What is sustainable forest management (SFM)?

Forest management is the process of planning and implementing practices for the stewardship and use of forests to meet specific environmental, economic, social and cultural objectives. It deals with the administrative, economic, legal, social, technical and scientific aspects of managing natural and planted forests. It may involve varying degrees of deliberate human interventions, ranging from actions aimed at safeguarding and maintaining forest ecosystems and their functions, to those favouring specific socially or economically valuable 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 center 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 adopted by the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) as a “reference framework” for SFM. These elements allow forest owners and stakeholders to define SFM in specific countries and under local conditions, including the management objectives and how forests should be managed to achieve them, while respecting the basic principle of perpetuity in the maintenance and enhancement of forest values.

A multidimensional and dynamic concept

Once deforested, restored forests outside Seoul, Korea, now serve as an oasis of green space for the city residents. ©FAO/Kenichi Shono

Forests have multiple functions that are interdependent. A forest may be assigned a primary management function, such as production, biodiversity conservation, soil and water protection, cultural and spiritual functions, or a combination 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.

Often, choices must be made in prioritizing certain forest functions, which can involve balancing competing interests among stakeholders. SFM is a tool for negotiating such trade-offs and interests in varying ecological and socio-economic conditions through participatory approaches and effective management systems based on best available scientific and traditional knowledge and state-of-the-art technologies.

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 cover social, cultural and environmental forest values equally. This has also widened the contexts in which SFM can be applied to all kinds of natural, modified and planted forests, which may be managed for different objectives. At the same time, the complexity of implementing SFM has increased due to the multiple objectives and the difficulty of valuing and obtaining remuneration for many of the social, cultural and environmental benefits of forests (collectively referred to as forest ecosystem services).

In countries where good forest governance is in place, societies can define the national goals of SFM in forest policies and programmes using democratic and participatory processes. The achievement of such national goals should not put the economic, social, cultural and environmental requirements of forest management at risk. 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 subjected to natural and/or human-induced disturbances, 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 of 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.

Growing awareness of the socio-economic, environmental and cultural importance of forests has led to new approaches to SFM that focus on the maintenance and enhancement of various forest ecosystem services at national, subnational and landscape levels in many countries. 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, 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. Within an FMU, individual forest stands are managed according to management plans and their physical condition and status vary over time. 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.

last updated:  Wednesday, November 4, 2020