We benefit a lot from our forests. From producing the oxygen we breathe to offering lumber resources, we simply could not survive without them. And though the human race has taken a lot from the forest, we’ve done very little to give back.

That’s why sustainable forestry is more important than ever. Sustainable forestry aims to balance modern demands for forest resources – like timber, fibres, mushrooms, honey, and wildlife – with management practices that will allow future generations the same resources and opportunities. So, what can forest owners and managers do to manage their forests sustainably? Here’s what you need to know about maintaining a healthy forest while using its valuable resources.

Table of contents: 

What is sustainable forestry?

Sustainable forestry means managing forests in a way that will keep forests healthy and usable for local communities and society as a whole for generations to come. People use the forest for harvesting timber, collecting berries, honey, and herbs,  studying wildlife, connecting with nature for spirituality, recreation, and more –making the sustainable management of forests and their resources essential.

Graphic of a text box on top of a forested background explaining the definition of sustainable forestry.
FSC / Emilio White 

Sustainable forestry practices maintain and protect:  

  • Biodiversity of flora and fauna 
  • Wildlife habitats and endangered species 
  • Soil health, watershed and fungal diversity 
  • Areas of cultural or spiritual significance. 

To meet the goals above, sustainable forestry practices can include responsible measures of: 

  • Harvesting wood and other products 
  • Recreational and educational activities 
  • Hunting and pest management 
  • Agroforestry activities 
  • Active management of fire and of tree species composition 

Why is sustainable forestry important?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the rate of worldwide deforestation was estimated at 10 million hectares per year between 2015 and 2020, many of which we cannot currently replace.

Here are some of the most important reasons why we cannot continue at this unsustainable rate.

Environmental conservation   

The staggering loss of 5.6 million hectares of forest each year raises huge concerns for environmental conservation. Our forests are home to thousands of plant and animal species interacting in delicate and unique ecosystems. Irresponsible clearing can destroy habitats and endangered species and can ultimately threaten the biodiversity that makes Earth so incredible.

Moreover, forests act as carbon sinks, absorbing carbon dioxide and mitigating climate change. Losing forests means decreasing Earth’s natural carbon dioxide storage capacities and releasing previously stored carbon into the air as greenhouse gas emissions – accelerating climate change.

What FSC is doing: For example, in areas of Western Oregon around salmon-bearing streams, FSC requires certificate holders to conserve more than double the area that private landowners have to. This buffer helps protect endangered salmon and preserves drinking water quality for communities living downstream.

Graphic explaining the difference between plantation forests and natural forests.

Economic sustainability  

Sustainable forestry considers the importance of forests in our economy and seeks to create economies that can support current and future generations. Unsustainable practices like over-extraction of natural resources or clear-cutting on plantation forests can hurt the environment and lead to negative economic impacts – like the loss of local jobs if a forest becomes devoid of its natural resources.

On the other hand, following sustainable processes set out by FSC can make both forest health and economic processes more sustainable. For example, our recent documentary, Rubber Rebounded, interviews small latex farmers in Thailand upholding FSC standards. Here’s what they had to say about their experience:

“Everybody has seen that when they follow the [FSC] standards, their livelihoods are better, their health gets better, the community is better.”  — Prasort Jaranrittikul

What FSC is doing: In January 2024, FSC launched FSC Blockchain Beta. This self-service digital platform advances sustainable supply chain integrity, helps companies meet EUDR obligations, and supports sustainable forestry practices.   

Indigenous People and communities  

Indigenous People face several threats to their rights, livelihoods, and traditions when farms or plantations irresponsibly manage native homelands. That’s why FSC requires forest owners and managers to uphold Indigenous People’s rights through a free, prior, and informed consent process. This allows Indigenous People to have a voice surrounding what’s done with their lands.

Additionally, FSC created the Permanent Indigenous Peoples’ Committee (PIPC) in order to further amplify Indigenous People’s voices.

What FSC is doing: The FSC Indigenous Foundation co-creates sustainable forest solutions by recognizing Indigenous People’s rights, knowledge, and authority.

10 sustainable forestry practices

To make consistent change, sustainable forestry requires a set of practices that promote environmental responsibility, social equity, and viable economic growth. Certifications play a crucial role in creating and enforcing these sustainable practices.

Below are the ten guiding principles behind FSC’s sustainable forestry certification program.

