Forest Management: Practical tools for thriving forests

FSC / Jonathan Perugia
A sustainable future on earth depends on healthy, resilient forests. Intentional forest management makes the journey tangible.
Forest from above
FSC / Jonathan Perugia
July 4, 2023
Category : General news

What is forest management?

Forest management, or forest resource management, refers to any planned human intervention in a forest ecosystem to achieve specific goals and objectives, which can typically be grouped as environmental, economic, and social. Forest management can include anything from low intensity to high intensity interventions using different practices, tools, and techniques.

Sustainable forest management is a “dynamic and evolving concept, which aims to maintain and enhance the economic, social, and environmental values of all types of forests, for the benefit of present and future generations,” explains United Nations Forum on Forests. When sustainably managed, forest ecosystems contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

woman in the forest
FSC / Bablu Singh

As the pioneer of forest certification, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sets the standard for responsible forest stewardship: FSC Standards | Forest Stewardship Council

Is forest management also conservation of ecosystems?

While biodiversity conservation could be an aspect or goal of forest management, forest management does not always focus strongly on conservation. Forest management could have many goals in mind, including economic, environmental, or social. Conserving the forest and the plants and animals within could therefore form a part of forest management.

Two birds in the forest
FSC / Jjumba Martin 

Forest management is different for natural and planted forest systems

In a natural forest, trees and plants occur and regenerate naturally. Trees are of varying ages and the forest typically features great biodiversity, with many different trees, plants and animals calling the forest home. Forest management in natural forests focuses its practices on the existing trees and other species in the forest and is usually low intensity by nature.

Planted forest systems, or plantations, are deliberately planted by humans, often to produce certain forest materials or products. Trees in certain areas tend to be the same age and there exists a smaller variety of trees and plants. Some plantations have only one species, making it a monocrop.

Plantation systems are usually intensively managed, as maintaining and increasing yield in a system where biodiversity is low, requires high levels of intervention. This does not mean that all plantations lack biodiversity. Plantation systems focused on sustainable forest management often designate areas where biodiversity is protected or restored.

FSC / Jonathan Perugia 

Discover here how forest stewardship is providing environmental, social, and economic benefits for smallholder rubber plantation owners in ThailandRubber Rebounded "Stories from the forest" - YouTube

Goals and objectives of forest management

The definition, benefits and practices of forest management depend on the main management goals identified for each forest enterprise, or the main reasons people are actively intervening in the forest system. These goals are interrelated and interdependent, and forest managers often value one or more equally. In some cases, certain objectives would take preference over others.

Forest trees
 FSC / Jonathan Perugia 

For example, intensively managing a forest to increase the yield of one tree species and its wood would compromise the forest’s overall biodiversity. In such a case, to protect the ecosystem, certain areas could be set aside for conservation, meaning that the area managed for yield will reduce. Similarly, a tree that is tapped for resin can also be used for its timber but tapping too much resin reduces the timber value. Defining and balancing the goals for forest management and considering how different aspects of forest management influence each other, is therefore key.

Figure 1: A spectrum of forest management goals. Graphic simplified after Brockerhoff et al 2008. [1]

Figure 1: A spectrum of forest management goals. Graphic simplified after Brockerhoff et al 2008.

Figure 1 shows how forest management goals can be seen on a spectrum, with an intensively managed (often monocrop) operation on the one side and forest management with the main aim to conserve biodiversity on the other. The conservation value of the forest will increase or decrease accordingly.

Learn all about the world’s most rigorous forest management standards that consider social, economic and environmental elementsFSC Standards | Forest Stewardship Council

Forest management for conservation

Ecological forest management, or forest management for conservation aims to conserve and protect the forest into the future. The forest is managed in a way that will ensure no species goes extinct and the species balance and gene pool is maintained. Activities focus on protecting and restoring biodiversity to allow the continued existence of all the trees, plants and animals that were there before.

Climate change could cause certain species to disappear or flourish at unexpected rates. Forest management strategies can aim to mitigate these effects and adapt to the changing climate, but this is a continued challenge due to the unpredictability of climate change.

A bee in the flowers
FSC IC / Milan Reška

Discover how good forestry is saving the Cantabrian brown bear from extinction: Good forestry Saves the Cantabrian Brown Bear | Forest Stewardship Council (

Forest management for economic goals

Forest management for economic goals aims to ensure a steady supply of forest products and optimize economic return. The forest is managed so that it can continue to deliver materials and products for the market in the long term. Sustainable forest management in this context refers to sustainable yield.

