Sustainable Forest Management: Moving Forward Together

Dale Bosworth, Chief
12th World Forestry Congress
Quebec, Canada
— September 24, 2003

It's a great honor for me to be here today. I'm a forester by profession, and I've spent my whole career in the U.S. Forest Service. So this is a welcome opportunity for me to share some perspectives on forestry in the United States—and maybe to learn about forestry in other countries.

Evolution of Sustainability

In the United States, forest management has come a long way. A good example is the way management has changed on federal lands. Twenty years ago, the focus was on maximizing the output of forest products while mitigating the associated resource damage. Today, the focus has shifted to long-term ecosystem health. We know that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Private and industrial forest landowners have also become increasingly committed to sustainable forest management Today, we see sustainability as a constant process of adapting to social, economic, and environmental change.

International dialogue has played a role in how we look at sustainability. Work done by the Brundtland Commission during the 1980s gave us a definition of sustainable development. That was followed in 1992 by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Then came the accomplishments of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, including the proposals for action from the International Panel on Forests and International Forum on Forests. Last year, the World Summit on Sustainable Development reaffirmed the importance of forests for sustainable development.

The United States welcomes the growing acceptance worldwide of sustainable forest management as a common goal. We appreciate the international willingness to find common ground, and we remain firmly committed to our international partners. We applaud the growing number of initiatives worldwide to foster sustainable forest management—such as actions to curb illegal logging and promote certification. We fully support such international bodies as the International Tropical Timber Organization and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

For almost 10 years, we have been working with 11 other countries in the Montreal Process to develop criteria and indicators for sustainability in boreal and temperate forests. We are developing our National Report on Sustainable Forests using these criteria and indicators, and we are working in a number of other ways to promote sustainability worldwide. A good example is the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, where we are working with the U.S. Agency for International Development and over 30 partners to promote economic development, alleviate poverty, and improve local governance.

At home, our participation in international activities to promote sustainability has helped us form new collaborative relationships, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests. The Roundtable includes stakeholders in forest management from across the spectrum—government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, industry, and the scientific community. This is the first permanent group of its kind to exist solely for the purpose of discussing mutual forestry issues and promoting sustainability in the United States.


But the picture isn't all rosy. Sustainability faces some serious challenges in the United States, some of which are shared by other countries: declining forest health; urbanization and land fragmentation; unsustainable wood consumption; and loss of leadership on forestry. I want to say a few words about each of these challenges.

The first is the threat to forest health, which has several dimensions.

  • In the United States, we face unprecedented outbreaks of insects and disease. In all ownerships nationwide, some 28 million hectares of forest are at serious risk from 26 different insects and diseases.
  • A related forest health problem comes from invasive species. For example, exotic diseases have reduced several of our most valuable forest trees. All invasive species combined cost about $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs.
  • We also have a growing problem with managing wildland fuels and fire. Last year, we had record-breaking fires in four states. Nationwide, more than half of our forests are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity.

A second big challenge to sustainability in the United States is loss of undeveloped landscapes. From 1982 to 1997, more than 8.8 million hectares of open land were lost to development. That amounts to about 1 hectare per minute, and the rate of loss is rising. As part of this, forest ownerships are getting smaller, which makes sustainable forest management more difficult. We are losing habitat for forest interior species as large working forests are sold and carved up.

A third challenge to sustainability is the fact that we in the United States consume far more timber than we produce. Over the next 50 years, we expect imports to supply a third to half of our total softwood lumber consumption. Of course, many countries consume more forest products than they can sustainably produce. But if imports trigger unsustainable practices abroad, then there's a problem. We're concerned about undermining the health of the world's forest ecosystems through consumption patterns that are out of balance with production.

As we wrestle with problems like these, we will need to focus public attention on forestry issues. Unfortunately, too many governments worldwide seem to be losing interest in forestry issues, and that's the fourth great challenge we face. Some governments are losing interest in supporting forestry research and monitoring, and in keeping forestlands healthy and intact.

To help refocus the debate, we will need to showcase the values and benefits that people derive from forests and forestry. If we want to make a compelling case for the importance of forests and sustainable forest management, we will need to quantify the values that come from our forests. We can do better in that regard. Our work on our National Report on Sustainable Forests using the Montreal Process criteria and indicators will help. Yet we know that we do not yet have the ability to fully measure the importance of forests for the citizens of the United States.


Here are some things I think foresters and governments worldwide can do better to promote sustainable forest management:

  • First, I think we can work better together to address the threats to forest health. For example, we might be able to learn more from each other internationally about managing fire and fuels. Also, preventing the spread of invasive species will obviously require cooperation across borders and boundaries.
  • Second, we need to work in partnership to conserve forest cover. Every nation has its own mix of ownerships and political jurisdictions. Our challenge is to build more social and institutional capacity to address forest fragmentation. The criteria and indicators have given us a start through a common language for sustainability.
  • Third, we've got to use forest products more efficiently. Consumption must be in balance with production. "Out of sight, out of mind"—that's the danger of a system that separates consumption of forest products in one place from production in another. Our habits today raise questions of both equity and sustainability. We need more of a dialogue on how to bring consumption in the most developed parts of the world into balance with production.
  • Finally, we need to better understand and communicate the values that forests provide. Again, the criteria and indicators can give us a shared understanding through a common language for sustainability. If we can use that common language to elaborate stewardship goals—both nationally and internationally—then we can work together to address the social, economic, and ecological trends of concern. In my view, that's where our focus should be.

Promoting Partnership

In summary, we've moved forward together toward sustainability in the past, and we'll continue to do so in the future. Sustainability isn't a set goal, it's a process of adaptive management. I will promise you this: The United States will continue its role as an international partner on our journey toward sustainability. All forestry stakeholders in the United States will remain firmly engaged on issues we all have an interest in, such as certification, trade, and the protection of endangered species.

We look forward to our continued participation in the Montreal Process; to bilateral work, especially with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico; and to collaborative research, technical exchange, and assistance projects through the U.S. Agency for International Development. Above all, we will continue to support the work of international bodies such as the United Nations Forum on Forests, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Tropical Timber Organization. We have much to learn and much to gain from working closely together on a global basis for a sustainable future for all.