Sustainable forest management: Moving forward together

Dale Bosworth 1


In the United States, forest management has come a long way. Twenty years ago, the focus was on maximizing the output of forest products while mitigating the associated resource damage. Foresters tended to focus on the particular piece of ground they were managing. Today, the focus has shifted to long-term ecosystem health. Increasingly, foresters take "the long and the broad view" before making decisions - they consider long-term outcomes and the entire landscape. On public lands, we now manage collaboratively, drawing on the principles of community-based forestry. We know that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.

Internationally, there have been parallel developments. Twenty years ago, the forestry focus worldwide was narrower than today. The contours of sustainable forest management (SFM) were certainly there, but it took years for SFM to fully take shape. As it did, it profoundly influenced the course of forestry in the United States. In fact, the challenges we face today in the United States are perhaps best understood in the international context of SFM.

The emergence of SFM

Think of everything that has happened internationally in the last 15 to 20 years. Work done by the Brundtland Commission during the 1980s gave us a definition of sustainable development. That was followed in 1992 by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development - UNCED). The UN Commission on Sustainable Development built on the Earth Summit through its Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF), and UN Forum on Forests (UNFF). From 1995 through 2000, the IPF and IFF came up with about 270 proposals for action.

All this produced a growing consensus on the elements of SFM and the need for measuring progress through criteria and indicators (C&I). In 2001, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests was formed, in recognition of the growing need for mechanisms of international collaboration. Since the Earth Summit, nine regional groups of countries have been developing C&I for defining and measuring national progress toward SFM. Late last year, the World Summit on Sustainable Development reaffirmed the importance of forests for sustainable development.

Unfortunately, progress toward achieving SFM has often lagged behind the political and institutional recognition of its importance. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, the rate of forest loss and degradation in developing countries has declined only marginally (FAO, 2003). In the 1990s, 38 900 ha of forest in developing countries were lost on average every day. The primary direct causes remain conversion to agriculture and fuel gathering, although logging has also contributed. Moreover, logging roads often facilitate forest access, leading to overhunting and agricultural conversion. In developed countries, the main cause of forest loss is urbanization.

Despite such trends, the United States welcomes the growing acceptance worldwide of SFM as a common goal. We deeply appreciate the international willingness to find common ground, and we remain firmly committed to our international partners. For almost ten years, we have been working with 11 other countries in the Montreal Process to develop C&I for SFM in boreal and temperate forests. Along with those 11 other countries, we are releasing our 2003 National Report on Sustainable Forests here at the XII World Forestry Congress. Designed for use by the American public, the report marks a milestone in forestry for the United States.

Our commitment to SFM through the Montreal Process goes well beyond national self-interest. As a professional forester, I believe it is time for forestry to reassert its leadership role in conservation worldwide. By developing and using C&I for SFM on the national and international levels, foresters can show our publics worldwide what the trends are in the social, economic, and biological condition of our forests. That will make our profession and the governments we serve more accountable for our accomplishments - and, inevitably, for our failures.

Moreover, globalization is adding to the complexity of the world. We need common ways of talking about resources, both across borders and across sectors. Forest trend data should be as readily available as economic statistics such as employment and interest rates, and I commend the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for its outstanding annual reports on the state of the world's forests. Many countries are developing cross-sectoral C&I for sustainable development. The Montreal Process and parallel efforts worldwide are contributing. Through such efforts, we are gaining more of the tools needed in today's global economy.

In addition to the Montreal Process, the United States is working in a number of ways to achieve SFM worldwide. We support such international bodies as the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). We promote FAO's global forest resource assessments and other work. We conduct research focusing on mahogany and other tropical forest resources, and we support research organizations such as the International Union of Forest Research Organizations and the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center, based in Costa Rica. Our forest researchers and managers work in a number of countries to promote SFM. A good example is the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, where we are working with six countries in the Congo basin to promote economic development, alleviate poverty and improve local governance in 11 key landscapes.

International efforts to promote SFM have influenced the forestry discussion within the United States by shaping new collaborative relationships. A prime example is the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests, which includes stakeholders in forest management from across the spectrum - federal and state governments, non-governmental organizations, the forest products industry, and the scientific community. The Roundtable is the first permanent group of its kind to exist solely for the purpose of taking collective action to promote SFM in the United States.

Through the Roundtable, we have integrated the idea of a periodic national report on sustainable resource management - the first National Report on Sustainable Forests, released here at the World Forestry Congress - with a prior legal requirement we had in the United States to report periodically on the state of the nation's forests.2 In the United States, public lands play a major role in forest management. In the West, 68.9% of our forests are under public management, mostly by the federal government (USDA Forest Service, 2001).