For existing or natural forests, where the objectives also include conserving the forest and the life within, this will involve a great deal of environmental activities, as forest managers value the forest’s overall health and resilience.

Managing Brazilian nuts
FSC Brasil / Célio Cavalcante Filho

In the case of plantation systems where the main objective is often to maximize economic return, forest management practices for economic gain involve fertilizers, pesticides, and other environmentally harmful practices that will ensure the plantation monoculture continues to yield forest materials.

This does not mean that plantations can only have economic objectives. Many plantation operations maintain both intensively managed monoculture plots and natural areas where the plants, animals and people that depend on it can thrive. A typical practice would create buffer zones along streams or designate forest patches to protect and restore natural vegetation.

A forest company in the Amazon, which owns more than 220,000 ha of forest, is working to restore biodiversity. Find out more: Maderacre: Protecting Biodiversity in the Heart of the Amazon | 

Forest management for social gains

Forest management for social gains benefits the people that depend on forests for various social and cultural reasons. This includes the Indigenous groups and local communities who manage one-quarter of the world’s land. Globally about 300 million people live in and around forests and depend on them for food, fuel, medicine, and their livelihoods. Forest management for social gains considers these people and aims to protect their rights to continue using forests.

People beyond the communities that live in and around forests can also benefit from forests and be considered as part of the social goals for forest management. This typically includes managing, and setting areas aside, for recreation, tourism, education, and conservation sites with cultural or spiritual importance (often referred to as High Conservation Values).

A beekeeper smiling
FSC / Mayank Bhavesh Soni

    People who work for the companies extracting forest-based products and materials are also considered as part of social goals for forest management. Here the important considerations are the wellbeing of forest worker and ensuring they are paid and treated fairly. Social objectives will also include banning child or forced labour and discrimination in the workplace.

    Social and economic goals for forest management can intersect in the following circumstances:

    • Income for forest owners
    • Income for the state through taxation
    • Jobs in the forest, e.g. forest guards, tourism operators, and forest schools
    • Income for people along wood processing value chain

    Discover how the Indigenous Baaka Peoples of the Congo are saving forests

    Forest management vs forest stewardship

    There are similarities between forest management and forest stewardship, but they are not the same thing. Forest management could conduct broad-ranging activities to achieve one or more of the above goals and could potentially be harmful to the future existence of the forest.

    Man in the forest
    FSC / Jesús Antonio Moo Yam 

    Forest stewardship is an approach to forest management that ensures the forest can continue to meet the needs of the people, plants and animals that depend on it well into the future. Forest stewards want future forests to thrive.

    As the leader in sustainable forestry, FSC is trusted by NGOs, businesses, and consumers worldwide to protect healthy, resilient forests for all, forever. Find out more here: About us |

    Forest management in practice 

    There are many activities that form part of forest management. These activities will be applied in practice depending on the forest management goals.

    Forest from above
    FSC / Iván Castro 

    Forest management planning

    In most cases, forest management is conducted according to a plan set out by the main stakeholders involved and for some years to come. Forest management plans, or forest resource management plans, can range in detail. More detailed plans will clearly identify the goals of managing the forest, set short-term and long-term targets, identify actions to achieve these targets, and a schedule according to which to conduct the activities. It will also specify the roles and responsibilities for those involved.

    Forest Manager planning
    FSC / Ivan Castro 

    Less detailed forest management plans will only identify some of these aspects, perhaps including an overall mission and vision for the future of the forest. A forest management plan is a working document that can be updated based on the results and learnings that emerge during monitoring and evaluation activities.


    Forest management practices

    The following lists some of the practices most often found as part of forest management. The way these practices are carried out depends on the overall goals for forest management.

    Forest Manager
    FSC IC / Phil Sharp 

    Timber Harvesting

    Trees are harvested for various reasons including producing forest-based products (from timber or pulp) or clearing paths or land. Logging and felling trees are an intervention in the forest ecosystem which usually also involves establishing transport lanes and using heavy machines. This could damage residual trees and cause pollution or erosion.

