A fundamental problem of sustainability is how to reduce the double complexity of ecological and social systems into simple operational terms. We highlight that the conservation concept of focal species (selected species sensitive to a set of anthropogenic threats to their habitat) links multiple issues of ecological sustainability, and their habitat models can provide a practical tool for solving these issues. A review of the literature shows that most spatial modeling of focal species focuses on vertebrates, lacks the aspect of aquatic and soil habitats, and has been slow in the uptake by actual management planning. We elaborate on a deductive modeling approach that first generalizes the main influential dimensions of habitat change (threats), which are then parameterized as habitat quality estimates for focal species. If built on theoretical understanding and properly scaled, the maps produced with such models can cost-effectively describe the dynamics of ecological qualities across forest landscapes, help set conservation priorities, and reflect on management plans and practices. The models also serve as ecological hypotheses on biodiversity and landscape function. We illustrate this approach based on recent additions to the forest reserve network in Estonia, which addressed the insufficient protection of productive forest types. For this purpose, mostly former production forests that may require restoration were set aside. We distinguished seven major habitat dimensions and their representative taxa in these forests and depicted each dimension as a practical stand-scale decision tree of habitat quality. The model outcomes implied that popular stand-structural targets of active forest restoration would recover passively in reasonable time in these areas, while a critically degraded condition (loss of old trees of characteristic species) required management beyond reserve borders. Another hidden issue revealed was that only a few stands of consistently low habitat quality concentrated in the landscape to allow cost-efficient restoration planning. We conclude that useful habitat models for sustainable forest management have to balance single-species realism with stakeholder expectations of meaningful targets and scales. Addressing such social aspects through the focal species concept could accelerate the adoption of biodiversity distribution modeling in forestry.
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