Since the end of the 1980s the concept of sustainable development has gained general acceptance, but much uncertainty still exists on how to operationalize this concept. In forestry the concept of sustainability has been an accepted principle since the 18th century. The experiences with its application in forestry may contribute towards obtaining a better insight into the implications and operational significance of the concept of sustainability. This article describes the history of sustainability in forestry, including the various social values on which its interpretation has been based. The original principle of sustained yield has gradually been broadened to a more inclusive principle of sustainable forest management. The dynamics in social valuation of forest resources resulted in various attempts at practical operationalization of the principle. Notwithstanding 200 years of efforts to operationalize the concept of sustainability, its exact application in forestry remains troublesome. Three lessons are drawn: (1) the need to recognize the different nature of ecological limits and social dynamics, (2) the role of dynamic social values with respect to forest resources, and (3) the significance of operational experiences in trying to attain sustainability within a concrete context.