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The model forests programme: International cooperation to define sustainable management

D.G. Brand and A.M. LeClaire

David C. Brand is director of Environment in the Department of Natural Resources Canada.

Alison M. LeClaire is in the Environment Division of External Affairs and International Trade Canada.

Canada develops a programme aimed at evaluating concepts of sustainable forest management in an operative working-scale context.


Most countries with significant forest cover have espoused the goal of sustainable forest management. Many have also participated in national and international policy processes to refine the concept and define-it in measurable terms. Yet the worlds' forests still face considerable challenges from pollution, deforestation and environmentally damaging forestry practices. Is it possible that agreement in principle about sustainable management of forests is the easy part and that implementation of the concept will be the real challenge?

The gap between the theory and practice can be attributed to many things: there is the financial inability of many countries to address the root problems of overpopulation, social unrest and poverty which lead to forest destruction; there is also an attitudinal and institutional inflexibility that looks narrowly at forests as a resource for economic gain, rather than as a living ecosystem of marvellous complexity; finally, there is a technical and scientific inability to define what is desirable or necessary at a "watershed scale" in the management of ecosystems. These factors have worked against the actual implementation of sustainable forest management.

The model forests programme encourages groups with divergent interests to work together towards sustainable forest management

To date, most international debate on forests has resided at the higher and more theoretical level. This is understandable, as fundamental issues, such as ability to pay, sovereignty and trade, tend to overlie the ability to talk specifically. However, there is no longer time to debate principles in isolation. People around the world are interested in seeing positive action and some indication that sustainable approaches to forest management are being developed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the northern developed countries. The public of Canada, as an example, is increasingly concerned about how forests are being managed both domestically and internationally. The result is a need to re-examine how forests are managed within our country and then to use the lessons learned from Canadian efforts as a contribution to the quest for sustainable management of forests worldwide.

The concept of model forests

The context of forest management in Canada can be understood by describing a few important factors. First, the forest is almost entirely publicly held by the ten provincial governments (80 percent) and the federal government (10 percent). Second, the forest is extensive, representing about 9 percent of the total world forest cover, and is largely natural in character, with almost all harvesting being undertaken in primary or virgin forests. Third, forest management is carried out by the forest industry in most provinces, with regulation and inspection being undertaken by a variety of government agencies. Finally, the past basis for forest management in Canada has been the concept of sustained yield of wood and the attendant effort to create a "normal" forest of balanced age classes and species groups.

The Canadian public has become increasingly aware that forest management for a sustained yield of timber can have negative consequences for the conservation of other values in the forest, most notably fish and wildlife habitat, aesthetics, water quality and total biodiversity. The result over the past two decades has been the evolution of an ever-increasing series of constraints on the production of timber in an attempt to recognize these other values. This has been an attempt to "conserve by default" rather than actively set management objectives for both timber and non-timber values.

The Canadian public readily accepted the concept of sustainable development in the late 1980s, leading to a series of policy processes aimed at Canadian Government agencies. In forestry, this included a national meeting of provincial and federal forestry ministers to produce a broad definition of the concept of sustainable forestry management, followed by a national forest strategy, Sustainable forests: a Canadian commitment (Canadian Council of Forestry Ministers, 1992), and a national forest accord, signed by major stakeholders and interest groups. These were all substantial accomplishments but they still left open the need to translate this consensus into working, "on-the-ground" changes in forest management practices and philosophies.

A meeting of Canadian federal and provincial forestry ministers in 1990 provided some initial guidance on what was needed to make a transition from the conventional sustained yield philosophy of forest regulation to the broader concept of the sustainable management of multiple forest values. First, the ministers identified six key values to be integrated into forest management: employment and economic benefit; biodiversity; conservation of representative and unique ecosystems in a natural state; conservation of soil and water quality; conservation of wildlife habitat; and the provision of recreational opportunities. Second, they indicated a need for changes in attitudes among the various stakeholders with an interest in the forest. Conflicts arise over forest management when organizations and individuals view the forest from a narrow perspective and there is a need for a greater understanding of other viewpoints and a recognition that cooperation is the most fruitful way to reach common goals. Finally, the ministers identified the need for changes in the way government and other institutions function. Too many organizations have a tightly focused mandate that leads to the pursuit of goals in isolation. Sustainable management requires that methods are found to integrate the interests of different organizations into a comprehensive, coordinated programme. It is noteworthy that, in closing the conference, the ministers also recognized that it was time to go beyond talking about sustainability and actually try to accomplish it.

The model forest concept


· to accelerate the implementation of sustainable development;
· to apply new and innovative approaches to the management of forests;
· to test and demonstrate sustainable forestry practices.

