What is meant by “sustainability”?
The generally-accepted definition was framed in 1987 by the United Nations Brundtland Commission1
“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
But this isn’t as simple as it might sound: meeting what needs and for whom? What are the implications of an increasing population? And what if we don’t agree on the priority of needs?
The world population in 1960 was 3 billion – currently in 2022 it is 7.9 billion. In 10 years it is projected to be 8.7 billion. How do we plan for sustainability if the population keeps increasing?
The concept of sustainability might be easy to state in a static world, but in a world of finite resources and with the unknowns of climate change it becomes intangible.
Sustaining what? – for humans? – and are we sustaining all uses and values of forests: wood, water, wildlife, timber, recreation and …? Should we be considering sustainability from the standpoint of ecosystem services?
The concept of ecosystem services was formulated and described in the United Nations Ecosystem Assessment (2005)2. The services that forest ecosystems provide include:
1) provisioning (food, fresh water, fuel, fiber)
2) regulating (climate, water, disease regulation, pollution)
3) supporting (soil formation, nutrient cycling)
4) cultural (educational, aesthetic, recreation, heritage)
These services are commonly taken for granted, but must be recognized as essential to maintaining ecosystem and societal well-being and sustained through appropriate management.
The basic principles of sustainability include keeping forests as forests (preventing them from being converted to other forms of land use), and keeping them healthy, productive and resilient to pests and wildfires.
In its simplest form sustaining forests means that, in the long run, the amount of wood harvested is less than the amount that forests grow. This is essential since forests are a critical public resource providing essential services to the State3 and must be maintained for perpetuity.
There are three main ways in which the public can be confident that California’s private forest lands are sustainably managed.
1. Dedicated owners who are committed to sound management and conservation in the long run.
All timber harvests on private land in California must have plans that are approved by the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as conforming to the State’s forest practice regulations.
There are three third-party organizations in California that certify that forests are sustainably managed – Forest Stewardship Council (FSI), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS). While they differ in detail, all systems are designed to assure the public that forests are sustainably managed4.
Forests can only be sustained with:
- the active support and encouragement of the public who understand and value the benefits of healthy forests and the essential services they provide.
- sound national and state laws and public policies.
- a cadre professional foresters and technicians, and
- adequate processing plants and infrastructure that enable forest treatments.