What it is

Forest management is the process of planning and implementing practices for the stewardship and use of forests and other wooded land to meet specific environmental, economic, social and cultural objectives. It deals with the overall administrative, economic, legal, social, technical and scientific aspects related to natural and planted forests. It may involve varying degrees of deliberate human intervention, ranging from actions aimed at safeguarding and maintaining forest ecosystems and their functions, to those favouring specific socially or economically valuable species or groups of species for the improved production of forest goods and services.

A globally agreed definition of sustainable forest management (SFM) is impractical beyond a very general level because of the huge diversity of forest types, conditions and socioeconomic contexts worldwide. In general, however, SFM can be viewed as the sustainable use and conservation of forests with the aim of maintaining and enhancing multiple forest values through human interventions. People are at the centre of SFM because it aims to contribute to society’s diverse needs in perpetuity.



Applying sustainable forest manangement

Seven thematic elements have been identified in the Non-legally Binding Instrument as a “reference framework” for SFM. Together with their Criteria and Indicators (C&I), these elements allow forest owners and stakeholders to define SFM in specific countries and under local conditions, i.e. what the objectives are and how forests should be managed to achieve them, always respecting the basic principle of perpetuity in the maintenance and enhancement of forest values embedded in the concept of sustainable forest managment.

As implementation of SFM takes place in diverse forest types and country/local conditions, globally agreed definitions for the detailed contents are impractical.

A multidimensional and dynamic concept

Measuring trees as part of the National Forest Assessment in Viet Nam. ©FAO/Joan Manuel Baliellas / FAOForests have multiple functions that are interdependent. A forest may be assigned a main management function, such as production, biodiversity conservation, soil and water protection, cultural and spiritual functions, or combinations of these and others. SFM is a multidimensional and multipurpose concept. Forests can perform many functions simultaneously and deliver various combinations of goods and services, depending on national and local conditions that may change over time. This capacity and flexibility requires that the multiple values of forests are maintained in perpetuity. Forests in which more than one main management function is designated are sometimes called multipurpose forests

For many forest functions, however, choices must be made, and such choices can involve both positive and negative tradeoffs and competing interests among stakeholders. SFM is a tool for negotiating tradeoffs and balancing interests in varying ecological and socioeconomic conditions on the basis of: participatory methods of planning and implementing SFM as a way of legitimizing interventions and managing conflicting interests; available scientific and traditional knowledge; state-of-the-art technology, where appropriate; and effective management systems.

In “scientific” forestry, the concept of sustainability developed mainly in the context of ensuring sustainable timber production and meeting economic objectives. In recent decades, however, the scope of SFM has broadened to equally cover social, cultural and environmental forest values. This has also widened the contexts in which SFM can be applied – to all kinds of natural, modified and planted forests, which may be designated for any purpose(s). At the same time, the complexity of implementing SFM has increased and so have its costs. The complexity derives from the positive and negative tradeoffs between objectives and the difficulty of measuring and obtaining remuneration for many of the social, cultural and environmental benefits of forests (usually collectively called “forest environmental services”).

In countries where good governance practices are in place, societies can define the national goals of SFM in forest policies and programmes using democratic and other participatory processes. The achievement of such national goals should not put at risk the economic, social, cultural and environmental requirements of forest management, which should be set in national legislation. As societal values and national goals for socioeconomic development and environmental conservation change over time, so too will the goals of SFM.

Like any other human activity related to natural resources, forest management is a continual process of improvement. New information is considered when revisiting the objectives and approaches of SFM as part of adaptive management. SFM is always responsive and adaptable to changing knowledge and needs.

The maintenance and enhancement of forest values in perpetuity does not mean that forests remain in a static state. Forests will always be subject to natural or human-induced perturbations, and SFM must therefore be perceived as a dynamic process. The key to SFM is to maintain the resilience of the forest to withstand perturbations while ensuring its capacity to adapt to longer-term environmental change.

Geographic scales 

An important dimension of SFM is the scale at which it is applied – global, national, subnational, landscape, forest management unit (FMU) or forest stand. SFM should be addressed at all these levels.

At the global and national scales, the goal of SFM is to contribute to the management, conservation and sustainable development of all types of forests and to ensure their multiple complementary functions. The global environmental services provided by forests, such as climate-change mitigation and biodiversity conservation, should be addressed at the international level because all nations have an interest in their maintenance. Global payment mechanisms for such services already exist and are being further discussed in various international fora.

At the subnational and landscape scales (for example, a water catchment area or an administrative or other geographic unit), growing awareness of the socioeconomic, environmental and cultural importance of forests has led to new approaches to SFM that focus on the maintenance and enhancement of various forest environmental services. Such approaches are increasingly also assisting forest owners to organize in cooperative efforts to produce and market environmental services and develop the necessary infrastructure. At these scales, a common view is developed through planning processes involving all stakeholders to clarify what constitutes SFM in a particular subnational unit or landscape given physical, economic and other constraints.

At the FMU scale (e.g. a forest property), SFM is implemented to achieve specific objectives in particular local conditions that are compatible with the ecological and social processes that sustain forest resources and ecosystems. In an FMU, individual forest stands are managed accordingly and their status varies over time: for example, at any given time some stands may temporarily have low or no tree cover (as they regenerate after harvesting), while others are at different development stages, with full canopy cover.

The essential aim of SFM is to maintain and enhance the potential of forests at all scales to deliver the various goods and environmental services that society requires over time. Goals, objectives, strategies, policies, legal instruments, institutional arrangements and guidelines to implement SFM can vary considerably because of the very large diversity of conditions at the various scales. National goals for SFM serve as the framework for landscape-level and other subnational plans, which guide individual FMUs in setting their own goals in specific local conditions. Each FMU should be managed sustainably for the purpose(s) for which it is intended, taking into account landscape-level requirements related to, for example, the conservation of biodiversity, soil, water and other natural resources with the aim of maintaining ecosystem resilience, including by emulating natural disturbances, as appropriate.


last updated:  Friday, June 8, 2018