Characteristics of model forest projects:

· projects are managed by a broad range of interests in partnership;
· projects are working-scale in size;
· multiple values are considered according to an integrated management philosophy;
· ecologically sound forestry practices are adopted;
· emphasis is placed on scientific research and the application of appropriate technology;
· effective public education, communications and technology transfer are essential elements.

Although fairly general, these key points served to provide the impetus to establish a national cooperative programme of expertise "model forests" (see Box, The model forest concept). A small task force was established by the federal government to propose draft criteria for what would constitute a model forest. The federal minister of forestry then created the National Advisory Committee on Model Forests, which was to be responsible for finalizing those criteria and undertaking a nationwide competition to establish the model forest sites. The Advisory Committee was chaired by Dr A. May, President of Memorial University of Newfoundland, and it included senior officials from industry and representatives of environmental organizations, aboriginal peoples, academia and government. The final criteria included the need for all stakeholders and organizations to be involved in goal-setting; the need for an integrated, ecologically sound concept of forest management; the need for integrating science in the solution; the need for the model forests to be of a working, landscape scale; and the need for the forests to be managed for multiple values, including but not limited to the continued production of timber. These criteria as well as the general plan to establish the model forests were accepted by the Canadian forestry ministers in the summer of 1991.

The Canadian model forests

TABLE Comparison of three model forest projects





· 420000 ha

· 367000 ha

· 181000 ha

Land base:

· Government 15%

· Government 44%

· Government 99%

· Private industrial forest 17%

· Parks 46%

· Private industrial forest 1%

· Private woodlots 63%

· Native lands 5%

· Parks 5%

· Community land 5%

Key partners:

· Professional organizations

· Industry

· Research organizations

· Universities

· Governments

· NGOs

· Forest industry

· Native groups

· Governments

· Governments

· Professional foresters

· Labour unions

· School groups

· Communities

· Private woodlot association

· Native groups

· Environmental NGOs

· Forest industry

· Communities

· Service/technology industries

· Universities


· Derive the full economic potential from forest resources by implementing an environmentally sustainable management plan

· Ensure sustainable and predictable supply of forest-based ecological social and economic benefits through management of forest ecosystems and people

· Develop practical decision support system for integrated resource management that links operational and strategic planning and accommodates multiple resource use objectives

· Ensure full multiple use of forest on a sound environmental basis

· Raise awareness of and commitment to sustainability, integrated resource management and ecosystem management among forest users researchers and managers at all levels

· Develop capacity to forecast and assess site-specific resource values for each stage of ecosystem

· Enhance and share knowledge of forest ecosystems to adapt new management tools and improve management techniques

· Assess forest management practices for efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability/develop operational ground rules for their use

· Transfer technology developed in programme to other parties

· Provide information and education programmes that inform forest land managers, forest workers, other stakeholders and general public of activities and achievements in programme/provide opportunities for public comment on activities

1993 activities:

· Information system

· Information system

· Information system

· Education programme

· Ecosystem classification

· Ecosystem mapping

· Recreation trails/interpretive centre

· Oral history/ethnocartographic mapping

· Define indicators of sustainability

· Demonstration woodlots

· Study bird habitats and use

· Wildlife habitat research

· Intensive silviculture

· Alternative forestry programme

· School and environmental education

Canada's model forest projects were established through a nationwide competition that commenced in the autumn of 1991. Partnership groups were empowered to form of their own volition and to work together on a detailed proposal for a specific area of the country, within the criteria established for the programme. The groups that formed and worked on proposals were diverse and often held strongly opposing views of how forests should be managed and conserved. Yet 50 different proposals were submitted while a review by an independent advisory committee' reporting to the federal minister of forestry, led to the identification of ten model forestry projects in June 1992.

The ten sites chosen cover more than 6 million ha, represent five of the major forest ecoregions of Canada and cover a mix of large and small private landholdings, publicly owned land, including national parks, and lands under the control of indigenous populations (see Map). Each project is distinct in terms of its land base, ecology, social and environmental issues and combination of partner groups. The model forest partnerships are at the centre of the concept. Individual projects have between five and 70 different agencies represented in their management and decision-making structure. Most of the model forests have institutionalized themselves by incorporating a non-profit "model forest corporation" that includes the pool of partner groups, technical committees focused on specific programme areas and a board of directors that puts together the integrated annual plan. The model forest corporations serve as a coordinating body. The forest industry still aims to generate a profit from the use of forest resources, recreationists and environmental groups still pursue conservation and protection objectives, private landowners still have their own, highly variable objectives, and government agencies still have responsibilities for management of forests, fisheries, rural development, etc. Yet there is now closer cooperation and an ability to share information and make trade-offs between competing objectives.

