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USDA Forest Service
Sustainable Resource Management
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Washington, D.C. 20090-6090

(202) 205-1373

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Sustainable Development e-News


Sustainability--A Journey Worth Taking

By Tony Erba, Ecosystem Management Coordination Staff,
USDA Forest Service, Washington, D.C.

Tony Erba A number of people wrestle with the definition of sustainability. But those same people also inherently understand what is unsustainable. Why is this important to humans? Without human presence, are there just flows of energy and matter between components within systems?

Through the years we have focused on what the land can produce for us, perhaps in a sustainable manner. Shifting our focus to sustaining systems is now the basis for our own sustainability. This shift seems to show that sustainability is more of a journey than of a state of being.

Where are we headed?
The Forest Service's management of national forests and grasslands reflects societal values. Sustainability is a social value. As such, it cannot be an absolute. Diversity among human values prevents this.

Those human values define what "healthy systems" are. What is perceived as "good" or "bad" is through human interpretation. What we desire now and for the future is through our eyes. However, holding systems in a state that is productive to us may be contrary to how systems actually function.

Ecosystems tend to be more complex than we can think; however, it is our conscience that makes us think about our influence on these complex systems. Our sustainability conversation evolved at a time when our nation desired to have lands set aside for preservation and conservation purposes.

What should we do?
It's time to reflect on this 100-plus-year conversation. We are beginning to recognize and confront the undesirable outcomes of human activities. We are also beginning to understand that these outcomes can only be rectified with significant investments of money and effort, if at all.

Should the Forest Service stand up and say "no!" to unsustainable practices? Certainly, Chief Dale Bosworth has demonstrated this with his Four Threats. But to put this in motion, we need to leave past unsustainable practices behind.

What can we do?
Focusing on systems rather than products seems prudent. We can urge each generation to manage its resources in a sustainable manner. Creating a process for constructive dialog can move the sustainability idea from semantics into action.

So, what is this dialog process? Collaborative planning. According to the Committee of Scientists (1999), this type of planning "begins by finding agreement in a common vision for the future conditions of the national forests and grasslands and their unique contributions to different regions of the country." That's exactly what the Forest Service's 2005 forest planning regulations advocate.

Indeed, collaborative planning is expected to be the foundation for a vision for national forests and grasslands. That vision should reflect the social choices people make about their public land. Trade-off discussion is also critical because we cannot have everything we want. Starting and continuing this dialog is all part of this journey toward sustainability.

Ultimately, it's about doing the right thing, not being right. What is "right" reflects our values. The Forest Service's collaborative planning process aims to reconcile our differences by starting the conversation and by continuing the journey.

Jack Ward Thomas, Forest Service Chief in the mid-1990s, said, "'Come, let us reason together." In the end, that may be the only meaningful way toward a sustainable community.

Tony Erba has 15 years' experience in environmental planning. He has been exploring more effective ways to engage people with land-management decisions. He has been working in the USDA Forest Service since 1984. He was recently the forest planner on the Dixie National Forest, where he helped lead a collaborative forest plan revision process. He is a Planning Specialist on the Ecosystem Management Coordination staff in Washington, D.C. Erba earned a B.S. degree in forest management from Humboldt State University in 1987.

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    Last Modified: Thursday, October 20, 2005