    ‘Reduced impact logging’ (RIL) aims to reduce these negative impacts of logging, i.e. to harvest trees in a way that also protects the forest ecosystem and its value. In the northern hemisphere, this could mean that skidding of logs happens only when soils are frozen, to avoid damage to the soil. In tropical regions it could mean cutting lianas from the trees to be felled and from neighboring trees years before the actual felling, to avoid those lianas of the falling trees tear other residual trees with them, which could cause harm to the forest workers and destroy more of the forest than necessary. In all regions of the world RIL means that foresters know about the quality of the trees they fell, that they can predict the direction the trees will fall, that they don’t build unnecessary, or unnecessarily broad transport roads, and that they protect water courses.

    Sustainable forest management should include, as appropriate, setting aside buffer zones, creating forest corridors, and keeping natural forest patches connected for plants and animals to maintain their natural gene pools.  

    Timber harvesting can be done at various intensities. Clear-cutting involves logging all the trees within a specified area while selective logging will select single trees or groups of trees within an area and keep the surrounding trees and soil intact. Figure 2 shows a forest’s structural integrity depending on the intensity of human intervention.

    Figure 2: A gradient of structural integrity of human-modified forest systems.



    In forests where trees are more or less the same age, the forest can become too dense. This could decrease the trees’ growth, as they’re competing for the same resources. Thinning overly dense stands maintains the growth of individual trees and allows them to grow stronger. This also improves the volume of timber.

    Thinning the forest
    FSC GD / Christian Irrgang 

    Fire prevention and management

    There is a difference in forest management between controlled and uncontrolled fires. A managed, controlled forest fire as part of forest management can prevent large destruction and carbon emissions from uncontrolled fires, which can wreak havoc in an ecosystem and the surrounding communities.

    Fire prevention

    Most forest fires are started by people, but forest management can help avoid them. Recent years have seen a stark increase in uncontrolled forest fires, both in frequency and intensity. Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change, and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind this increase.

    Forest management practices that can prevent fires include controlling visitor activities, removing trash, and maintaining buffer zones between public roads. Thinning dry conifer stands and removing dead wood can also avoid uncontrolled fires, but this can have negative effects for certain insects and fungi.

    FSC / Bablu Singh

    Fire management or controlled burning

    Controlled burning, also known as prescribed burning, involves setting planned fires to maintain the health of a forest. These burns are planned and managed in detail to minimize risk. Reasons for controlled burns include preventing uncontrolled wildfires by burning dead leaves, fallen debris and thick undergrowth; destroying invasive plants; returning nutrients to the soil by turning vegetation, that would otherwise take years to decompose, into ash; and allowing more sunlight to reach young trees.

    Read more: Guatemala: Sustainable forest management can significantly reduce forest fires

    Reforestation or planting

    Reforestation involves replacing trees that have been removed by harvesting or logging, or through wildfires, disease, and drought. This can be done through natural regeneration, where seedlings from the surrounding forest fall and grow, or artificial regeneration, which involves planting seedlings. Reforestation is crucial for sustainable forest management, as it allows the forest to continue existing and contributing to the forest management goals.

    FSC Canada

    Watershed management

    Forests are integral to the global water cycle and therefore vital for water security – they regulate water quantity, quality, and timing and provide protective functions against, for example, soil and coastal erosion, flooding, and avalanches. Forested watersheds provide 75 percent of our freshwater, delivering water to over half the world’s population.

    Watershed management is a crucial aspect of forest management, as when there is human intervention in forests, the water sources are also impacted and must therefore be monitored and managed to safeguard the health of the forest and future water supply. Watershed management considers the quality, quantity, and distribution of water according to the needs of each forest.

    FSC / Jesús Antonio Moo Yam 

    Forests management for all forever

    Humans need forests to thrive. They purify the air and filter our water. Wood is a versatile and renewable resource used to make products we use daily. Trees are also excellent carbon sinks, able to capture carbon for decades. At the same time, forest fires, and burning wood for cooking or fuel, emit a lot of carbon and deforestation wreaks havoc on the environment and surrounding communities. It is crucial that the world’s forests are managed sustainably, for the environment, the economy, and the communities that depend on forests. Most trees have much longer lifespan than the human managers of their ecosystems. Forest managers and scientists are continually learning the best interventions and sharing experiences to find the best solutions to ensure healthy, resilient forests for all forever.

    Forest from above
    FSC Brasil / Célio Cavalcante Filho

    [1] Brockerhoff et al Plantation forest and biodiversity: Oxymoron or Opportunity? Article in Biodiversity and Conservation · May 2008. DOI: 10.1007/s10531-008-9380-x