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Stumbling to Johannesburg: The United States' Haphazard Progress Toward Sustainable Forestry Law

March 2002

Citation: 32 ELR 10291

Issue: 3

Author: Robert L. Fischman

This Article addresses how well forestry law in the United States promotes sustainable development, with special attention to the trends of the past decade. The role of law in shaping forest management decisions has been a contentious issue in this recent period, and forestry has been at the forefront of public concern about sustainability of natural resource management generally. Therefore, the problems and opportunities for forestry law to promote sustainable development are indications of the weaknesses and strengths of the overall U.S. legal regime.

This Article focuses on forestry, as opposed to forests or the forest sector of the economy. As Prof. Jeff Romm has observed, sustainable forestry is a "social process rather than a forest condition."1 Though the ecological health of the forests themselves is a critical aspect of sustainable forestry, it is but one of the three axes along which sustainable forestry should be measured. Economic viability and social responsibility are equally important dimensions of sustainability.2 Conceiving forestry as a process rather than a condition is particularly helpful in evaluating the role played by law in promoting sustainability. Because law is an important method society employs to resolve disputes, it concerns itself primarily with process. Though the process established through forestry law can promote sustainability, extra-legal ecological, economic, and social forces dominate the outcomes. This Article emphasizes those areas where law can serve as a catalyst for sustainability, but it is important to acknowledge at the outset that law is often a follower rather than a leader of changes in forestry.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United National Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In September 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations will gather in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. In anticipation of the Rio + 10 summit conference, Prof. John C. Dernbach is editing a book that assesses progress that the United States has made on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, which is scheduled to be published by the Environmental Law Institute in June 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article will appear as a chapter in the book. Further information on the book will be available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

The author is a Professor, Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington. He is grateful to Matt Auer, John Dernbach, and Kenneth Rosenbaum for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this work. The author thanks Yale Law School, which provided research support for this work during 2001, when he served as a Senior Research Scholar.

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