Forest Stewardship: Principles for Landowners

This article explains the benefits of forest stewardships and provides information to forest landowners for developing a forest stewardship plan.
Forest Stewardship: Principles for Landowners - Articles


Forests are more than just trees; they are an integrated community of plants, animals, soils, and water.


Forests are more than just trees; they are an integrated community of plants, animals, soils, and water. As a forest owner, you are more than just a guardian or investor but also a steward who pursues personal goals by caring for and using the forest today while sustaining long-term forest health and continuity. This publication will help Pennsylvania forest owners answer three basic questions:

  1. How might you develop a plan to manage for a healthy forest over the long term?
  2. How do you as a forest steward set plan priorities?
  3. How might you recognize on-the-ground results of good stewardship?

Your personal objectives are key to answering these questions, and the stewardship principles presented here are a template for addressing your personal objectives and priorities. A stewardship plan is the best way for you to capture the full benefit of blending personal goals with stewardship principles. Such a plan, geared to the size and condition of your forest, is a blueprint for action, confirms your objectives, guides your progress, and targets change as your forest and knowledge grow.

Note: Professional assistance in your stewardship plan development efforts can prove very helpful and is available from your local Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry service forester, extension forester, professional consulting forester, and industrial forester.

Stewardship Principles

The following set of stewardship principles can guide the achievement of your forest stewardship goals. To the extent that your personal goals are consistent with these principles, you are practicing forest stewardship. Since Pennsylvania forests are living and ever changing, stewardship is "a work in progress"--the sooner begun, the more regularly tended, the better the results. The stewardship principles presented here address how your objectives, plans, and actions achieve each principle and suggest measures of success.

Principle 1

Maintain or improve plant, animal, and tree diversity in the forest and landscape

  • Your forest includes both trees and other plant life such as shrubs, groundcover, mosses, and algae in shady places, seeps, and springs. Your forest is also a habitat for native wildlife, songbirds, insects, and microscopic organisms.
  • Your forest's community of plants and animals is part of a broader mix of communities across the surrounding landscape (or watershed), like a patch in a quilt.

Your measures of success include responding to forest change, maintaining standing dead trees for wildlife, and monitoring management activities to maintain and enhance diverse plants, animals, and trees.

Principle 2

Maintain or improve forest productivity for diverse values

  • Your forest could provide income from timber sales, as well as from a broad range of other goods and services. Productivity logically includes market values (e.g., recreation, maple products, medicinal plants) and nonmarket values (e.g., shaded streams, natural beauty, conserved rare habitat).
  • On a broader scale, your forest's productivity contributes to the local potential to attract and sustain economic investment. Resources such as lumber or paper mills, tourism for fishing and hunting, rail trails, or clean water sustain your local community.

Your measures of success include maintaining the overall long-term vigor of your forest and improving wildlife habitat and water quality.

Principle 3

Maintain or improve the health and vigor of the forest and its landscape/watershed

  • The life cycles of your forest's plants and animals ebb and flow with age and climate, as well as with the cycles of natural events such as storms, insect invasions, wildfire, and drought. These same cycles also impact adjacent lands and watersheds.
  • Your forest's potential to influence, and be influenced by, the health and vigor of its surrounding landscape varies with its history and general condition, e.g., mix of tree species (oak, walnut, cherry, and hemlock) and forest ages.

Reducing invasive plant species, managing tree species mix, and ensuring long-term forest health are signs of success.

Principle 4

Improve soil and water resources

  • Your forest plays an important role in the fertility of its own soils, as well as in the health and vigor of the plants and animals that rely on that soil.
  • Your forest's role as a filter--catching waterborne sediment, softening the impact of storm-driven rain, and holding stormwater for gentle release over time--serves critical needs on both your own and your neighbors' ownerships in your watershed.

Taking time to learn about your forest's soil and factoring this into overall management, developing riparian areas, and mapping streams are signs of success.

Principle 5

Manage forests for growth and energy storage

  • Our reliance on fossil-based fuels releases carbon into the atmosphere. Your forest can counter these impacts as trees use carbon for growth and energy storage. All forest plants and soils store carbon, so your management influences the natural cycles of storage in both living and dead plant material.
  • Your management for firewood as a substitute for fossil fuel heat sources can slow the addition of "new" carbon into the atmosphere.

Your signs of success include taking carbon release into account when harvesting timber and marketing wood for fuel.

Principle 6

Manage for community, cultural, and economic benefits

  • Your personal goals should take into consideration your forest's contribution to your community's economy and quality of life.

Measures of success are considering your community's value of aesthetics when implementing your forestry practices and, where feasible, allowing public access.

Principle 7

Comply with laws and Pennsylvania best management practices

  • Your forest is subject to laws and guidelines designed to serve your community and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

A measure of success is complying with Pennsylvania best management practices.

Becoming a Good Steward

Forest stewardship is an ongoing, long-term, and adaptive process; you will learn from your actions, investments, and even inaction as each decision is manifest on the land. Progress, however, can be complex since variables such as climate, soils, and the interaction among its trees, plants, and animals govern a forest's health and vigor. These, among other factors, often make progress subtle, intermittent, and difficult to gauge. Taking the time to consider what efforts, events, milestones, or accomplishments you might use to track your plan's success can help focus your work and avoid surprises, as well as maximize satisfaction and returns on your investment.


Forest stewardship is as challenging as it is rewarding. Like most other worthy undertakings, you measure successful stewardship both as steps along the journey as well as in reaching your personal goals. It is a commitment to paying at least as much attention to the forest that remains as is paid to harvests. It is discovering that forests respond to the science and practice used in their stewardship. It is rewarding for all the above, as well as for the pleasure of working and enjoying time in your forest. The work you do and the expertise you access from other sources when shaped by standards, plans, and indicators are key to sustaining your forest and its long-term benefits.

More Information

To learn more about forest stewardship

Best Management Practices for Pennsylvania Forests (2001).

Contact one of the following organizations:

Penn State Natural Resources Extension
320 Forest Resources Building
University Park, PA 16802
Phone: 800-235-9473

Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry
Rachel Carson State Office Building
P.O. Box 8552
Harrisburg, PA 17105-8552
Phone: 814-364-5150

For additional information about the seven principles

A Stewardship Handbook for Family Ownerships (2009).

Prepared by Laurie Schoonhoven, program specialist, Sustainable Forests Partnership, and Jim Finley, professor of forest resources.