Challenges to SFM

Both domestically and internationally, SFM is shaping our future by giving us some of the tools we will need to meet the challenges ahead. Some of the challenges in the United States will be familiar to other countries: declining forest health; loss of forest land; unsustainable wood consumption; and a loss of focus on forests and forestry. Each challenge deserves a closer look.

Declining forest health

In the United States, we face an increase in catastrophic wildfires.3 Since the mid-1980s, fire seasons have been on the rise. In both 2000 and 2002, more hectares burned than in any year since the 1950s. In 2002, we had record-breaking fires in four states. Nationwide, more than half of our forests are at high (15%) or moderate (38%) risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity.4

We also face unprecedented outbreaks of insects and diseases. For example, bark beetle populations have exploded in parts of the South and West. In 2002, the beetles killed millions of pines on more than 200 000 ha of national forest land and American Indian reservation land in Arizona alone (USDA Forest Service, 2002b). In all ownerships nationwide, some 28 Mha of forest are at serious risk from 26 different insects and diseases.

There is also a growing threat to our forests from introduced plants, animals, insects and diseases. With the globalization of commercial ties, many species are increasingly finding their way to foreign shores. For example, the United States has about 2 000 exotic plants (Mitchell, 2000), about 400 of which are invasive. Exotic diseases have reshaped entire forest ecosystems, largely wiping out trees such as the American chestnut and American elm. Major exotic threats include the gypsy moth, hemlock woolly adelgid, dogwood anthracnose, and Asian longhorned beetle in the East; and white pine blister rust, sudden oak death, and Port Orford cedar root disease in the West. All invasive species combined cost US citizens about US$138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs (Pimentel et al., 1999).

Forest loss

One of the greatest challenges facing the United States is the sheer loss of open space. From 1982 to 1997, more than 8.8 Mha of open land were lost to development, including about 4.2 Mha of forest land (NRCS, 2000).5 That amounts to about 1 600 ha of open space lost every day, or about 1 ha per minute.

The problem is the fragmentation of forests within a landscape that is becoming increasingly urban. By 2020, we will have 50 million more Americans, four-fifths of them living in urban areas, which are fastest growing in the Rocky Mountain states (Cordell and Overdevest, 2001). Already, there are hotspots of population pressure on undeveloped natural lands in the central Rocky Mountains and parts of the Southwest, including southern California. By 2020, the hotspots will cover most of the West.

Rural landscapes are fragmenting as parcels of forest land shift from industrial to non-industrial private owners (Sampson et al., 2000). As ownerships get smaller, sound management becomes more difficult. Parcelization can become what Sampson (2002) has called "a cascading phenomenon. The more forest land gets chopped up, the more expensive and less profitable it becomes to manage for sustainable forests on the remaining lands, so the pressure to cash them out for real estate value grows accordingly. The more land that is sold and fragmented, the more pressure is created, and on and on it goes." By 2010, Sampson and DeCoster (2000) predict, the average forest ownership will be about 7 ha.

One result is growing fire danger. Officials estimate that wildland fires destroyed six times more homes in the 1990s than in the 1980s. Another result is growing pressure on limited water resources, particularly in the arid West. Well-managed working forests can protect watersheds far better than even the most careful urban or suburban development. Yet another result is habitat loss. In many parts of the United States, forest interior habitat is at a premium. As large working forests are sold and carved into small tracts for development, much of their rich biodiversity is being lost.

Unsustainable consumption

Many countries consume more than they can sustainably produce. To avoid resource degradation, they must import the difference. But if imports trigger unsustainable practices abroad, then the problem is simply transferred, not solved (Knudson, 2003). The United States is concerned about undermining the health of the world's forest ecosystems through consumption patterns that are out of balance with production.

In 2001, we commissioned the Intelligent Consumption Project (ICP) to explore the question of wood consumption in the United States. Among its findings, the ICP listed some basic consumption trends (Strigel and Meine, 2001):

In the coming decades, US dependence on imported forest products is expected to grow (Haynes 2003). Canada will support about 30% of US softwood lumber consumption over the next 50 years, and imports from other countries are expected to support another 15%. Clearly, the United States runs the risk of exporting adverse environmental effects associated with wood production.

The issue is complex. Most wood substitutes have even greater adverse impacts on the environment than wood. The solution lies partly in using all resources and energy more efficiently and in rewarding institutions for practising conservation. Citizens must also learn the consequences of their consumption choices, and they must be given the means to make those choices wisely.

Loss of focus

As we wrestle with problems like these, we will need to focus public attention on the real issues we face in forestry. Unfortunately, we have not done a good job of that in recent decades. Worldwide, forests and forestry have lost prestige. Today, the debate is too often driven by the battles of the past.