Graphic of text over a forested background explaining the FSC forest management certification.
FSC Brazil / Célio Cavalcante Filho

1. Follow local laws and maintain a sustainable forestry certification  

Laws and regulations can be powerful tools to shape the behaviour of businesses and organisations that rely on forest resources. For example, some areas have harvesting requirements that mandate selective harvesting over clear-cutting, a measure that helps prevent deforestation. However, it’s an unfortunate fact that not everyone follows local laws.

Graphic of a text box over an image of stacked logs explaining what illegal logging is.
FSC France / M. Rossi

Illegal logging refers to harvesting, transporting, or trading timber in a way that violates local legislation. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates that the illegal logging industry is worth $51–$152 billion per year and contributes to nearly half of tropical deforestation.

This means that if all businesses followed sustainable forestry local laws, it would significantly impact the environment and climate change issues we face today. For this reason, FSC urges all businesses and organisations to follow local laws with integrity. Maintaining a sustainable forestry certification by adhering to additional regulations shows an extra layer of commitment to fighting the world’s most pressing environmental issues – and provides consumers with a reliable way to support sustainable forestry initiatives.

2. Define tenure and use rights

Sustainable forest management also requires clearly defined tenure and use rights to prevent disputes over who can use the land. Local communities should maintain control over the land unless they willingly delegate their rights to other organisations. This approach helps ensure decisions about the land stay in line with local best interests, including maintaining a sustainable economy.  

3. Protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights

Additionally, sustainable forestry initiatives must protect the rights of Indigenous People. This means that Indigenous People should maintain control of their land unless they freely delegate it to another organisation and that sacred or culturally important forested areas should be protected.

A smiling Indigenous woman holds a stack of palm leaves while looking in the distance.
FSC / Iván Castro

Not only is this an issue of social justice, but it also improves the chances of sustainable forest management. Research shows that Indigenous communities are excellent stewards of land – reducing tree felling by about one-fifth when given rights to their own lands. Indigenous control of forests can even result in less deforestation than declaring the land a national park.

4. Prioritise community relations and workers’ rights.

Another guiding principle for sustainability is prioritising community relations and workers’ rights. Local workers should receive job opportunities associated with projects on the community’s forested lands. It also means respecting labour rights, such as a fair wage, eliminating discrimination, and providing a safe and healthy workplace.

To protect locals’ interests and rights, organisations using community land should also provide systems for resolving community grievances. This can help empower local communities to make a difference if they see wrongdoing.

5. Balance forest resources and benefits with societal demand

Sustainable forestry requires balancing societal demands on forest resources without over-extracting resources. This helps ensure the benefits of our forests – like timber, resins, and important biodiversity – remain available for future generations. Forest managers are critical in finding this equilibrium and should institute policies that encourage the extraction of as many forest resources as possible while carefully planning to avoid over-extraction.

6. Minimise environmental impact

To make forestry sustainable, it’s important to preserve the local ecosystem. Minimising environmental impact includes preserving the forest’s biodiversity by making little to no changes in the water sources and soil. Avoid the use of chemical pesticides on-site and ensure that any waste, including chemical waste, is properly disposed of offsite so as not to contaminate the soil, plant species, and water.

Additionally, the habitats of the animals native to the forest, especially endangered species, must be protected. Dedicated boundaries to these species where deforestation cannot take place is an excellent way to ensure our animal friends have a safe and protected habitat. 

A graphic has a text box with information on about sustainable forestry goals over the top of a forested background.
FSC Brazil / Célio Cavalcante Filho

7. Have a management plan   

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) describes a forest management plan as ‘a gateway to understanding your woodland’s health and potential’. These plans aim to provide a detailed account of the land and the ecosystem within the forest. A forest management plan ultimately provides a roadmap of how the landowner will utilise the forest’s resources and their strategy for protecting the wildlife and ecosystem within.

To become FSC-certified, a forest management plan must be submitted and approved. An FSC-specific management plan must include the following:  

  • objectives and goals of the landowner 
  • forest resources to be managed  
  • silvicultural (growing trees) plan  
  • rationale of annual harvest rate selection  
  • description of environmental assessment and safeguards 
  • a plan to protect rare animal and plant species 
  • forest monitoring procedures  
  • a map of property boundaries.  

8. Monitor and assess regularly 

Frequent monitoring by local organisations and agencies is vital to ensuring the land managers are complying with local laws and the requirements of the certifying agencies. Frequent assessments lead to a sustainable chain of custody and accountability. These assessments also help management identify areas that may need improvement to ensure they are using the most sustainable practices available.

Landowners and managers should also conduct their own assessments of the state of the forest to determine the ever-changing needs of the forest and take appropriate action.  

