Model Forests and Local Level Indicators: Facing Common Challenges

Martin von Mirbach

Executive Summary

The development of meaningful criteria and indicators (C&I) of sustainable forest management practices can often be a challenge given the diversity of interests involved in model forests and the variety of potential uses for C & I. Based on his experience working with a wide range of model forests, the author addresses some of the common challenges that arise at various stages in the development of local level indicators: how to get started; selecting indicators; maintaining momentum; and finding the right approach. The article also discusses some of the common uses of C&I (i.e. management planning, accountability, best management practices, and raising public awareness) and how subtle differences in these objectives can affect the selection of indicators and the way in which a C&I initiative is carried out.


A field of yellow canola flanks a road cutting through China's Lin'an Model Forest (above), where Chinese fir and bamboo plantations have also been established. The sustainable management of forests that serve multiple uses can benefit greatly from local or field-level indicators, which provide a more accurate picture of forest health.

Over the past 10 years or so, international interest in developing and using criteria and indicators (C&I) of sustainable forest management (SFM) has been steadily increasing. There are now international C&I processes in place under the auspices of the International Tropical Timber Association, as well as a variety of international collaborations to explore common approaches to C&I, including the Montreal Process, the Helsinki Process, C&I for the Amazon countries, and so on. These initiatives are intended to demonstrate national commitment to SFM, in response to a growing recognition that forests are an international concern.

But what do these criteria and indicators really mean? How do national-level C&I initiatives relate to on-the-ground practices? What are the pressures and demands being made on forests, and how are they being dealt with? Are things getting better or are they getting worse? In order to properly answer these fundamental questions, it is essential to gather information at a local scale, where the activities that affect forests are actually taking place. Local- or field-level indicators provide an accurate "pulse," giving us meaningful information about the health of forests and the communities they sustain.

This article presents some of my personal perspectives on the subject, after five years of working on local level indicators, initially with Model Forests across Canada and subsequently in Southeast Asia. I've been privileged to work with model forests in a wide range of different capacities: as a stakeholder, a committee chair, a facilitator, a consultant and an analyst. This work has spanned model forests of every description, from ones that are predominantly oriented towards industrial forestry to ones that are community-based. Some have an abundance of pristine forests, while others are on severely degraded lands. Some are on shaky financial footing, while others have more money than they know what to do with. Some model forest partnerships are led by governmental interests, others by commercial interests or indigenous groups. Some are working on local level indicators with great hesitation and reluctance, while others have embraced the concept enthusiastically.

Despite the tremendous variation in model forests, I found that there were many similarities, especially in the challenges they faced. I'd like to share some insights into these challenges, since it can be helpful to recognize how common they are. There is much to be gained by discussing and analyzing these challenges, and by sharing different approaches to them.

Strengths of the Model Forest Approach to Local Level Indicators

Before discussing these challenges, however, it is important to briefly review the strengths of model forest approaches to local level indicators. At a workshop on Field/Model Forest Level C&I held in Lin'an, China in June 2001, the participants agreed on three basic elements of the model forest approach to C&I. These characteristics apply to all model forests wherever they're located, and are worth reviewing since they point to some of the key reasons that model forests have so much to offer.

Scale: Model forests are focused, for the most part, at an operational scale. Although the actual size of model forests varies considerably based on ownership, tenure and management structure, they tend to be loosely based upon the size of management units for that particular region. This means that any work on local level indicators for model forests will provide a better understanding of the impacts of management decisions on forests and communities than broader national indicators that tend to show general trends rather than specific responses.

Partners: Model forests have been called an experiment in the sociology of decision-making, since partnerships and collaboration are at the very heart of what model forests are all about. This strength is particularly useful when developing local level indicators because the topic of SFM is so broad that it requires tremendously diverse expertise. No single agency - or even a group of government departments - can hope to adequately capture the full range of values and interests that forests support.

