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What is Forest Sustainability?

Forest thinning
USDA Forest Service

Since the publication of the 2003 Sustainability Report, the Federal Government has adopted a definition of the term "sustainable." As do most definitions of sustainability, this definition recognizes three arenas in which the effects of natural resource decisions are closely linked. These arenas - environment, society, and economy - are commonly referred to as "the triple bottom line." When influences and interactions between the three spheres of the triple bottom line are properly accounted for, natural resource decisions have a better chance of achieving sustainability. To be truly sustainable, natural resource decisions should account for social, economic, and environmental considerations. Although we can think and talk about sustainability in different ways, the "triple bottom line" is being used increasingly as a shorthand way to describe an organization's commitment to sustainability.

The relationship between the environment, economy, and society was illustrated in the 2003 report with three intersecting circles (the figure shown below). Earlier thinking about sustainability, (shown on the left side of the figure and referred to as Weak Sustainability) envisioned the environmental, social, and economic realms as intersecting, yet separate, parts of a system. More recently, thinking about the relationships between these three realms has evolved to more closely match the depiction of sustainability shown on the right-hand side of the figure (Strong Sustainability).

Graph depicting weak to strong sustainability

This updated model reflects the understanding that the environmental realm is the foundation of strong sustainability because the environment provides natural goods and services that cannot be obtained through any other means. Human society cannot exist without the environment, which provides the basic necessities of life: air, water, food, energy, and raw materials. The human economy depends on people and social interaction. The core concept of strong sustainability is that the benefits of nature are irreplaceable and that the entire economy is reliant on society, which in turn is entirely dependent on the environment. This emphasizes the interdependencies between our society, our economy, and the natural environment.

Today's most pressing forest issues (e.g., loss of ecosystem services, loss of working forests, fire danger and hazardous fuels, increasing demands for woody biomass to produce bioenergy, adapting forest management to potential climate changes, etc.) have strongly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, and environmental linkages. Decisions made regarding these issues will widely affect areas of the economy, society, and environment beyond those directly related to forests, which suggests that these pressing issues cannot be resolved solely within the forest sector or by actions taken solely within the boundaries of the forest. Solutions will require dialog among a broader set of interests, and it will require policy implementation in the economic and/or social spheres in order to improve conditions in the environmental sphere. This activity needs to occur not just within forests, but across landscapes that include towns, ranches, and farms as well. Developing implementable and sustainable solutions to these issues will require the involvement and support of a diverse group of interests, bridging not only different sectors but also spatial scales and generations.

Source: National Report on Sustainable Forests — 2010