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National strategic planning for sustainable forests: using criteria and indicators in the United States

E. Grinspoon, M. Delfs and P. Brouha

Elisabeth Grinspoon, Mark Delfs and Paul Brouha are in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, Washington, DC, United States.

The United States strives to adopt a framework based on the Montreal Process criteria and indicators in strategic planning for sustainable forestry.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service is a pioneer in incorporating criteria and indicators into its programmes. Among its initial efforts is the adaptation of a criteria and indictors framework to national strategic plans, which are the primary instrument for setting the course to achieve the Forest Service mission of sustaining the nation's forests and grasslands for present and future generations.

This article describes the steps the Forest Service is taking to adopt a framework derived from the Montreal Process criteria and indictors in its strategic planning. It also describes challenges that the agency is encountering in adopting the framework.


The mission of the USDA Forest Service is "to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations". The Forest Service is directly responsible for the sustainable management of 192 million acres (78 million hectares) of federal forests and grasslands in the National Forest System. The agency is also indirectly responsible for promoting the sustainable management of another 1 billion acres (405 million hectares) of publicly and privately owned forests and grasslands in the United States.

Essential to the success of the Forest Service mission are long-term strategic plans, which communicate policy and guide the agency. Federal law has required long-term planning by the Forest Service since the 1970s, but until the 1990s the plans tended to be oriented towards outputs rather than outcomes. In 1993, the Government Performance and Results Act (Public Law 103-62) was passed, mandating that each federal government agency prepare outcome-oriented five-year strategic plans, meaning that they should describe the desired results of programme activities and the means of achieving those results. Nevertheless, the Forest Service's next long-term plan, the 1997 Strategic Plan, remained primarily output-oriented and focused on management activities, as it had poorly defined indicators. Lack of baseline data also contributed to difficulty in demonstrating progress towards outcome-related objectives and overall goals. To improve the Strategic Plan, the Forest Service began linking goals and objectives to trend indicators of sustainability derived from the Montreal Process on Criteria and Indicators for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Temperate and Boreal Forests (see Box on p. 16).


As part of the United States' efforts to achieve sustainable forest management, in 1994 the Forest Service organized a forum for discussion of sustainable forest management, including the development and implementation of the Montreal Process criteria and indicators. The forum, officially chartered in 1999, is known as the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests (see ). Although the Roundtable is not a decision-making body, it contributes to better decision-making through the sharing of information and perspectives among individuals representing diverse interests and by promoting application of the criteria and indicators among the numerous agencies and stakeholders. More than 40 government and non-governmental organizations participate in the Roundtable including federal government agencies; tribal, state and local units of government; private landowners and citizens; industries and businesses; conservation and environmental groups; regional and community-based organizations; and researchers and academics.

The Roundtable meets regularly to discuss what criteria and indicators mean for forest management and conservation in the United States, how data for the indicators are collected, and who is responsible for acquiring the data. One of the biggest challenges for stakeholders has been reaching agreement on a process and guidelines for interpreting indicator trends.

Building consensus is both a great challenge and benefit of the Round-table. Finding ways for stakeholders with varying perspectives to communicate is especially important in a country as diverse as the United States with forests that are owned and managed by many different private and public entities. To facilitate the resolution of differences, Roundtable meetings are convened by a neutral third-party organization that specializes in solving problems related to the environment.

Because Roundtable stakeholders help guide the application of the criteria and indicators by the federal government, they usually support the end results (e.g. national criteria and indicator reports by federal agencies). The Roundtable has also encouraged application of the criteria and indicators by other organizations and at multiple scales. Because of the Roundtable's success, the United States Government has established similar roundtables to discuss the sustainability of rangeland resources, minerals and water.

Two working groups carry out Roundtable activities: a Communications and Outreach Work Group and a Technical Work Group. The former has sponsored workshops to inform state, county and other government officials, forestry practitioners and the general public about sustainable forest management and the criteria and indicators. The latter has held workshops for technical experts to identify regional and national data sets and information gaps in the data available to measure the criteria and indicators at the national level. Work group members found that nine of the 28 Montreal Process biological indicators have been part of Forest Service sampling for 70 years (Maille, 2000).

An important effort initiated by the technical workshops was the production of the National report on sustainable forests - 2003 (USDA Forest Service, 2003), which describes the current status and conditions of United States forests, including trends in their health, productivity and use, based on criteria and indicators. The report addresses an array of environmental, social and economic concerns and is a reference point for measuring national progress towards sustainable renewable resource management.

Montreal Process

The Montreal Process on Criteria and Indicators for the Conservation and Sustainable Management of Temperate and Boreal Forests is an initiative among governments of non-European temperate and boreal forest countries to develop and implement agreed criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management. In 1995, the Montreal Process Working Group issued the Santiago Declaration, a non-binding agreement on criteria and indicators for sustainable forest management endorsed by 12 countries encompassing more than 90 percent of the world's temperate and boreal forests (MPWG, 1998).

