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July 16, 2014

Sustainability has become a watchword for development in the 21st century. The simplest definition is: that which can be maintained over time. Another widely accepted definition is found in the Brundtland Report, published by the United Nations in 1987 ( “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

In these pages of The River Reporter, we frequently address sustainability: building sustainable local economies; seeking sustainable energy solutions; practicing sustainable use of natural resources; protecting and sustaining the environment (to safeguard clean air, clean water and biodiversity, to reduce waste, etc.); and creating sustainable communities. The list goes on.

Another perhaps less familiar concept is sustainability’s companion: resilience. It, too, is emerging as a fundamental principle for the 21st century. Its definition is: the ability to recover from adverse effects.

The recent Upper Delaware BioBlitz got us thinking about resilience in terms of ecosystems and their ability to recover from negative impacts, although the concept of resilience applies to all complex systems, not only to the natural world (more about that in a minute).

Life as we know it depends on the “products” and services of ecosystems. Take forests, for example; forests store carbon, deliver watershed services, provide habitat for widely diverse species, help modulate climate and afford scenic landscapes. Each component of a forest ecosystem is vital to its continued resilience. The rich dark color of lumber from a cherry tree, for example, makes its hardwood greatly prized on the open market; loggers and forest owners can get a pretty penny. However, an enlightened logger or landowner, or a professional forester would never harvest all the cherry trees in an ecosystem. The forest needs enough cherry trees for that ecosystem to recover with its full complement of birds, animals, insects, plants and more. Increasingly forest managers are talking about building forest resilience.