9. Maintain high conservation value forests  

While sustainable forestry means using the forest’s resources responsibly, it also entails conserving forests by leaving them untouched for future generations. A high-conservation forest has a unique value that we must preserve for a specific reason.

For example, a high-conservation forest may be home to an extremely rare animal species, and the forestry of that property could be detrimental to the animal’s well-being. Another example includes old-growth forests with trees over 500 years old that offer valuable insight to researchers.  

10. Manage plantations with precaution   

While newer tree plantations have a harder time qualifying for FSC certification, they can restore value and improve the ecosystem of deforested land. That said, these plantations must follow extra precautions to maintain sustainable and earth-friendly initiatives.

For example, a tree plantation’s layout must minimise economic impact and reduce the risk of soil erosion. Additionally, plantation owners must take preventative measures to reduce the risk of pests or outbreaks that could ravage the forest’s ecosystem. 

Sustainable forestry FAQ

Have other questions about sustainable forestry? Check out answers to some commonly asked questions below.

What is sustainable forest management? 

Sustainable forest management is the responsible and balanced use of forest resources while ensuring the long-term health of the forest’s ecosystem and the species that live within it.

Other than biodiversity conservation, sustainable forest management includes: 

  • Benefiting local social and economic needs 
  • Respecting the rights of Indigenous People and their land 
  • Using silvicultural practices such as selective logging, controlled burns, and reforestation 
  • Meeting and maintaining the requirements of sustainability certifications such as those awarded by FSC 
  • Involving local communities and Indigenous People in decision-making processes  
  • Conducting frequent monitoring and assessment of the forest’s state 

What is the difference between sustainable forestry and deforestation? 

Sustainable forestry and deforestation are two conflicting forest management systems. Sustainable forestry aims to meet human needs for timber and other forest resources in a way that maintains the forest’s health for generations to come. It attempts to preserve wildlife and meet the social needs of local tribes and communities who depend on the forest.

Deforestation meets economic needs with little or no thought for preserving forests. It uses unsustainable practices that can destroy the forests, their endemic wildlife, areas of cultural significance, and the long-term economic possibilities for the area.

What is certified sustainably grown timber? 

Sustainably grown timber refers to wood and wood products that meet the rigorous requirements of third-party certification organisations enforcing sustainability standards.

These standards seek to balance economic demands on the forest with environmental and social considerations in order to keep forests healthy and economically viable. So, certified sustainably grown timber should be able to continue its production into the foreseeable future – without negatively impacting the environment or local communities that rely on the forest.  

Why are forests ecologically important? 

While forests are filled with valuable natural resources, they are also home to a wide variety of plants and animals – making them one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Additionally, forests help to mitigate climate change by storing large amounts of carbon in their soil, producing oxygen, and regulating temperatures, humidity, and precipitation.  

Is selective cutting sustainable? 

Selective cutting is the practice of choosing certain trees to cut down rather than removing trees from an entire area – known as clear-cutting. Overall, selective cutting is a more sustainable practice because it recognizes that trees contribute to a healthy forest and should be left standing.

You can see how selective cutting impacts different aspects of forest health with the chart below.

  Clear-cutting   Selective cutting
Definition Removes all trees in a selected area  Removes targeted trees in a selected area 
Tree age Leaves areas with uniform tree ages  Preserves varying tree ages throughout the area 
Regeneration Requires reforestation efforts to plant new seeds  Allows natural regrowth as some trees remain to reseed 
Biodiversity  Often destroys entire habitats and can endanger wildlife   Tends to preserve habitats and wildlife  
Soil erosion   Can increase soil erosion with no trees to anchor the soil   Typically reduces soil erosion as some trees remain to anchor the soil  
Water quality May temporarily decrease water quality due to increased runoff   Typically has low impact on water quality, since remaining vegetation can filter water  
Economic value Provides a higher yield of wood in the short term   May initially produce less wood, but can sustain timber production long term 

Want to join the fight against the biodiversity crisis and climate change? Learn how you can take action with FSC today by encouraging businesses to use sustainable forestry practices.

Additional resources 

For international research surrounding sustainable forestry, check the state of the world’s forests and biodiversity through the Food and Agriculture Organization, the United Nations, and the World Wildlife Fund.

Read more about the effects of unsustainable forestry on climate change from the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Discover more about reversing deforestation as a climate solution with MIT’s Climate Portal.

Learn about ongoing research on sustainable forestry across eastern United States forests with The University of Maine’s Center for Research on Sustainable Forests.


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