The Montreal Process framework is composed of seven criteria and 67 indicators. The Montreal Process Working Group defines criteria as categories of conditions or processes by which sustainable forest management may be assessed. Indicators are measures of an aspect of a criterion. The seven criteria fall into three general categories: vital functions and attributes (biodiversity, productivity, forest health, the carbon cycle, soil and water protection); socio-economic values and benefits (timber, recreation, cultural values); and the laws and regulations that make up the forest policy framework (MPWG, 1999).


In 2000, the Forest Service published a revision of its Strategic Plan with linkages to the Montreal Process criteria and indicators framework (USDA Forest Service, 2000). The goals of the revised Strategic Plan (ecosystem health, effective public service, multiple benefits to people, scientific and technical assistance) address all three of the major categories of the Montreal Process criteria (see Box).

The connections between the Montreal Process criteria and indicators and the Strategic Plan 2000 Revision are more substantial with respect to indicators and objectives. The Montreal Process indicators provide appropriate measures of outcomes for strategic objectives focused on the agency's mission of sustainability. An example illustrates the linkages: Montreal Process Criterion 1 relates to the conservation of biological diversity. One of the indicators for this criterion is the status of forest-dependent species at risk of not maintaining viable breeding populations. Goal 1 in the Strategic Plan 2000 Revision - the promotion of ecosystem health and conservation to sustain the nation's forests, grasslands, and watersheds - is linked to Criterion 1. One of the objectives associated with this goal is providing ecological conditions to sustain viable populations of native and desired non-native species. The measure for this objective is the status and/or trends in populations, habitats and ecological conditions for selected species. Among the species tracked is the red-cockaded woodpecker (Picoides borealis) as an indicator for the longleaf and shortleaf pine (Pinus palustris and Pinus echinata) ecosystems in the southeastern United States

Despite the linkages between the criteria and indicators and the Strategic Plan 2000 Revision, insufficient data led to measurement problems. With respect to the example above, milestones set for meeting the objective were vague and data were not available for some indicator species. As another example, the watershed health objective was designed to improve and protect watershed conditions, but the Forest Service was unable to measure progress towards the objective in the absence of a comprehensive monitoring protocol and programme to assess watershed condition and function on a nationwide basis. The paucity of reliable baseline data for these and other long-term measures and milestones in the 2000 Revision left the agency unable to demonstrate accountability for many of the expected long-term results.


To redress these performance accountability problems, the Forest Service is preparing a 2003 Update of the Strategic Plan that strengthens linkages between science-based indicators derived from the Montreal Process and the agency's strategic goals and objectives. The objectives set forth in the draft 2003 Update have largely been based on existing reports using criteria and indicators to assess status and trends in forest sustainability in terms of the ecological, social and economic environment.

The draft 2003 Update has three goals: to maintain the health, productivity and diversity of the nation's forests and grasslands; to provide a sustainable flow of goods and services from the nation's forests and grasslands; and to maintain the organizational capacity to provide effective public service. These goals are parallel to the three main categories of the Montreal Process criteria (see Box).

In order to prepare objectives for the three goals, the planners sought to identify key indicators of sustainability from the full suite of 67 Montreal Process indicators. Particularly useful were the 18 core indicators adopted by the Northeast Area Association of State Foresters (NAASF), an organization that represents the directors of state forestry agencies in the northeastern United States. The 18 indicators adopted by NAASF span the seven criteria of the Montreal Process framework (USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, Northeastern Area, 2002)(see Table). These indicators became the basis for drafting an initial set of measurable policy objectives that address a limited set of high-priority
issues. As a result, policy objectives are linked to key social, economic and ecological conditions. For example, one of the indicators is "the condition and vulnerability of aquatic systems by watershed", which is aligned with a draft policy objective addressing watershed function: "increase the number of forest and rangeland watersheds in fully functional hydrologic condition". Taking a pragmatic approach, the planners made efforts to design measures to assess progress towards objectives critical to the agency's mission in order to have the capacity to demonstrate programme effectiveness.

In addition, the draft 2003 Update describes objectives in light of how Forest Service programmes are expected to influence long-term trends. Potential interactions between various outcomes are also noted. These include, for example, adverse effects on carbon sequestration through controlled burns that aim to reduce hazardous fuels and improve forest health.

