Sustainability GraphicHow can we promote resilience, and ensure that management activities are truly sustainable and do not compromise the health of ecosystems? Can people help to facilitate and aid in this process?

In this new section of our website, we will explore the science and policy along with the issues surrounding the concept of sustainability relative to forest restoration as the new model for managing forests in the Sierra Nevada. This model requires forest management practices with a clear priority objective to restore the healthy ecological functions and biological diversity of our forests. Fire is restored to its evolutionarily historic role as the primary shaper of Sierran ecosystems. Resilience is promoted through management so that forests and wildlife can survive the impacts of future fires and climate change, while maintaining optimum conditions for adaptability.

The natural thinning process of fire promotes resiliency to the effects of fire and other stressors over time. Biological diversity itself has been shown to help buffer ecosystems against the impacts of climate change.

Restoration forestry also implies that we can harvest wood fiber sustainably, to provide useful products for society while also helping to maintain stable community economies. On this page, we discuss the meaning of sustainability and highlight some bright ideas, research papers, and planning efforts.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is a word that is often misused to justify activities that are not truly sustainable for maintaining biological diversity and processes. Although the region has a long history of conflicting value systems and measures for sustainability, today there is broad support for policies that place ecosystem health at the heart of management planning.

Sustainability cannot really be defined without an understanding of the fundamental nature of our environment upon which all goods, services, and sustenance depend.

In 1994, when the Forest Service first begin to move towards an ecosystem management approach to forest management, rather than an extractive timber focus, agency researchers Kaufmann et al. described it this way: "Ecosystem management involves a shift in focus from sustaining production of goods and services to sustaining the viability of ecological, social and economic systems now and into the future…by bringing ecosystem capabilities and social and economic needs into closer alignment."

This model was frequently misrepresented by old school Forest Service managers as the "Three Legged Stool" which placed economic activities and society on equal legs with the environment. This model cannot be sustainable because it fails to recognize that human society and economics are derived from and supported by the environment (see "triple bottom line" discussion, below). Caring for, and conservation of the natural world is not a "nice to do" activity but a fundamental necessity for survival.

In the abstract from their paper in Conservation Biology, Callicott and Mumford (1997) provide another, more realistic definition of sustainability:

"Neither the classic resource management concept of maximum sustainable yield nor the concept of sustainable development are useful to contemporary, nonanthropocentric, ecologically informed conservation biology. As an alternative, we advance an ecological definition of sustainability that is in better accord with biological conservation: meeting human needs without compromising the health of ecosystems. In addition to familiar benefit-cost constraints on human economic activity, we urge adding ecologic constraints. Projects are not choice-worthy if they compromise the health of the ecosystems in which the human economic systems are embedded...For purposes of biological conservation we suggest that the concept of ecological sustainability be sharply distinguished from both sustained yield and sustainable development.”

Edith's Checker-spot and Fivespot BloomsToday, restoration of our nation's forests has become a priority for the U.S. Forest Service. But restoration, like sustainability, can be defined in a variety of ways that may depend upon the project objective. Forest Service research scientist, J. Boone Kauffman, cautions that "Restoration includes much more than simple structural modifications achieved through mechanical means..." and "Restoration must allow for dominant ecosystem processes, such as natural fire regimes achieved through natural and/or prescribed fires at the appropriate temporal and spatial scales." Further, he notes, "..the real catastrophes are not the fires themselves but those land uses, in concert with fire suppression policies that have resulted in dramatic alterations to ecosystem structure and composition."

Here on our website, you can follow the research surrounding this particular topic in detail. Explore the different tabs under the "Fire and Forest Ecology" menu opening up when you go to "Forest Planning" (from anywhere on this website). Or, go straight to "Fire Science" now.

What about resilience?

Resilience is an ecological term that refers to the ability of an ecosystem to recover from disturbance without fundamental alterations of the ecosystem's composition and ecological processes. The resilience of an ecosystem is closely related to sustainability. Many scientists believe we are already entrained upon the sixth great extinction, and because the planet is experiencing accelerated climate change due to human activities, it is important to understand the relationship between sustaining biological diversity and the maintenance of other systems and processes, including climate moderation, on the planet.

