Science Story

International Framework Helps U.S. and Other Nations Understand Pressing Sustainability Challenges

Shannon Kelleher
October 30th, 2018 at 1:30PM

Mountain lake with forest damaged by pine beetles
Mountain lake with forest damaged by pine beetles (iStock image taken from USDA Flickr)

With land degradation and changes in climate threatening woodlands around the world, sustainable forest management is a global issue that calls for global collaboration. This urgent need for international networks of knowledge inspired the 1994 creation of an intergovernmental approach to forest health called the Montreal Process, which includes countries that span five continents and account for 49% of the world’s forests. Rather than prescribing specific courses of action, the Montreal Process takes a step back, defining sustainable forest management through seven key criteria that are measured or described through 54 indicators. This provides a consistent definition of sustainability and a sturdy backbone for each member nation’s research. 

Such a hefty measurement list may sound daunting, but part of the process’ beauty is that member countries don’t need to conduct them all. Each nation can tailor its data collection to its own needs and forest inventory capacity, presenting its findings in regular reports and working group meetings.

“If the Montreal Process can get countries to consistently report out using its indicators, it has done its job,” says Guy Robertson, a national sustainability program leader with the USDA Forest Service. “But it must be consistently, routinely repeated.”

Consistency can be a challenge. Robertson notes that data collection based on the process’ criteria can lose momentum once the initial novelty wears off. But the process’ real value is that it enables scientists and land managers to look broadly at the way different forest health indicators interact over time, providing a nuanced understanding of how well forests are responding to challenges.

El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico (from FS report, “Assessing Forest Sustainability in the Tropical Islands of the United States”)

The Forest Service regularly uses Montreal Process criteria and indicators as a lens to present forest data, producing reports that reflect public concerns about the environmental, social, and economic status of U.S. forests and helping to establish next steps towards improved sustainability. The 2010 National Report on Sustainable Forests found that although the area of American forests is relatively stable and the number of trees on them is growing, forests face substantial challenges, such as increasing fires, invasive pests, and continuing threats to biodiversity. The report dispels “benign neglect” as a safe means of achieving sustainability and recommends the adoption of flexible management techniques, the cultivation of market niches for ecosystem services beyond timber, and the vigorous pursuit of carbon sequestration.

A 2016 report using Montreal Process criteria to evaluate the sustainability of U.S. agriculture and urban forests has shown that data on forests in these regions of the country is still scarce, but can be improved by incorporating remote sensing technology with on-the-ground plot surveys. A further 2017 assessment finds that although U.S. tropical islands are not experiencing broad-scale deforestation, they do face grave biodiversity loss.

“Really, there’s nothing magic about the Montreal Process criteria and indicators,” says Robertson. “Effective management has always required good information. This framework just makes that information explicit and accessible.”