Biodiversity conservation is an important element in the model forest concept

The specific activities in the model forest are based on the original proposal, with technical committees preparing detailed plans for each activity. The board of directors approves the overall annual work programme, and the activities are then carried out by the partner groups or by contract. The Canadian Government will make an annual contribution of about Can$ 1 million (US$ 0.8 million) per model forest site for five years. This funding is provided through the Canadian "Green Plan", the fiscal time frame of which extends through 31 March 1997. Based on a review of the programme in the third year as well as government priorities, it is anticipated that funding for the model forests programme will be extended beyond the initial five-year period. Additional funds and in-kind support are provided by the model forest partner agencies. The Table, Comparison of three model forest projects compares three of the Canadian model forest projects in terms of size, land base, partner groups, goals and activities. The programme emphasis is highly variable from project to project, according to the perceived needs of the area concerned.

As the programme enters its second year, some of the highlights of the model forest activities include projects related to biodiversity, environmental education and training, economic diversification and the development of comprehensive information systems. In the area of biodiversity, model forests are concentrating on conservation biology, especially of threatened or unique species. There is an attempt to integrate biodiversity conservation through protected areas and parks with the management of the surrounding landscapes. For example, six model forests either include or are adjacent to existing national parks. The Western Newfoundland Model Forest has dedicated almost two-thirds of the federal contribution to wildlife habitat studies and, particularly, to the recovery of the threatened pine marten (Martes martes), a fur-bearing mammal requiring a mature forest habitat.

Environmental education and worker training projects aim to develop a stronger understanding of forest ecosystems and environmental impacts among young people, workers and the general public. Projects include development of a new environmental education curriculum for local schools in the area of the Lake Abitibi Model Forest, a course in environmental ethics for forest workers in the Foothills Forest and the establishment of an outdoor education trail, with an amphitheatre in an old quarry, in the Manitoba Model Forest.

The examination of economic diversification results from the desire of communities to seduce reliance on single large-scale industries and develop multiple, smaller, enterprises producing value-added products that can be developed around the forest. The Lake Abitibi Model Forest is developing a plan for increased development of tourist outfitting services for hunting and fishing trips. In the Eastern Ontario Model Forest, there are activities to develop native handicraft industries and maple syrup operations as well as to foster the establishment of industries producing value-added products.

Overriding all the projects is the need for a comprehensive information system that includes ecology, resource values and social and community considerations. Most of the model forest administrations have purchased computer systems with geographic information system (GIS) software that allows the representation of a variety of information and also allows forecasting of the impacts of alternative management programmes. GIS technology and its application in the development of decision support systems (DSS) is emerging as the central technology for planning a sustainable management process. Not only has the computing power to run this technology become highly affordable. there is also a major research programme across Canada, designed to speed development of the DSS tools to evaluate wildlife habitat, allocate harvesting and silviculture activities in the landscape, and monitor and predict water quality and flows. Most model forests are implementing this technology and actively participating in the national research programme on DSS.

The international model forest programme

Canada's model forests programme is still in the early stages but it has already been successful in bringing together a wide variety of groups to work on the challenge of implementing sustainable forest management. It has also become clear that the principles embodied in the programme have potential in a wider context. Most international policy discussions refer time and again to the need to empower communities and interest groups, to view forests within the wider concept of ecosystem management and to take a landscape approach to forest planning. Against this backdrop, at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, Canada's prime minister announced a Can$ 10 million (US$ 8 million) commitment to provide seed money to expand the model forest concept internationally.

Canada has begun the work of establishing model forest projects with Mexico and the Russian Federation. Each project will be distinct and will reflect the economic, social, cultural and ecological context of the area concerned. Taken together, the projects will form a network and will have common objectives in several areas. All projects will be managed through a partnership committee, as was the case in Canada, and all will be working-scale experiments in sustainable forest management by the country concerned. Each project and participating country will provide a representative to an international network committee, with a series of common activities and workshops coordinated through a secretariat.

The process of establishing international model forest projects

In Canada, model forests were established through a national competition. The open competition permitted a maximum of innovation and led to the submission of some excellent proposals, but it did put stress on agencies that were expected to provide data and on staff time to support the work of the proponent groups. There was a concern that some model forest projects would force government agencies into policies that were not fully compatible with their overall interest and also that model forests would lead to a class distinction between these projects and forests under other management regimes.

When the Mexican and Russian Federation Governments were invited to participate in the programme, it was made clear that the process of establishing the model forest sites was flexible and that it would be up to the government of the country concerned (see Box, General process for establishing a model forest project). The Mexicans decided that a limited competition would provide the positive benefits found in Canada, without producing an unwieldy administrative process. The competition was limited to eight candidate regions, chosen by a weighting scheme based on the programme criteria. The eight regions were invited to submit ten-page letters of intent, rather than full project proposals. The Mexican Government then selected the two best concepts - one each from the tropical and temperate regions of the country - to be developed into full project proposals. The successful areas were announced in August 1993. The tropical forest site is in the State of Campeche at the base of the Yucatan Peninsula. The 1 million ha area proposed includes the Calukmul Biosphere Reserve and will focus on sustainable agriculture, sustainable economic development and the conservation of the tropical rain forest biodiversity. In the temperate forest region, the proposed project will be located in the State of Chihuahua, in the mountains of the Sierra Tarahumara. This project will focus on the sustainable management of forests, agricultural production, water management and the conservation of critical ecosystems and plant and bird species. Canada assisted the Mexican process by participating in a workshop on the model forest concept and by bringing a variety of Canadian model forest and general stakeholder representatives to share their experiences.