Recently, the Convention on Biological Diversity, an agency of the United Nations, published a well documented report demonstrating the relationship between forest resilience, biodiversity, and climate change. The researchers concluded: “The available scientific evidence strongly supports the conclusion that the capacity of forests to resist change, or to recover from disturbance, is dependent on biodiversity at multiple scales.” Maintaining and restoring biodiversity in forests promotes their resilience to human-induced pressures and is therefore an essential “insurance policy” and safeguard against climate change impacts.

The Triple Bottom Line

Sustainability GraphicAs this figure illustrates, strong community sustainability can derive from models where the economy and society are recognized as fundamentally dependent upon the environment. The economy itelf is wholly embedded in society and the interactions between people. It would not exist without society or the environment.

Our basic requirements--air, food and water--come from the environment, as do the energy and raw materials for housing, transportation and the products we depend on. Society can never be larger than the environment, because people are wholly dependent upon the environment to provide food, water and air. The environment is essential for our survival, and it is not on equal footing with the economy or societal needs.

Sustainability requires managing all households -- individual, community, national, and global -- in ways that ensure that our economy and society can continue to exist without destroying the natural environment on which we all depend. Sustainable communities acknowledge that there are limits to the natural, social and built systems upon which we depend. Key questions asked in a sustainable community include: "Are we using this resource faster than it can be renewed" and "Are we enhancing the social and human capital upon which our community depends?"

Sustainability is an issue for all communities, from small rural towns that are losing the natural environment upon which their jobs depend, to large metropolitan areas where crime and poverty are decreasing the quality of life. Indicators measure whether a community is getting better or worse at providing all its members with a productive, enjoyable life, both now and in the future. Read more about how to measure sustainability in your community at Sustainable Measures, developed in cooperation with a grant from the US EPA's Office of Sustainable Ecosystems and Communities.

The Sustainable Sierra Nevada Initiative -- June 3, 2010

In June, 2010, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy approved the Sierra Nevada Forest and Community Resolution, also called the Sustainable Sierra Nevada Initiative. Sierra Forest Legacy has contributed meaningful sustainability measures in this resolution, and we have been leading efforts to support collaborative restoration projects in the Sierra Nevada as members of the SNFCI steering committee. We are looking for opportunities to support sustainable biomass utilization and other important restoration activities. You can read the resolution and initiative here, and read the endorsement letter signed by Legacy along with our colleagues in the grassroots conservation community in the Sierra Nevada. A list of organizations and agencies that have also endorsed the initiative can be viewed at the SN Conservancy's website.

You can read more about Sierra Forest Legacy's participation in current and proposed collaborative projects in the "Projects and Plans" part of the website. We'll be posting more information about these proposals as they progress. We are committed to finding collaborative solutions to the deep environmental stalemates that we have fallen into, which have resulted in opposing sides digging deeper into their entrenched positions. Wildlife and all of the forest biodiversity have for too long been missing voices at the table. Through our participation in the development of these proposals, for the first time in the history of the region, wildlife and habitat conservation are helping to drive the process home to an ecological home run. Stay tuned.

Region 5 Forest Service -- Sierra Cascades Dialogs

Last fall we began participating with the Forest Service in a precedent-setting experiment in building trust and consensus through facilitated interactions among the Sierra's many and varied stakeholders in a series of meetings hosted by the agency, the Sierra Cascades Dialogs. The dialogs are a golden opportunity to understand our shared concerns for the future of the Sierra Nevada's national forests, while we shake hands with our neighbors and make new friends. Even though we sometimes disagree on the best management vision for the national forests of the region, differences are too often the result simply from a failure to communicate.

The next session will be held March 1, 2012. The public is invited to attend, but registration is required. All of the current documents and summaries of the meetings, background reading materials, etc. are available at the Forest Service Region 5 Sierra Cascade Dialogs website.

The Ecological Restoration Leadership Intent summarizes the U.S. Forest Service goals for management of California's 18 national forests.


"A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise." ~Aldo Leopold

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