How Sustainable Forestry Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

Sustainable forestry encourages balance between economic considerations and the long-term health of woodland areas. See more green science pictures.
Sustainable forestry encourages balance between economic considerations and the long-term health of woodland areas. See more green science pictures.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The world's forests hold enormous economic value -- as long as they're harvested for construction, consumer products, land clearing or access to minerals in the earth below. Unfortunately, millions of acres of formerly forested land are cut down with no thought toward the future use of the land. The result is a barren landscape that may never regrow into anything like the original forest.

Deforestation has obvious and severe consequences, as wildlife habitats are destroyed and soil erosion becomes severe. There are economic problems as well: If you clear cut a forest to harvest the raw materials, you might make a quick profit, but you'll only make it once. The forest is gone and the land no longer holds any value.


Sustainable forestry seeks to balance our need for forest-based resources and economic benefits with the long-term health of the forest. Instead of harvesting a whole area, sustainable forestry manages a forest, extracting some resources while maintaining the forest's long-term health. That way, the forest continues to serve its ecological role and also serves as a continuing source of revenue.

Creating a plan for sustainable forestry isn't easy, and there's no silver bullet that fixes every forest's problems. This article will explain the basic tenets of sustainable forestry and the importance of third party certification.

Sustainable Forestry Practices

The specific practices of a sustainable forestry project vary from forest to forest, depending on the specific environment and the exact resources to be extracted from the forest. The first step is to survey the land that's part of the sustainable forestry project, creating not just an inventory of the timber, but also of the various wildlife species present and whether any of them are endangered, along with other environmental issues such as watersheds, proximity to urban areas and recreational use by humans.

Next, forest managers determine what can be harvested from the forest, and in what amounts. Their goal is to harvest timber in a way that doesn't destroy the overall health of the forest. This can be done by pruning timber instead of felling entire trees, cutting down older trees to encourage diversity and growth, and thinning tree populations in some areas to promote healthier growth. It's also important to plant new trees, taking care to plant species that will both provide the type of timber wanted and fit into the forest ecosystem.


Other sustainable forestry practices include controlled burning to encourage forest regeneration, continually monitoring the health of the forest, and working with local communities to ensure the preservation of cultural heritage related to the forest.

Perhaps the most important aspect of any sustainable forestry plan is training. A plan is only as good as the forestry workers who implement it, so not only must they be trained to carry out the sustainable practices identified in the plan, it's important that they understand the benefits of sustainable forestry.

Sustainable forestry can go beyond the forest, extending to sustainable development practices. Sustainable development means building in ways that have minimal harmful impact on the environment. Factors include the location of the development, the methods used to clear land, and the types of wood used in the development.

The best way to ensure sustainable forestry works is through third party certification. We'll explain how that works on the next page.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative Program

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is one of several organizations charged with encouraging and checking the practices of timber producers around the world.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is one of several organizations charged with encouraging and checking the practices of timber producers around the world.
Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Third party certification is a system by which an organization checks on the sustainable forestry practices of a timber producer. If the practices are acceptable, products made by the producer can carry a label that lets consumers know the products were made following sustainable forestry practices.

There are several third party certification programs in existence in the world. The largest certification group in North America is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). SFI and other third party certification groups follow certain international agreements and protocols, the most significant of which is known as the Montréal Process. The Montréal Process establishes the following general criteria for sustainable forestry:


  • Conservation of biological diversity
  • Maintenance of productive capacity of forest ecosystems
  • Maintenance of forest ecosystem health and vitality
  • Conservation and maintenance of soil and water resources
  • Maintenance of forest contribution to global carbon cycles
  • Maintenance and enhancement of long-term multiple socioeconomic benefits to meet the needs of societies
  • Legal, institutional and policy framework for forest conservation and sustainable management

SFI is not intended to replace various nations' laws that already regulate forestry practices. In fact, SFI's guidelines can encourage nations to adopt better forestry laws because they won't certify timber imported from nations with inadequate laws. SFI itself is independent of any specific government.

Before a producer can become certified by SFI, they must undergo a third-party audit. This audit checks that they meet or exceed water quality laws, follow practices outlined in SFI's guidelines and work to protect endangered species.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Maryland Dept. of Natural Resources. "Selected Forest Industry Statistics Reported by Various Sources for Maryland." (Accessed April 28, 2011)
  • NC State Dept. of Forestry and Natural Resources. "Forest Ecology & Management." (Accessed April 28, 2011)
  • Smallidge, Peter J. "What is sustainable forestry?" Cornell Forestry Extension. (Accessed April 29, 2011)
  • Sustainable Forestry Iniatitive. "Introduction to the SFI Standard." SFI. (Accessed April 28, 2011)