In the Russian Federation, the proposal development process also started with a workshop, attended by Russian Government officials, representatives of Canadian model forest groups and specialists from research organizations and service sector companies. The Russian Federation decided to establish a working group of government agencies, industry and other stakeholders to consider the potential objectives of the programme and to identify the most likely candidate site. The project will be located in Khabarovsk State and, at the time of writing, the proposed specific site was in the Amur River drainage basin, covering 1.8 million ha. A draft letter of intent will be submitted to Canada and a full project proposal developed.

General process for establishing a model forest project

Time line (months)


Government of country initiates process


Meeting with representatives of model forest secretariat


Workshop with government agencies and interest groups and briefing by established model forest groups and secretariat


Partner group is formed/prepares letter of intent and submits it to government


Government submits letter of intent to secretariat and letter is reviewed


Technical workshop with partnership group and technical experts to discuss proposal development


Proposal development by partnership and submission to government


Model forest secretariat reviews proposal and provides advice


Negotiation of model forest agreement and financial contribution


Project commencement

In implementing the project, it is expected that a similar administrative arrangement to that in Canada will be used. The partners involved will still have their own organizational interests, ongoing activities and responsibilities. However, in implementing the incremental activities of the programme, they will act as a common organization. This means that the funds will be centrally planned by the partnership group representatives acting together and then allocated to specific activities by the individual organizations or through service contracts, purchase orders and the hiring of model forest staff. Each year, the partnership group will produce an annual report and evaluation of progress against objectives and then plan the programme of work for the following year. This annual reappraisal of progress will allow for changes in direction or emphasis as the results of activities are evaluated.

Expanding the network of international model forest projects

The three international model forest projects supported by Canada are viewed as the first step in the creation of a network covering all the major ecoregions of the world. To make this transition, it will be important for other developed and developing countries and international institutions to agree on the value of a continued expansion of the concept. It will be necessary to make the transition from a Canadian-funded programme to an international partnership of institutions and countries. The secretariat, currently located within the Canadian Government, could be transferred to an international organization, possibly within the United Nations system. In this case, countries such as Canada which are sponsoring projects could either make a direct contribution to the central secretariat or simply affiliate the projects with the international coordinating body.

Although the mechanism to expand and internationalize the programme has not been finalized, the first steps will be to gauge international interest in the concept as a contribution to the global policy development process. There are already indications that many countries support the model forest concept as a valuable contribution to post-UNCED discussion about forests. Therefore, it is likely that a workshop could be used to bring countries and organizations together to plan jointly a mechanism for further expansion of the programme and to bring new developed and developing countries into the network.

The link to the global forests debate

As outcomes of UNCED, the non-legally binding authoritative statement of principles for a global consensus on the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests as well as Chapter 11 (Combating deforestation) of Agenda 21 represent the first global consensus on forests. It was a hard-won consensus, however, and the debate at UNCED was often acrimonious, reflecting the importance that nations attach to their national forest resources. As with every other aspect of the UNCED discussions, the forest negotiations were a search for common ground among nations to balance political, social, environmental and economic priorities.

The model forest concept can potentially help clarify issues and identify areas of common goals. The creation of Canada's model forests has shown that a wide variety of interest groups can work together with a common purpose in defining a philosophy and concept of sustainable management. Whether the activities proposed will, in fact, conserve all important values in the forest remains to be seen; as scientific understanding of the complexity of forest ecosystems grows, so too does the difficulty of finding appropriate forest management systems. Nonetheless, it is only through the establishment of an ongoing, adaptive management style that flexible, responsive programmes can be designed.

The international Model Forest Programme can play an important role in the ongoing effort to conserve and manage the world's forests wisely. By working to foster financial and technical cooperation among developed and developing countries and international institutions, the programme supports some of the key principles that emerged from UNCED. Through practical experiments in different countries, shared through a global network, it can strengthen international understanding of the underlying principles of sustainable forest management and support national and international policy discussions. In this way, the model forests are intended to give life to the achievements of the Rio de Janeiro conference and to contribute to the ongoing debate and work of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), particularly for the 1995 review of the forests issue.


Canadian Council of Forestry Ministers. 1992. Sustainable forests: a Canadian commitment. Hull, Quebec.

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