Forestry Focus



Forest management arose out of the need to control the exploitation of forests to provide a steady supply of timber to meet the needs of communities. In central Europe silvicultural systems were developed to regulate the felling and regeneration of forest stands in a planned and orderly fashion. The underlying principle of these systems was the sustained yield of timber which would provide wood products on a regular and on-going basis.

The exploitation and clearances of native forests in Ireland resulted in only 1.5% of the land area being forested by the turn of the 20th century. As a result, the main focus of the reforestation programme which began in the 1920s was timber production.  Sustained yield of timber which would supply local markets and substitute for imports was therefore the main objective of forest management in Ireland for many years. This remained the case until the late 1990s; and while it continues to be so, the concept has been widened to include the sustainability of other non-timber forest goods and services such as biodiversity, water protection, recreation etc. This wider concept is known as Sustainable Forest Management (SFM) which takes into account the economic, environmental and social considerations in managing forests.


Definition of SFM

A definition of SFM was developed by the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe (MCPFE).  It defines sustainable forest management as:

The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfill, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national, and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems.

More simply, the concept can be described as the attainment of balance – balance between society’s increasing demands for forest products and benefits, and the preservation of forest health and diversity. This balance is critical to the survival of forests, and to the prosperity of forest-dependent communities.

In practical terms, sustainably managing a forest means that the forester must ensure that forest benefits, health and productivity are maintained into the future.  They are required to assess and integrate a wide array of sometimes conflicting factors – commercial and non-commercial values, environmental considerations, community needs, – to produce sound forest plans. These plans are developed in consultation with stakeholders that have an interest in the forest area.

Origins of SFM

The degradation and destruction on of the Earth’s natural forests has been ongoing for centuries but has accelerated in recent decades on a scale and extent that has not been seen heretofore, particularly in tropical regions. Tropical forests play a major role in the life systems of the planet through maintaining biological diversity, sequestering & storing carbon, regulating global climate, providing sources of medicines etc. For many years the exploitation of native tropical forests for valuable hardwood timber and clearances for corporate agriculture have been on a scale that has caused concern for the sustainability of the resource and its implications for the earth’s environment.  Programmes to halt the destruction of tropical forests, such as tropical Forestry Action Plans, the International Tropical Timber Agreement (ITTA), the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and the Global Environment Facility were initiated but were not fully effective and the lack of progress was highlighted at the UNCED Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. At this summit environmental nongovernmental organisations (NGOs), along with many government organisations, pushed strongly for international agreements and legislation to tackle the problem of deforestation and forest degradation.

Arising from the Earth Summit, a number of non-legally binding Forest Principles and an agenda (Agenda 21) were established which set out action programmes for sustainable development for the next century. The four programme areas in Agenda 21 concerned with combating deforestation were in effect an action plan for sustainable forest management (SFM):

  1. Sustaining the multiple roles and functions of all types of forests, forest lands and woodlands
  2. Enhancing the protection, sustainable management and conservation of all forests, and the greening of degraded areas, through forest rehabilitation afforestation, reforestation and other rehabilitative means.
  3. Promoting efficient utilization and assessment to recover the full valuation of the goods and services provided by forests, forest lands and woodlands
  4. Establishing and/or strengthening capacities for the planning, assessment and systematic observations of forests and related programmes, projects and activities, including commercial trade and processes.

Following on from the Earth Summit individual countries and regions made commitments to apply the Forest Principles. Europe’s intention and commitment to apply the Forest Principles at regional and national levels led to the Second Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, which was held in Helsinki in June 1993.  The General Declaration and the four Helsinki Resolutions arising from the conference reflect Europe’s approaches to global environmental issues, namely the promotion of sustainable forest management, the conservation of biological diversity, strategies regarding the consequences of possible climate change for the forest sector, and increasing co-operation with countries in transition to market economies.

Subsequent Ministerial Conferences, and initiatives in other parts of the world, have reinforced the concept of SFM. It has now been adopted by many countries and has become one of the main principles by which forests are managed today.

Practicing SFM

While the broad principles of SFM are well defined under the UNCE Forest Principles and Agenda 21 and the Helsinki Accord for Europe, they are required to be interpreted at local level. Regional differences in soils, climate, species, forest types, biodiversity, cultural associations etc means that one universal interpretation of SFM cannot apply to all areas. Forest management issues can differ widely from one region to another. Following the broad principles, countries have therefore developed their own interpretation of what SFM means to their situation. In Ireland, this interpretation has been enshrined in the forestry standards and guidelines that provide regulation and guidance for the forestry sector. These include:

  • The Code of Best Forest Practice and the associated suite of guidelines on Biodiversity, Water, Archaeology, Landscape etc. published by the Forest Service; and the
  • Forestry Standards for Ireland – National Standard, FSC and PEFC Standards.

While the Code of Best Forest Practice and Guidelines are considered by the Forest Service to meet the needs of SFM, environmental NGOs consider these to be inadequate.   Consequently they have developed their own standards for SFM, and while accepting the requirements of the Code and Guidelines, they go beyond these, particularly in relation to environmental and social issues.

Confirmation that SFM is being practiced by forest owners and managers is provided in two ways through:

  • Forest Service inspections – to ensure compliance with the Code of Best Forest Practice and Guidelines.  The Forest Service carries out inspections of both public and private forests.
  • Forest Certification schemes – voluntary compliance with either of the FSC and/or PEFC forestry standards for Ireland. Compliance is determined through regular audits of management policies, plans and practices of forest owners that apply for forest certification.

Practicing SFM has fundamentally changed the way in which forests are managed in Ireland. The greatest change is seen in the strengthening of the environmental and social aspects of forest management which, prior to the introduction of SFM, was focused solely on timber production. Apart from greater care in protecting both the forest and the wider environment through improved planning and operational practices, there is greater participation by stakeholders and communities in the management of forests. Consultation on forest management plans allows both statutory stakeholders and the general public to comment and have an input into how forests are managed. This process has greatly helped to create a better understanding among stakeholders of issues and constraints that forest managers face in meeting the needs of different interests. Equally, it has provided a means of informing the managers of the concerns the community may have is relation to how the forests are managed.

Further information can be obtained through the following links:

Earth Summit, Rio 1992

Helsinki Resolution 1993

Code of Best Forest Practice

FSC Certification Scheme

PEFC Certification Scheme