) is another step towards achieving sustainable forest management not only for environmental values, but also for social and economic objectives (Rumba et al., 2001). This approach lays the foundations for adaptive management, i.e. the evolution of management based on experiences and research findings (CBD, 2001), and the development of forest certification schemes. Such schemes provide additional market-based incentives for ongoing improvement in sustainable forest management by permitting forest managers to demonstrate their environmental credentials in such a way that retailers and consumers can evaluate them objectively and independently and favour their products over others.

There is growing recognition of the complementary nature of performance-based and process-based standards. Performance-based standards provide an objective basis against which managers can check and improve management performance. Process-based standards enable managers to address environmental aspects and impacts of management systematically within a process of continual improvement, such as that provided by environmental management systems. Both standards provide a framework for assessing and demonstrating progress towards sustainable forest management (Kanowski et al., 2000).

The Australian Forestry Standard (see is a voluntary standard for independent, third-party certification that integrates both types of standard. Performance requirements are based on criteria and indicators from the Montreal Process considered important to society (Montreal Pro-cess Implementation Group, Australia 1998). The process requirements are based on an ISO 14001 environmental management systems approach (Standards Australia/Standards New Zealand, 1996). The standard was developed by a broad-based stakeholder group working towards a consensus view of performance measures. It is a logical extension of the advances made towards sustainable forest management in Australia under regional forest agreements. The standard will be a useful tool for providing technical rigour and promoting "best practice" sustainable forest management.

Source: Adapted from Rumba et al. , 2001. 

Australia’s approach to sustainable forest outcomes within a cycle of continuous improvement of forest
and environmental management systems, processes and practices


The principles and operational guidelines of the ecosystem approach to sustainable forest management have been effectively implemented in Australia through the comprehensive regional assessment and regional forest agreement processes in the commercial forest regions of Australia. In effect, in Australia, ecologically sustainable forest management is considered the equivalent of the ecosystem approach, which provides guidelines to support the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources in an equitable way across human generations.

The application of the ecosystem approach to forest policy development under regional forest agreements now provides a benchmark for the allocation and sustainable use of forest resources, based on detailed scientific and community assessments of forest values of importance to the community that included processes of stakeholder and public consultation. The National Forest Policy Statement, criteria for assessing and determining forest reserves, regional forest agreements, sustainability indicators and the Australian Forestry Standard for voluntary certification are key elements in the Australian approach to sustainable forest management practice, and ensure that the ecosystem approach is implemented within secure institutional arrangements.

These elements, within a framework of adaptive management that leads to continual improvement, can provide an enduring approach to achieving forest sustainability under ever-changing environmental, social and economic conditions. If the approach is properly implemented, adverse environmental impacts from forestry are expected to diminish. Voluntary certification and product labelling are expected to enhance marketplace and public acceptance that forest management is sustainable. Wider community and market confidence in sustainable forest management should result, as should improved market access and the protection and maintenance of the full range of forest values for current and future generations. Australia's approach may be useful as a model for other countries to consider.


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Rumba, K.E., Hoare, J.R.L., Davey, S.M., Ryan, M.W. & Stephens, M. 2001. The achievement cycle - integrating management systems, criteria and indicators and forest certification standards for achieving sustainable outcomes. In Forests in a changing landscape, p. 365-73. Fremantle, Australia, Commonwealth Forestry and Institute of Foresters of Australia Conference.

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1The full title of the UNCED Forest Principles is “Non-Legally Binding Authoritative Statement of Principles for a Global Consensus on the Management, Conservation, and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forests”.

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