Sustainability: An Evolving Concept

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Length of Service Awards Ceremony
Washington, DC
— September 8, 2010

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here today to honor the service of all of you here … your service to conservation on behalf of the nation. I’d also like to thank the organizers of this event for weaving in Sustainable Operations—for making sustainability a theme for this event.

Our mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for the benefit of present and future generations.” There are a lot of nouns in that statement—a lot of different things. But there is only one verb: to sustain. Sustainability is what we do. That’s how important it is.

Was it always that way? Strictly speaking, no. In connection with conservation, the word “sustainability” wasn’t used until the 1970s. But the concept goes back to our very beginnings, to the time of Gifford Pinchot.

To paraphrase Mark Twain: When I was fourteen, I thought my father was pretty ignorant. But when I turned twenty-one, I was amazed by how much he had learned over the last seven years.

Gifford Pinchot fathered the Forest Service over a century ago; and the older I get—the longer I serve—the wiser Pinchot seems to get.

When he defined conservation, Pinchot did not use the word “sustain.” He used terms like “protect,” “preserve,” “renew,” and “wisely to use.” But if we replace those terms with “sustain,” it means the same thing. For example, and I quote: “Conservation means [sustaining] the earth and its resources for the lasting good of men.” That sounds like Pinchot, doesn’t it? It’s basically our same mission statement today, only in broader terms.

The focus of early conservationists was on sustaining timber and waterflows. The Organic Act of 1897 says, and I quote, “No national forest shall be established, except to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber …”

You still hear a lot about timber and water in connection with the Organic Act. But beyond timber and water, there was a third purpose as well, one that is sometimes overlooked: “to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries.” Gifford Pinchot once tried to define what a forest was, and he had to admit that he couldn’t. But whatever the definition, it includes more than just timber and water. A forest is much broader, and protecting it has always been central to our mission. For the past century, the concept of sustainability has evolved accordingly. It has become steadily more complex and inclusive.

Some of us in the Forest Service will remember when sustainability meant multiple-use management. The Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act of 1960 defines sustainability in terms of a high level of outputs, so long as the productivity of the land is not impaired. Sustained yield is still with us. When we harvest renewable resources, we do it in a sustainable way.

But the outputs specified by MUSYA are limited to wood, water, wildlife and fish, range, and outdoor recreation. Our mission is broader than that. You can manage the land for wood, for example, and you’ll have other outputs as well, but you might get a very different kind of forest, not the forest we are charged to protect.  

Accordingly, our focus on sustainability has broadened. Those of you with 40 years or more of service will remember the first Earth Day in 1970 and all that followed—the United Nations Conference on the Environment in 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1972, and the National Forest Management Act of 1976, just to name a few. The term “sustainability” was coined, and it began to be used in connection with natural resource management. We began talking about sustaining ecosystems, including habitat for a full range of native plants and animals.

The 1980s continued to refine our understanding. Those of you with 30 years or more of service will remember the peak year of our timber production in 1987. That was also the year of the international Brundtland Report, which defined sustainable development in terms of meeting, and I quote, “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Did our high timber outputs meet that standard? In 1989, the Sunbird Conference of forest supervisors said no. In the words of Chief Dale Robertson, traditional forestry “hit the wall.”

In the 1990s, our mission focus shifted accordingly. Those of you with 20 years or more of service will remember the emergence of ecosystem-based approaches to national forest management, like New Forestry or ecosystem management. You will also remember the Northwest Forest Plan and various other efforts to study the National Forest System and to plan for its management on an ecoregional or watershed scale.

Remember the Earth Summit of 1992? The Rio Declaration came out of it, including the principles of sustainable forest management. And out of that came the Montreal Process and the criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management that still guide us today. We now view sustainability in terms of long-term outcomes on the land, not short-term outputs.

By 2000, the need for a new planning rule was obvious. Those of you with 10 years or more of service might remember the corresponding debate over sustainability. A Committee of Scientists was appointed, and it concluded that sustainability was the overarching objective of national forest stewardship. It also recognized that sustainability has three interdependent elements—ecological, social, and economic. But the Committee took a single one of those elements—ecological sustainability—and recommended making it, and I quote, “a foundation upon which the management for national forests and grasslands can contribute to economic and social sustainability.”

That recommendation itself proved to be unsustainable, as did the planning rule that came out of it. Today, we recognize that the three components of sustainability—ecological, social, and economic—are inseparable. None has priority. Our process-heavy, often top-down systems of planning and management are also proving unsustainable. As you know, we are working on a new planning rule, and we are using collaborative approaches as the foundation for public input.

Finally, those of you with 5 years or more of service might remember our centennial celebrations in 2005. The many discussions we had with our partners deepened our understanding of sustainability, partly by raising our awareness of climate change and the need for a strategic response. Part of our strategic response to climate change has been to make our own operations more sustainable, as you can see here today.

You might also remember the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005. The Assessment showed the many ecosystem services that people around the world get from their forests and grasslands, and it also showed how threatened they are. Part of our response to climate change is to sustain the services that Americans get from their lands, both public and private, by helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate. Today, sustainability means working with partners on a landscape scale, across jurisdictions, to restore the processes and functions associated with healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems.

So we have come a long way in our understanding of sustainability. The concept has evolved, and it will continue to do so, through you, in the years ahead.

On behalf of the entire Forest Service, thank you for your service in the cause of conservation … and thank you for your service to the American people. They—and we—owe you a debt of gratitude.

And thanks again to all those involved in putting together this event. Thanks for making sustainability and Sustainable Operations a theme here today. You’ve all done a great job in making this event a success, and I thank you on behalf of everyone here.