The main goals of the 2003 Update of the United States Forest Service’s Strategic Plan – for example, the goal of maintaining the health, productivity and diversity of the nation’s forests and grasslands – are parallel to the categories of the Montreal Process criteria
(Photo: FAO/FO-0324/T.HOFER)

Base indicators adopted by the Northeast Area Association of State Foresters (NAASF) for use in state and regional forest sustainability assessments, spanning the Montreal Process criteria and subcriteria

Montreal Process criterion/subcriterion

NAASF sustainability indicator

Criterion 1: Conservation of biological diversity

• Ecosystem diversity

Area of forest land relative to non-forest land, area of timberland and area of reserved land

Extent of area by forest type and by size class, age class and successional stage

Degree of forest land conversion, fragmentation and parcelling

• Species diversity

Status of species and communities of concern, with focus on forest-associated species

Criterion 2: Maintenance of productive capacity of forest ecosystems

Area of timberland

Annual removal of wood products compared to net growth

Criterion 3: Maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality

Area and percent of forest affected by damaging agents such as insects, disease, exotic/native species, fire, storm, land clearance and domestic animals

Criterion 4: Conservation and maintenance of soil and water resources

Area and percent of forest land with significantly diminished soil organic matter, erosion, compaction and/or changes in other soil chemical or physical properties

Area and percent of forest land adjacent to surface water and area of forested land by watershed

Condition and vulnerability of aquatic systems by watershed

Criterion 5: Maintenance of forest contribution to global carbon cycles

Total forest ecosystem biomass and carbon pool and contribution of forest ecosystems to the total carbon budget

Criterion 6: Maintenance and enhancement of long-term multiple socio-economic benefits to meet the needs of societies

• Production and consumption

Value and volume of wood and wood products production, consumption, imports and exports

• Recreation and tourism

Outdoor recreational activities and use, recreational facilities and use

• Investment in the forest sector

Public and private investments in forest health, management, processing, manufacturing and research

• Cultural, social and spiritual needs and values

Public, private and industrial ownership and land use (including area of specially designated land use)

• Employment and community needs

Trends in earnings and employment in forest-related sectors (e.g. wood products, recreation, forest management)

Criterion 7: Legal, institutional, and economic framework for forest conservation and sustainable management

• Extent to which the legal framework supports the conservation and sustainable management of forests

Existence, type and monitoring of voluntary or mandatory best management practices

• Extent to which the institutional framework supports the conservation and sustainable management of forests

Existence, type and frequency of forest-related planning, assessment and policy review, including cross-sectoral planning and coordination


Although the designers of the Montreal Process criteria and indicators framework warned that it should not be used as a performance yardstick to evaluate a nation's forest management programme, using the framework to support strategic planning assists the United States Forest Service in ensuring that it addresses all the varied aspects of sustainability and improves performance accountability. Adopting a criteria and indicators framework facilitates a comprehensive analysis of progress towards sustainable forest management and also provides an efficient means of communicating condition and trend information that forms a basis for forest policy dialogue.

Despite the many challenges, the application of a criteria and indicators framework is strengthening the capacity of the Forest Service to achieve sustainable resource management in several ways:

• by providing stakeholders with widely accepted sustainability indicators which offer a common vocabulary for effective collaboration among stakeholders with varying perceptions;

• by aligning long-range goals with measurable objectives for sustainable management, thus enhancing the agency's accountability and capacity to focus scarce resources on activities that efficiently advance its mission;

• by providing the agency with tools to measure progress towards desired outcomes, i.e. trend indicators, which in conjunction with monitoring of annual performance measures enable the Forest Service to track both the near-term performance and long-term results of its programmes, and thus to demonstrate effectiveness in delivering its mission and to evaluate policies for improvement.

The United States is not alone in facing the challenge of sustainable renewable resource management. Problems such as population growth, conflicting resource uses, subdivision of open spaces and wildland fires confront most of the approximately 150 nations that are employing criteria and indicators. Using criteria and indicators to assess and monitor forest conditions can aid in addressing these problems, but further action is necessary to effectively influence policies and decisions to achieve sustainable management of renewable resources. Countries must also integrate the information derived from the use of criteria and indicators into the development and implementation of their national forest programmes. Like the United States, other countries may be able to benefit from the adaptation of criteria and indicators to strategic plans to meet the challenges of sustainable resource management.


Montreal Process Working Group (MPWG). 1998. Criteria and indicators for the conservation and sustainable management of temperate and boreal forests. Ottawa, Canada. Available on the Internet:

MPWG. 1999. Forests for the future: Montreal Process criteria and indicators. Ottawa, Canada. Available on the Internet:

Maille, R. 2000. Sustainability roundtable builds partnerships. In USDA Forest Service International Programs Newsletter, No. 5. Available on the Internet:

USDA Forest Service. 2000. USDA Forest Service Strategic Plan (2000 Revision). Internet document:   

USDA Forest Service. 2003. National report on sustainable forests - 2003. Internet document:

USDA Forest Service, State and Private Forestry, Northeastern Area. 2002. Sourcebook on criteria and indicators of forest sustainability in the Northeastern Area. NA-TP-03-02. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, USA. Available on the Internet:  

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