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New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) was founded in 1944 to promote sustainable forestry. Throughout its history, its staff members have remained committed to that vision, even as the concept of sustainability has evolved and adapted to changing circumstances and a changing understanding of forests’ value.
Now, as humanity faces a climate emergency with effectively only 30 years to influence the trajectory of climate change, it is clear forestry cannot be truly sustainable without considering how forests can both adapt to climate change and help fight it. Yet, no current and widely accepted sustainable forestry model prioritizes mitigating climate change. Society needs a new definition of sustainable forestry that encompasses everything that works about today’s sustainable forestry while ensuring forests store more carbon within this critical 30-year window.
NEFF’s scientists and foresters propose the following 21st-century definition of sustainable forestry:
“Sustainable forestry is forest management that prioritizes mitigating and adapting to climate change during the next 30 years as a critical aspect of meeting the social, economic, ecological and spiritual needs of current and future generations.”
Our planet and societies need a new definition now for two main reasons. First, it’s clear that cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough to stave off the worst of climate change—we must also remove carbon from the atmosphere, and forests are our most reliable and cost-effective mechanism for doing so. Second, the future of forestry and forest conservation depends on successfully addressing climate change, or we may not be able to maintain the integrity of our forests or our ability to practice sustainable forestry in the long term. In other words, we must solve the short-term challenge in order to meet our longer-term goals for society.
The concept of sustainable forestry has existed since at least the 18th century, but exactly what it entails has changed over time based on our knowledge of forest ecosystems as well as changing societal values. Foresters first defined it as management that ensured a forest could sustain itself and its timber yield over the course of years and through multiple harvests; over time, this primary focus on timber broadened to include a forest’s ability to sustain a wide range of functions, outputs and values, from keeping water clean and preserving biodiversity to offering spiritual and psychological values.
Recently, the concept of sustainable forestry broadened again to incorporate ideas about ecological resilience and to ensure intergenerational and cross-cultural equity of access to forest resources. Now, we believe the concept needs to shift once more to encompass the need for forests to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Incorporating climate change into the definition of sustainable forestry means it’s not enough to look at the forest alone: we need to consider the impacts of management inside and outside the forest. When it comes to forest-based climate solutions, studies and modeling have shown that protecting a combination of unharvested ecological reserves and well-managed forests that produce renewable, climate-smart wood products is the best approach for producing the combined values of climate change mitigation and biodiversity, particularly when that wood is used in place of more fossil-fuel-intensive building materials.
However, to accomplish this, current practices will need to change. NEFF has developed a set of recommendations for implementing this new approach to sustainable forest management.