Global variation in forests and in human cultures means that a single method for managing forests is not possible. However, forest management everywhere shares some common principles because it is rooted in physical and biological sciences like chemistry and genetics. Ecological forest management is an approach that combines an understanding of universal processes with site-specific, local knowledge to sustain forest ecosystems and to provide what people want from them. In places as diverse as the equatorial tropics and the boreal north, people use forests in different ways. Sometimes the prize sought is food; at other times it is building materials, medicine, or bird-watching. The plants and animals available and the ways people use them depend on the condition of the forest itself.

Ecological forest management is based on knowledge of a specific forest - with its unique mix of climate, trees and other plants, wildlife, and human uses - plus a desire to sustain the protective, productive, and social functions it provides. Ecological forest management requires understanding the features common to all forests and using this knowledge to manage specific forests in ways that are adapted to their unique attributes. Individual tree growth, for example, always involves photosynthesis and cell division, but the outcome of the growth processes differs between a sal tree (Shorea robusta) in India and a corkbark oak (Quercus suber) in Spain. Communities of trees, or forests, also tend to follow similar growth patterns, although the rate with which the process unfolds depends on the species in the community, their individual life histories and competitive dynamics, and the amount of water, light, and nutrients that are available. This means that although the structure and composition of forests vary around the globe, common processes of how they grow, die, and regenerate can be studied and the results distilled into guidelines for managing them.

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