Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) Toolbox

Forest Management Monitoring

This module is intended for forest owners and managers involved in monitoring forest management. It introduces the concepts and common methods of monitoring and provides links to tools and case studies. 

Operational monitoring

Operational monitoring is used to determine whether prescribed practices are being followed and if they are having the desired effects. It therefore provides a basis for modifications to improve practices and identifies areas in which corrective or remedial action is required. Typically monitored operations include:

  • Harvesting
  • Timber production
  • Road construction
  • Occupational safety and health
  • Observation of protected zones
  • Conservation programmes and measures
  • Regeneration
  • Thinning
  • Other silvicultural treatments
  • Contractor performance
  • Productivity
  • Unit and total costs.

Generally, operators are responsible for monitoring their own operations to ensure that standards are observed. Operators should (and may be required by law to) undertake statistically sound sampling of specified operational aspects, with the monitoring method depending on the type of operation. Serious deviations from operational standards should be reported in writing to the overseeing body. Sampling procedures should be designed to suit the operations to be monitored; for example, operators can ensure through monitoring (e.g. by means of measurement using relascopes) that residual stands have the desired basal areas and species compositions after thinning. The intensity of measurement should be decided at the local or company level. 

Post-harvest assessment

A post-harvest assessment is a systematic check to determine whether a harvesting operation (usually of wood, but also of non-wood forest products) has followed the harvesting plan and met its objectives while complying with established economic, social and environmental standards of practice.

Post-harvest assessments can be done for every operation, or for selected operations. If conducted while the harvest is in progress, monitoring can include direct observations of workers and operating equipment and enable immediate remedial action (if required). It is important that monitoring results are communicated to those concerned – from logging crews to higher management or public agencies – so they can be used to address any issues identified.

Operating standards, manuals and other checklists should be used to determine the data that need to be collected. Parameters that could be measured in post-harvest assessments include:

  • the effectiveness of directional felling and grading;
  • whether cutting and extraction have followed harvesting plans;
  • volume and value losses caused by poor practices;
  • the location and standard of roads, landings and skid trails compared with plans, and reasons for major diversions from plans;
  • the impacts of roads, landings and skid trails on drainage and erosion;
  • the extent of soil disturbance;
  • impacts on potential crop trees, regeneration and wildlife;
  • the extent to which conservation prescriptions and protected areas have been respected;
  • the appropriateness of disposal methods for chemicals and related waste;
  • the availability and use of appropriate personal protective equipment; and
  • living conditions in workers’ camps.

Strategic monitoring

Strategic monitoring

Strategic monitoring involves longer-term observations and measurements of the effects of forest management, which are used to guide and adapt management strategies. Key areas for strategic monitoring include management regimes, growth and yield, and environmental and social impacts.

Management regimes

The strategic monitoring of management regimes normally involves periodic inventories of forest condition. Many large companies have ongoing inventory programmes that aim to assess the entire forest estate under management in a ten-year cycle. Among other things, the results of such inventory programmes provide data for estimating the sustainable annual harvest. Monitoring should also aim to assess the effectiveness of silvicultural treatments such as forest regeneration methods, thinning regimes and fertilization programmes.

Growth and yield

In natural forests, permanent sample plots should be established to monitor forest growth over time; such plots can also be used in environmental monitoring.

In tropical forests, permanent plots are usually 1 hectare in size. The density of such plots in a forest is determined according to forest heterogeneity (i.e. a forest that is relatively uniform over a large area might require a lower density of plots than a forest that varies considerably in, for example, its topography, species’ associations, pressures and management regimes); management objectives; cost; the availability of data from other sources; and other factors. At a minimum, there should be at least one permanent sample plot per 1 000 hectares (i.e. a sampling intensity of 0.1 percent). An abundance of literature is available on how to establish and measure permanent sample plots (see tools and case studies).

Environmental monitoring

Environmental factors to be monitored in an FMU include:

  • the extent and impacts of erosion;
  • changes in site productivity;
  • the impact of forest activities on water quality and quantity;
  • the impact of forest activities on wildlife populations, including species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species; and
  • the presence and impacts of exotic species – for example invasive alien plant species.

Independent auditing may play a role in environmental monitoring, and specialist inputs may also be required.

Monitoring forests for climate change

Monitoring forests for climate change

Forest managers may need to carry out additional monitoring to guide their forest management actions in the face of climate change. Forests may change in unexpected ways as the climate changes, and actions taken to mitigate climate change (e.g. to sequester more carbon in growing forests) may have unintended economic, social and environmental consequences. Monitoring can help guard against “surprises” brought about by climate change or by actions taken to mitigate it.

The approach taken to monitoring the impacts of climate change will vary depending on the vulnerability of the forests, the spatial scale of the operation, and the availability of technical and financial resources. Vulnerability and risk assessments generally involve climate sensitivity analyses and evaluations of the capacity of forest ecosystems and communities to adapt to climate change. In assessing the sensitivity of forests and forest-dependent communities to changing climatic conditions, the forest manager, in partnership with other stakeholders, should determine: the known climatic conditions and how these affect a forest area; the current and expected stresses on the forest area; the projected change in climatic conditions; and the likely impacts of these changes on forests.

Key issues to monitor include:

  • Climate-related impacts on forest productivity, health and pests (i.e. parameters for which data are normally collected in inventory programmes).
  • Biodiversity – the best species to monitor are those expected to be vulnerable to climate change and that are also easy to census. Ideally, such species will also be species of special concern.
  • Water dry-season base flows and suspended sediments during periods of low flow might be appropriate indicators of climate-related change to water regimes. The abundance and diversity of macro-invertebrates in streams may be good indicators of ecological integrity.
  • Social factors – forest-related parameters related to vulnerability and the benefits of adaptation measures are unlikely to be included in standard forest inventories. Forest managers should develop social indicators that can be measured either by their own systems or by using other data sources.
  • Forest carbon and other REDD+-related parameters - for meeting monitoring, reporting and verification obligations to demonstrate carbon benefits (with a view to obtaining payments for the sequestered carbon).