A good example is the debate over national forest management in the United States. If you read the newspapers in the United States, you might think that our main forestry issues are unsustainable timber harvest and road-building in the wild backcountry. Yet timber harvest on the national forests is only about 15% of what it was 20 years ago. Today, for every kilometer of new road we build, we obliterate 14 kilometers of old road. Our forest road system is actually shrinking.

Management of national forests in the United States is nothing like it was 20 to 30 years ago; it is time to move on. It is time to refocus the debate on the real problems we face, such as declining forest health, the loss of open space and unsustainable wood consumption. These problems will not wait while we refight old battles. Time is not on our side.

To help focus the debate, we will need to showcase the values and benefits that people derive from forests and forestry. If we want to make a compelling case for the importance of SFM, we will need to better quantify the values that come from our forests. We can do better in that regard. Our work on the report we are delivering here at the World Forestry Conference only confirmed what we already knew: we do not yet have the ability to fully measure the importance of forests for the citizens of the United States.

Moving forward together

The international forestry community must focus on the broad issues we face today. Our problems are daunting, yet we have come a long way in the past 20 years. We have learned to take the long and the broad view; in the broad sweep of our own history in the United States, we know that forests are resilient, capable of recovering and flourishing after relatively cataclysmic events, such as landscape-level clearing and burning in centuries past (MacCleery, 1996). We also know that success means thinking and reaching out beyond our own boundaries and borders.

I believe we can succeed if we:

The United States will continue to promote international partnerships for resolving our common problems. All forestry stakeholders in the United States will remain firmly engaged on issues such as certification, trade and the protection of endangered species through CITES. We look forward to our continued participation in the Montreal Process; to bilateral work with our neighbours, Canada and Mexico; and to a host of international programmes involving collaborative research, technical exchange and assistance projects through the US Agency for International Development. Above all, we will continue to support the work of international bodies such as the UNFF, FAO and ITTO. We have much to learn and much to gain from working closely together on a global basis for a sustainable future for all.


Cordell, H.K., & Overdevest, C. 2001. Footprints on the land: An assessment of demographic trends and the future of natural lands in the United States. Champaign, Ill., Sagamore Publishing.

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2003. State of the world's forests. Rome.

Haynes, R.W. (tech. coord.). 2003. An analysis of the timber situation in the United States: 1952 to 2050. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-560. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, Oreg.

Knudson, T. 2003. Shifting the pain - World's resources feed California's growing. The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.). April 27.

MacCleery, D.W. 1996. American forests: A history of resiliency and recovery. Durham, N.C. Forest History Society.

Mitchell, J.E. 2000. Rangeland resource trends in the United States. Gen. Tech. Rep. 68. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, Colo.

NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). 2000. Natural resources inventory summary report. Washington, D.C., US Department of Agriculture, NRCS.

Pimentel, D., Lach, L., Zuniga, R. & Morrison, D. 1999. Environmental economic costs associated with nonindigenous species in the United States. Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University.

Sampson, R.N. 2002. A new age for forestry. Paper delivered at the Inland Northwest Foresters Forum, Post Falls, Ida., February 21.

Sampson, R.N. & DeCoster, L. 2000. Forest fragmentation: Implications for sustainable private forests. J. of For. 98(3): 4-8.

Sampson, N., DeCoster, L. & Remuzzi, J. 2000. Changes in forest industry timberland ownership, 1979-2000. Unpublished paper, September 1, Alexandria, Va., The Sampson Group, Inc.

Strigel, M. & Meine, C. eds. 2001. Report of the intelligent consumption project. Madison, Wisc., Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

USDA Forest Service. 2001. US forest facts and historical trends. Washington, D.C., US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

USDA Forest Service. 2002a. Development of coarse-scale spatial data for wildland fire and fuel management. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-87. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fort Collins, Colo.

USDA Forest Service. 2002b. Summary of bark beetle activity in ponderosa pine forests of Arizona. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Flagstaff, Ariz.

1 Chief, Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C., United States of America.

2 In 1974, Congress passed the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act (P.L. 93-378, 88 Stat. 475, as amended). Known as the RPA, it requires the Secretary of Agriculture to prepare a Renewable Resources Assessment every 10 years.

3 For the purposes of this paper, catastrophic fires are fires that can compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity. They usually burn with a severity outside the historical range of variation.

4 Formally classified as condition classes 2 and 3, these forests are subject to fire behaviour and fire effects outside the historical range of variation (USDA Forest Service, 2002a).

5 Despite a net growth of forest land nationwide, many regions are losing valuable forest cover.