CEF was created in 1976, and is among the oldest university-based research centers in Portugal. CEF was originally created to coordinate interdisciplinary research and outreach with a problem-solving approach, covering issues related to the expansion of eucalypt plantations and the pulp-paper industrial chain they supplied. Later, its scope was expanded to include emerging issues in forestry and semi-natural ecosystem management, namely those related to climate change, ecosystem sustainability and the integrated cork industrial chain.

Current challenges focus on dependencies between people and the natural environment, regional dimensions of global change, globalization of risks and economic instability, delivery of ecosystem services, the re-emergence of green chemistry and forest-based biorefineries. Since 2010, and as a result of the new regulations and mandate for the University and the School, CEF acquired research and post-graduate tutoring responsibilities.