Climate-change monitoring, including for REDD+, requires baseline data (that is, data on the situation before an intervention) and the identification of indicators. Monitoring and evaluation procedures should be adaptable to allow for additional requirements related to specified adaptation and mitigation actions.

Monitoring expertise is often available locally (e.g. in community-based management). Arrangements may need to be put in place to incorporate both local expertise and institutional support (e.g. from local and regional governments). In some cases (e.g. for monitoring forest carbon in climate-change mitigation projects), aspects of monitoring will need to be outsourced to organizations or academic institutions with specialized laboratories and staff. Where possible, expert knowledge from the academic, practitioner and resource-user communities should be combined to increase monitoring power and provide a resource management platform suitable for addressing climate change.

See Climate change guidelines for forest managers for more information on climate-related forest monitoring.

Examples and advice

Examples and advice

  1. Think of your objective. Don’t collect information that you won’t use. Two common mistakes are collecting too much information and collecting information without knowing how it will be used.
  2. Decide what you can measure. What is to be monitored should be broken down into measurable values/indicators. Define simple indicators for what you want to look at.
  3. Consider scale. There may well be changes in an indicator in a small area, but not when considered over a larger area. Avoid measuring in only one small area.
  4. Collect information regularly. This is essential for detecting change.
  5. Pick the right frequency. The frequency of measurement varies according to the parameter – for example, stream flow might be measured daily, but tree growth might only require measurement every few years.
  6. Think long term. Short-term fluctuations may not be indicative of long-term change.
  7. Focus on detecting change. This is key for assessing the quality of management.
  8. Use the results. If results are not used, why bother monitoring anything?
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Tropical Agricultural Centre for Research and Higher Education identified the following ten steps in developing an adaptive forest management system, in which monitoring plays a key role:
  1. Define the management objectives.
  2. Identify high conservation values (if any).
  3. Conduct an environmental impact assessment to identify the positive and negative impacts of the principal management activities on important ecological variables, in accordance with the national regulations of the country in which the FMU is located and, if relevant, with the requirements of certifiers.
  4. Establish mitigation measures to reduce the negative impacts of the operation.
  5. Define the specific objectives of the monitoring programme (what is to be monitored?).
  6. Select indicators for their assessment in the monitoring programme.
  7. Establish a robust sampling design for the monitoring programme.
  8. Establish limits or values for the measured indicators that “activate” a response (usually a change in management operations).
  9. Monitor the operations in accordance with the established scheme.
  10. Adapt the management activities and planning documents (return to 4 above).
  • A company in the Brazilian Amazon has adopted a monitoring system that focuses on generating reliable information on the growth and yield of forest stands to support the decision-making processes of forest managers on silvicultural interventions. The system specifies a sampling intensity of one permanent 0.5 hectare sample plot for every 200 hectares of production forest. Modern technologies are applied to increase the reliability of diameter and height measurements to obtain accurate growth and yield data. Data on natural regeneration, saplings, and trees below 15 cm diameter (at breast height) is not collected because of difficulties with botanical identification. Observations of sampled trees focus on crown form, position and diameter, the status and intensity of vines, and damage to the stems and crowns of trees.

The system was designed to gather data for the ecological grouping of species based mainly on their light requirements and natural diameter growth ranges, as well as on their diameter distribution patterns and potential commercial uses. Species groupings based on these variables have proved satisfactory for decisions on how to intervene in order to stimulate the growth of the potential crop trees in forest stands.

  • A large private Swedish company has defined objectives and guidelines for monitoring its operations. Monitoring is conducted according to clear, detailed guidelines for every treatment and operation, much of it by the operators themselves but also by third parties at regular intervals focused on one  treatment (e.g. regeneration, thinning or final felling) at a time. The company also carries out inventories of its own, and inventories are conducted in a ten-year cycle. Most large private Swedish companies have similar approaches.

Another large private Swedish company ensures that every working crew is evaluated at four operational sites per year – more, if performance is below standard. The company’s experience is that regular routines are more efficient than campaigns. The company spends 90 person-months (i.e. roughly eight person-years) on monitoring per year. In addition, all employees are required to monitor their own work.

Both these Swedish companies are certified by the FSC and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, and both own large areas of forest. The first-mentioned company uses the following guidelines for monitoring and evaluating thinning operations, which are carried out by contractors:

The purpose of monitoring and evaluation of thinning

o   Ensure that basal areas prescribed for residual stands are observed, and, if not, that corrections are made.

o   Keep the number of trees damaged to a minimum (no more than 3 percent).

o   Check that secondary roads and other tracks are established as per instructions.

o   Ensure that operational plans are followed.

o   Ensure that data for the stand catalogue and other relevant planning documents are up to date.

o   Provide forest owners with feedback.

o   Ensure adherence to current environmental and forest management policies.

Guidelines for monitoring and evaluation of thinning

o   Harvester operators should ensure that thinning intensity is in accordance with the residual basal area specified. Relascopes and/or calipers should be used.

o   Use the harvester computer to document the number of high stumps created.

o   The thinning crew should document data for two plots per shift.

o   Serious deviations from current guidelines should be reported in a special format.

o   A sample of thinned stands is measured regularly in accordance with routines at the district or central company level (this is more a part of strategic monitoring).