Can forest conservation and logging be reconciled?

No simple matter: logging and conservation are not polar opposites, and controlled harvesting can fund the protection of forests. AAP/Greenpeace/Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert

Is there a role for logging in ensuring the future of the world’s tropical forests and their rich diversity of plants and animals? For many this idea is absurd, because timber production achieving conservation goals have long been viewed as incompatible opposites. “Loggers” were tarred as planet plunderers, “greenies” were branded ignorant idealists, while researchers found themselves caught between warring factions with little interest in data from outside their own views and experiences. Sadly, this myopic and highly polarised view of preservation versus production rarely helps save vulnerable landscapes. Fortunately these views are changing.

Finding outcomes that offer real improvements for conservation gains depend on recognising some myths and acknowledging the dynamic nature of forests. Many people, especially in Australia, generally imagine all “logging” as broad-scale clear-felling. However, timber harvesting takes many forms, and large-scale clear-felling is at one end of a broad spectrum. In well-managed forests, foresters seek to harvest in an ecologically-appropriate way. Generally, clear-felling is appropriate only in forests that are naturally adapted to major disturbances (such as Australia’s wildfires). At the other end of the harvesting spectrum, single-tree selection is appropriate in forests that evolved with small-scale disturbance (such as many species-rich where most trees die standing and finally collapse from decay), and where seedlings tolerate heavy shade.

In most tropical forests managed for sustainable timber production, harvesting is selective. Between two and 20 stems are removed from each hectare of forest, once every few decades. When done carefully this leaves over 90% of the trees in place. Thus a logged, rich, tropical forest is still a rich tropical forest and stems regrow to replace those removed.

Many of the technical arguments against timber production in tropical rainforests relate to species loss or to the increased likelihood of forest conversion (i.e. that the forest will then be converted to some other non-forest use). There is ample evidence from various sites that logged forests lack many of the species - especially the larger animal species - found in more pristine forests. There are also many cases where forests that have been selectively logged for timber have subsequently been converted to pasture, oil palm, or other intensive uses. But, we now realise, the implied cause-and-effect relationships are not necessarily inevitable. Let’s deal with these issues one at a time.

Passions run deep where the trees climb high. Flickr/Rainforest Action Network

First, how does timber harvest affect the biological value of tropical forests? Our recent study summarised over 100 scientific papers from a range of sites and concluded that 85% to 100% of the forest biodiversity was maintained in forests that have been logged once. Other studies of forests harvested repeatedly have found similar results. This doesn’t mean that other older observations were wrong – just that they didn’t distinguish the cause of the species declines they observed. Areas that are accessible for timber harvest are often accessible for hunting, pet-trade collecting, gold panning, and so on. Certainly, new logging roads often provide access into once inaccessible areas, and can exacerbate and facilitate other harmful activities, but whether they are the cause is a matter of semantics. High levels of hunting can and do occur in strictly protected forests, too – but no-one would argue that that is a valid reason not to have strictly protected forests. In both cases, logged or protected forests, the answer is the same – stronger incentives and controls are required to favour the desired conservation outcome.

The question then is how to provide these incentives and controls. On the ground, control of activities like hunting is often more practical in actively-managed production forest than in national parks starved of staff and resources. The need to control, and in some cases prohibit, hunting is now a common element of good practice in forest management and is implemented in many concessions (in Sarawak, Congo, and other concessions accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council).

Secondly, what are the implications of a timber harvest for sustainable forest cover? Experience shows that logged forests have at different times, been cleared, maintained for subsequent harvests, and elevated to national parks. Clearly the fate of a logged forest depends on many things, including the external pressures on land and the degree to which we are willing and able to value and protect both logged and unlogged forests. But studies of concessions in several parts of the world where law enforcement in protected areas is weak reveal instructive cases where logged forests have been found to resist conversion better than unlogged forests (e.g. in Sumatra and Borneo). These cases, as with the elimination of hunting mentioned in the previous example, show the potential benefits of having local caretakers with the ability, motivation, and support to support forest conservation.

The chief question is how to achieve the best results. Even if we forget the demand for timber and consider only conservation benefits, and draw on the examples given above, it is apparent that logged forests bring options and opportunities.

No-one suggests that all forests should be logged. As far as we are aware everyone agrees that some forests should be set aside and protected. Ideally these areas should be as big and as well-connected as we can manage. Low-density, wide-ranging forest-dependent species such as Borneo’s clouded leopards will depend on these large areas. But, given other demands on land and resources, such strictly protected areas are unlikely to ever make up more than a minority of the landscape.

This appears especially true in poorer regions of the world where people live on the land and there are massive pressures to generate the funds they need for development from high value crops like soya and oil palm. In such regions we are unlikely to find the money necessary to protect and manage large reserved areas and meet the aspirations of the people. However, timber production provides one way in which forest lands can provide income and employment while retaining forest: in simple terms, the forest can pay for its own protection.

Light touch: a Papuan hunts in forests where his clan selectively fells trees. AAP/Greenpeace/Natalie Behring

From a non-negotiable starting point with islands of strictly-protected forests, we can choose the fate of the rest of the landscape: we can strive for a landscape dominated by non-forests (e.g., agriculture) with little connecting forest, or we can seek to maintain productive working forests that provide valuable habitats for most forest species, provide connectivity among populations, and allow the landscape to sustain many wide-ranging forest species.

Even better, these forests can be supervised and managed by people who care about them and can combat alien species, check fires, and confront hunters and other threats. While there are risks, many researchers believe that this latter option comprising a matrix of managed production-forest remains one way to ensure the survival of the world’s tropical forests and their rich diversity. Conservation is seldom simple to achieve and there will be challenges. Nonetheless, in our view well managed production forestry, as part of a larger forest-landscape guided by science, offers a vision where once conflicting interests will benefit by working together.

Comments welcome below.