Networking: Model forests have relied on forming networks with other model forests in order to share ideas and strategies for engaging their partners in SFM. These networks may be national, regional or international in scale, but their main benefit is that they bring together people and interests from diverse backgrounds, perspectives and expertise, all sharing a common goal in moving towards sustainable forest management. This diversity encourages creativity, innovation and openness in finding new ways to solve problems.

The diversity of views present in model forests means that some tasks become more difficult to carry out, and it can take longer to generate a consensus on how to move forward. Challenges arise at several stages in work on local level C&I: getting started, selecting indicators, gathering data and maintaining momentum. It is important to recognize and understand these challenges in order to devise methods and strategies to overcome them. Following is a brief discussion of some of these challenges, which are relevant in most or all model forests.

Model forest management is a collaborative effort that brings together a diversity of people with varying interests, perspectives and expertise. A criteria & indicators initiative cannot be all things to all people, however. The selection of indicators should reflect priorities.

Getting Started

Although all model forests recognize the importance of local or field level C&I they are often slow to get started. A considerable amount of time can be spent grappling with fundamental questions such as: What do we want to accomplish with our C&I work? What is an indicator? What does "local" mean in our context? Who needs to be involved, and why? Is this about science or about people?

These are deceptively simple questions, offering a range of valid answers. Often model forest C&I initiatives get off on the wrong foot when one partner attempts to answer these questions on behalf of the group as a whole, and to "explain" C&I to everyone else. These explanations almost invariably reflect the perspectives of that particular partner's interests rather than the group as a whole.

It is usually preferable to facilitate open discussion of the fundamentals, without presuming too much at the early stages. While it is important to hear from those partners with particular expertise or prior experience in C&I, other partners should have the opportunity to shift the direction or emphasis of a model forest C&I initiative if it means that the project will be more relevant to them.

This can lead to a different problem; namely the tendency to keep discussing the basic issues without coming to a resolution. You'll know you're facing this problem if you're debating the same issues for the third meeting in a row. The solution is to carefully document what it is that you do agree on, and where further discussion is necessary. Sometimes it can be helpful to agree on a charter, work plan or statement of principles. This should always be open for future revision, but at least it helps to delineate the progress you've already made.

Selecting Indicators

Many questions arise when selecting an initial set of local level indicators. Should we start with an existing set of national or international indicators, or should we build a new set from the ground up? Should we only use quantitative indicators, or should we also include descriptive indicators? Should we seek indicators that give comprehensive information across the entire land base we are concerned with, or should we allow for specific case studies? Are we selecting indicators that improve our scientific understanding of SFM, or are the indicators intended to describe areas of concern?

While there are many guides available that describe the characteristics of good indicators (measurable, relevant, responsive to management actions, etc) they all have several shortcomings. First, they tend to be most useful for evaluating scientific indicators of ecosystem conditions, but are of less help when evaluating indicators aimed at addressing cultural and social values. Secondly, they don't help to address the fundamental questions of why indicators are being selected in the first place. And finally, they don't provide guidance for what to do when (as is always the case) you have indicators that "fail" one or more of the screening criteria, but you have good reasons for wanting to retain them nonetheless.

There are some useful points to keep in mind when selecting indicators. First and foremost, it is essential to be absolutely clear about why you are selecting indicators, and what you hope to use them for. The table below offers a few different purposes for using C&I, along with the key characteristics of an indicator set that will accomplish that purpose and examples of indicators related to water quality and public involvement that might meet that particular objective.

Purpose

Key characteristic

Water quality indicator

Public involvement indicator

To increase knowledge and understanding

Must focus on the key issues where further information is required

Changes in waterborne nutrients

Results of "public satisfaction" surveys

To guide the formulation of forest management plans

Must relate to factors that the forest manager can have an influence on

Water turbidity

Specific public input opportunities during the planning process

To build broad partnership support and cohesion

Must address the key concerns of individual stakeholders

Maintenance of streamside buffers

Diversity of stakeholder representatives actively involved

To increase public understanding of SFM

Must be relevant to the public and understandable by them

Watershed stewardship initiatives


Popular communication materials developed and disseminated

Table 1: Characteristics and examples of useful indicators for specific purposes

There are many more potential uses for C&I, but these few examples show how being clear about your purpose or desired outcomes can help in the selection of appropriate indicators.

