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Framework for Sustainable Resource Management

The management of forests and other natural resources is fundamentally place-based. It is made up of myriad human actions at the forest management unit level and their interaction with the bio-geo-physical world. Together, all these actions determine whether our approach to resource management is sustainable. Yet each individual action, without a suitable context, says little about sustainability on a meaningful scale.

We are reminded of the saying, “Think globally, act locally.” For sustainable resource management, the national scale provides a useful “global” context within which to plan, promote, measure, and assess our approach to sustainability. The national (or sub-national) scale integrates a host of ecological, social, and economic factors as well as stochastic elements that make discernment of trends at the local level difficult if not impossible. Furthermore, the national level is where overall goals or policies might be articulated that set the tone for defining and working toward sustainability.

So the national scale is important for defining goals and setting the context for translating those goals into action; and the national scale is important for providing a meaningful scale at which to measure progress. Because issues of sustainability transcend national boundaries, the national scale is also vitally important as the venue for country to country negotiations and agreements, such as the Montreal Criteria and Indicators.

The Forest Service has made sustainable management the overarching goal and management framework for the work of the agency. Our draft 2000 strategic plan and Results Act performance measures are linked to the Montreal Criteria and Indicators of sustainability. The next generation of land management planning will identify sustainability as the fundamental goal of stewardship of the national forests and grasslands and will use the seven Montreal Criteria of sustainability as an organizing framework within which progress toward sustainability can be gauged.

This adoption of Sustainable Resource Management as an organizing concept has been a natural evolution for the Forest Service. The work of the agency has always been to care for resources to provide value for the present population while ensuring that equal or better value can be provided for future generations. World-wide, this idea has come to be known as sustainable development—or sustainable forest management when applied to the forest resource. And world-wide, the Montreal Criteria and Indicators have emerged as a widely accepted, practical approach to describing the notion of sustainability in sufficient detail to promote measurement and mutual understanding among interested parties.

We see the Montreal Criteria and Indicators as necessary and sufficient conditions for assessing progress toward sustainable resource management in the United States. Necessary, because the idea of sustainability can (and does) have numerous definitions. The Montreal Criteria and Indicators provide a common language in enough detail to promote mutual understanding of the idea. We suggest that the Criteria and Indicators go beyond a common language, however important that role might be. By stating in plain language the characteristics that are necessary to describe and understand sustainability, they help to clarify a theory of sustainability that can expand our understanding. This is a critical step in advancing our approach toward sustainable resource management.

They represent a sufficient condition because the Montreal Criteria and Indicators span the inter-related dimensions of sustainability—ecological, social, and economic. As described by the Criteria, sustainability includes biological diversity; productive capacity of ecosystems; ecosystem health and vitality; conservation of soil and water resources; global carbon cycles; social and economic benefits; and legal, institutional, and economic structures. The 67 indicators offer enough detail to measure the range of factors that define or influence sustainable management. Although not perfect, they are clearly sufficient to make considerable progress.

During the next five to 10 years, we will better organize and analyze monitoring data with respect to the Criteria and Indicators, and we will report the data in that context. As we do so, we will learn about the sustainability of resource management in the United States, and we will learn about the validity and value of the indicators themselves. Over time, as we measure and monitor indicators at the national level as well as indicators at the local management unit level, we will develop a more complete understanding of how local actions evolve from national goals and how local outcomes contribute to national level sustainability. The theory of sustainability as articulated by the Criteria and Indicators will be tested, modified, and improved.

This theory of sustainability suggests that sustainable management must consider a full range of ecosystem attributes and a full range of human values that flow from the ecosystems. It suggests that bio-physical features and socio-economic features must be understood together within a common context. It further suggests that achieving sustainability involves multiple stakeholders working together toward shared goals across the landscape. The Montreal Criteria and Indicators offer the means to measure attributes of these features of sustainability. As the theory advances, so will the application—real results in real places on the ground for the benefit of all people.

The Forest Service along with many stakeholders in the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests is working toward a national assessment as one aspect of our journey to sustainable resource management because:

    1. We are committed to sustainable management of the nation’s resources. Because of the interconnectedness of the biophysical environment and socioeconomic systems, national sustainability is intertwined in an international (global) context. National level assessment and reporting is essential to understanding where we fit in the international picture. And we need a national picture to make sense of thousands of individual actions on millions of acres that collectively make up forest management in the United States. On a regional and national scale, do these actions add up to sustainable management?

    2. We are committed to advancing the understanding of sustainability. This means testing and elaborating the theory, for without theory there is no learning—just facts and details without a unifying framework. The Montreal Criteria and Indicators are a representation of the current theory of sustainable resource management. As we apply criteria in promoting sustainable practices and as we measure indicators, we will better understand if they adequately define the notion of sustainability, and we will learn where there are gaps in our understanding of the concept as well as gaps in our application of sustainable management practices. A 12-nation test of this theory will be a powerful learning experience.

    3. We are committed to the practical application of sustainable management on the land in the United States. The Montreal Criteria and Indicators provide a unifying framework and a common language that lets us articulate national goals of sustainability that can be translated to actions on the ground by millions of landowners and managers. Although individual indicators might not be applicable to all local management situations, and others might need to be modified to be applicable locally, a common language and a common understanding is critical to higher level goal setting which can then be translated to specific desired conditions and actions at the forest management unit level.

Resource management within a national context (needs, wants, goals, objectives, capability) is always a matter of balancing global, top-down interests and policies with local, community, bottom-up interests and capacity to do work on the land. To make sense of this balancing act, it is useful (if not essential) to share a common framework for talking about the world and, ultimately, understanding the world. Sustainable resource management has such a framework in the Montreal Criteria and Indicators. They are a necessary condition to enable us to measure, assess, and report on our progress along the path to national sustainable management across the landscape; they are a necessary condition to help translate national intent to regional and local decisions and actions; and they are a necessary condition to scale-up or aggregate local conditions to an understanding of the national picture. Although they are not perfect, they are sufficient in breadth, clarity, and conciseness to promote a common understanding of our status and progress.

Dave Radloff, Ruth McWilliams, Phil Janik
Sponsored by U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250