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The critical question of sustainable forests.


The age-old battle over what constitutes "sustainable forestry" is as hot today as at any time in the past century, and AFA continues to be in the center of the debate. Our latest effort, under the the auspices of the Forest Policy Center (established as a special project by AFA in 1991 to serve as a catalyst for policy deliberation and debate), is a mid-January conference entitled Defining Sustainable Forestry. The key questions to be addressed: What is sustainable forestry? How can practitioners know it when they see it? How can they work to achieve it? With only slight word changes, these are the questions that have driven the development of science-based forest management since its earliest days.

Each generation must, however, seek its own answers to such questions, because those answers change greatly as society's views and needs change. That is often a hard concept to accept because it is not consistent with the view that for each problem there is one "right" answer that we are challenged to find. It is sometimes useful to remind ourselves that a challenge such as "sustainable forestry" is not a single discrete problem for which there is a single discrete answer. It is a complex of dozens of interrelated, interactive problems. It is, as other authors have pointed out, not so much a "problem" as it is a "mess."

You don't solve a mess by looking for one magic solution -you look for directions in which the most solutions are likely to emerge. Then you try to gain agreement from the many people involved with the problems, with the expectation that if they all work toward solutions that lie in the same general direction, the net benefits may include some untangling of the mess.

Though "sustainable forestry" is a broad and appealing term (who would want their forest to be "unsustainable"?), it is still too vague to apply as a reference to a concrete forest-management decision. Clearly, it embodies visions of being able to produce a constant stream of forest products and benefits without diminishing the environmental integrity or the long-term stability of the forest ecosystem.

For many people, seeking to achieve a sustained yield of timber is no longer an adequate measure of sustainable forestry. If that timber yield is acquired at the price of losing some of the other living pieces of the forest ecosystem, many observers worry about the potential mischief in those losses. Though we are not always in agreement on whether it is critical to the forest's future to protect a shrub or a fungus or a small animal, we're seldom confident that we can destroy one of those species without ultimately triggering an ecosystem response that could in the end be enormously destructive. Uncertainty breeds caution.

We do know that many things in nature do not work in a continuum. Instead, critical thresholds exist. At what point will a forest under stress begin to fall apart? Are there things managers can do to detect such a threshold and perhaps make changes to avoid crossing over it? Once a forest begins a serious deterioration, what options are available that will help slow the process and assist in the rebuilding phase?

These questions will become more and more important. A world of six billion people needs the goods and services produced by forests-including clean air and water, wildlife habitat, biological diversity, and scenic beauty. Add those "non-tangibles" to the continued need for wood products, grazing, access to buried mineral wealth, and the other tangible products of forests-not only in today's terms but in terms of a world population expected to double in the next 70 years-and you have a strong sense of the urgency facing forest managers.

For another example, look at the potential for mischief contained within the scientific concern over climate change. Human activities have dramatically changed atmospheric conditions. Whether, and how, those impacts will affect world climates is the focal point of a great deal of scientific wrangling. We can't predict the future of the world's climate, but we can say with some certainty that any significant change or instability contains many problems for forest managers. Thus, while we can't be certain that climate will be a problem in the future, we are less confident than in the past that it will not be.

The bottom line is that sustainable forestry in the future may be a whole lot harder to achieve than it was in the past. Either overwhelming human demands or significant climate changes could threaten a wide variety of forest futures. Occurring together, they could enormously compound the challenge. As we work now to define and outline the concept of forest sustainability, we must make certain that we look to the future, as well as to the past. It is a task of monumental proportions, and we seek the help of all AFA members-and all thoughtful citizens-as we explore and debate it.
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Author:Sampson, Neil
Publication:American Forests
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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