Gathering Data

There's always a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment once a model forest partnership has agreed upon an initial set of indicators. However, this is where the real work begins. Even when you are not collecting new information but simply compiling information that already exists, data gathering will inevitably take much more time and effort than was originally anticipated. Below is a brief overview of some of the more common obstacles.

Unforeseen data gaps: Information is often incomplete in some way. You might have water quality information for only some of the key sites within your model forest area, or a company's logging records may be incomplete. Information on non-timber forest products may only be available at a scale or for a district that does not completely fit the boundaries of your project area. If there's a park or protected area within your model forest, the information for that area may be incompatible with other data sets. These are all common problems, and require flexibility to find solutions. Sometimes it's possible to adjust your indicator to one that has better data associated with it. Other times it may be sufficient to report on a selected "case study" within the model forest area, for which your information is particularly good. Still other times it can be acceptable to simply report using the best data that you have - gaps and all - thereby hopefully generating the commitment to help fill those gaps.

Reluctance to release information: There are many reasons that may be given for refusals to release information. Companies in competitive industries may not want to release proprietary information. Agencies are sometimes fearful that the information will be misinterpreted, and are often reluctant to release information on "negative" trends that might reflect badly on them. And sometimes agencies or individuals act as "data hoarders," and are reluctant in principle with the idea of sharing information. There are two strategies that can help to deal with these situations. First, it is important to get buy-in to the C&I project from all the key partners who have data that you might need, and for that commitment to be confirmed at a sufficiently senior level that it can help to overcome these roadblocks. Secondly, it's very important to use the information that you've been given carefully; to be respectful of any confidentiality concerns; and to avoid interpreting the information without checking first with the agency that supplied it.

Too much work, not enough time: It is rare that a model forest or a model forest partner can dedicate someone to the task of data gathering on a full time basis. People usually carry out this important step over and above their "regular" work, which often takes precedence. Again, this is where model forest partnerships can be especially useful. They can share the burden amongst several partners, so that no single agency is burdened with the entire responsibility. In this case, however, it is always important to assign someone the lead responsibility, or else the work probably won't get done. It can also be helpful to set realistic timelines and then to make every effort to meet those timelines. This may often mean that your initial reports are less complete and comprehensive than you'd hoped, but it is nevertheless a good idea to show demonstrable progress on a regular basis.

Model forests are about how people interact with the forest ecosystem. Socio-economic indicators help illustrate the benefits of sustainable forest management to local communities that depend on forest resources for their livelihood.

Maintaining Momentum

One significant characteristic of model forest C&I projects is that progress happens at an irregular pace. Projects are often slow to get started, due to the factors described above. Then, things come together and rapid progress is made until a major milestone has been reached, a successful workshop is held or a major report is completed. Everyone has a good feeling about the project, but then … nothing. People who've been intensively involved in the project drift off to do other things, and further progress may become stalled. While this is both understandable, and to some degree unavoidable, it can be a challenge to regain momentum after a major lull. This can be especially difficult when a project relies on the combined efforts of many partners.

One way to deal with this challenge is to ensure that there is a long-term work plan, with each stage in the project clearly described. This work plan will need to be revised on an ongoing basis, but it can help to remind everyone of the particular task they're working on - completion of an initial set of indicators, for instance, is just one important stage in a longer process.

It is also important to review the state of partnership involvement on an ongoing basis. While it's great to have partners who are willing to act as champions and leaders for the project, it is critically important to be sensitive of the needs of all partners, and to make sure that the project doesn't get taken over by the partners who are the most actively involved. It can be helpful to review your partnership on a regular basis. Are there partners who used to be involved, but have dropped out of the process? Why did this happen, and how can you modify what you're doing to ensure that they can once again play an active, constructive role? Is it time to bring new partners on board? It's not always necessary to invite people to be involved just for the sake of it, and no-one will remain involved on an ongoing basis unless there's some tangible benefit. There are many varied ways that partners can benefit from involvement in C&I initiatives - they may acquire valuable information, address specific issues of concern to them, or simply gain recognition and respect. Model forests need to understand the motivations of their partners and build in ways to ensure that the project continues to be worthwhile for everyone who needs to be involved.

Finding the Right Approach

The most important challenge is undoubtedly finding the right approach. It's one that must be dealt with at the beginning, must guide project activity on an ongoing basis and must regularly be reviewed and revised. It's critically important to recognize that no single C&I initiative can be all things to all people. Choices must be made about relative priorities, and these priorities must be kept in mind at all stages in the process if it is to stay on track. Below is an overview of several important ways that local or field level C&I can be used, along with a brief discussion of the key characteristics of a successful C&I initiative for this purpose.

Management planning: In a management planning exercise, the field-level indicators must be specifically related to management goals and objectives. Management planning indicators are most useful when it is possible to forecast preferred future values for these indicators, which allows them to be incorporated into an adaptive management planning framework. It's important in this case to ensure that the indicators are fully integrated into the management planning process, rather than as a separate add-on.

Best management practices: Indicators are often used to delineate and define best management practices. In this case the indicators are typically stated in a prescriptive manner, such as "maintenance of 20-metre buffers alongside all water bodies." The indicators must set ambitious but realistic targets, and it should be possible to use the indicators in order to determine compliance.

More than a resource, forests have long held an aesthetic and spiritual place in society and culture. Tian Mu Shan or Heaven's Eye Mountain (above) in China's Lin'an Model Forest is the birthplace of Zen Buddhism.

Accountability: One of the most important uses of local level indicators is to help resolve local conflicts over resource management and use. They can be especially useful in cases where there is a lack of trust between groups with differing views and values. A set of local level indicators can be used as a neutral measuring tool to determine if forestry companies, logging contractors or government agencies are living up to their stated commitments. In this case it is especially important to have all relevant interests agree on the indicators to be used, so as to ensure that the results will be acceptable to all parties.

Communications: Criteria and Indicators can be an excellent way to raise public awareness and understanding about sustainable forest management. The diverse criteria - which are, in effect, the basic principles of SFM - effectively describe the breadth of issues covered under SFM, from biodiversity conservation to the multiple timber and non-timber benefits that forests provide. The local or field-level indicators then add depth to this framework by showing exactly how these important principles will be measured and assessed. If C&I are to be used to communicate SFM issues to the public, it is vitally important that the indicators be relevant to public concerns and interests, and that there be a reporting process that is available to the public and readily understandable.

Research: In the early stages, many C&I initiatives are led by people from the research community - scientists, academics and government specialists. These people tend to be most familiar with indicators, which are widely used in areas such as wildlife management. If a field-level C&I initiative is intended to answer key research questions then it is vital that these specialists are involved, so as to ensure that the information being gathered will actually answer the questions that people want answers to.

There is much overlap among the five potential uses described above, but also subtle differences in emphasis that have a real impact on how any C&I initiative can best be carried out. A successful C&I initiative is one that understands these differences and makes appropriate choices. There is no single approach that can be applied to all model forests, since the choices made will depend on local circumstances. That being said, it remains the case that local level indicators can help diverse partnerships consider sustainability and implement good forest practices on the ground.

Martin von Mirbach is an environmentalist and environmental educator based in Ottawa, Canada. He has been involved with the Canadian Model Forest program since its inception more than 10 years ago, and has worked with a variety of model forests as well as with the Network. He is the author of the Western Newfoundland Model Forest's "Practical Guide to Using Local Level Indicators in Newfoundland and Labrador" as well as "A User's Guide to Local Level Indicators of Sustainable Forest Management: Experiences From the Canadian Model Forest Network." He currently works with the Sierra Club of Canada on issues related to forests and climate change and forest certification.