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Tropical forests can be sustained through selective logging, new study finds


Sharlene King
29 May 2012
Selective logging is the most environmentally and socially responsible way to manage tropical forests in developing nations, according to a new study co-authored by Southern Cross University scientist Professor Jerry Vanclay.

“We found that in many cases where logging has been done wisely the losses are minimal and the forests recover quickly and we get good conservation outcomes even though timber production is going on,” said Professor Vanclay.

His views are supported by Dr Douglas Sheil, who manages Uganda’s ‘gorillas in the mist’ region. Dr Sheil is director of the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and is visiting Southern Cross University this week.

“We need to be prepared to see the half-full glass as better than one that is empty,” said Dr Sheil. “With well logged forests the glass can be more than half-full – we need to ensure these forests are valued and protected.”

The study, ‘Sustaining conservation values in selectively logged tropical forests: The attained and the attainable’, appears in the latest edition of the Conservation Letters journal.

Professor Vanclay, the Head of Southern Cross University’s School of Environment, Science and Engineering, and Dr Sheil, Director of Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation at Mbarara University of Science and Technology, were among 12 international contributors to the study.

The study was based on a meta-analysis of 100 publications.

While timber yields declined by about 46 per cent after the first harvest, the study found yields were subsequently sustained at that level.

Further, most (85 to 100 per cent) species of mammals, birds, invertebrates, and plants remained after logging; while 76 per cent of carbon was retained in once-logged forests.

“We can have good conservation outcomes, maintain biodiversity and store carbon in these forests while some harvesting still happens,” Professor Vanclay said.

“If it’s selective logging, where we’re harvesting a small number of trees and retaining forest cover and other conditions ideal for regeneration, we can have a win-win of providing some economic benefit to local communities while retaining the forest habitat and conservation value.”

Dr Sheil said he was concerned logged forests were being converted to non-forest use because their true values had been overlooked.

“My conservation vision is to have large forested landscapes with strictly protected areas and well managed forests providing good habitats even for rare but wide-ranging species. Otherwise the alternative - small fragments of strictly protected forests – means wide-ranging, low density species will be lost.”

Professor Vanclay and Dr Sheil said selective logging of forests avoided the environmental damage that occurred when forests were razed and converted to agricultural use, like oil palm in South East Asia and soybean in Latin America.

In some countries, the act of removing all the trees to plant cash crops helps to secure land tenure claims; a practice that applied on some leasehold lands in Australia until quite recently.

The group of researchers found the continued existence of Indigenous people culturally bound to tropical forests was dependant on maintaining the forests – yet powerful economic forces were driving developing nations to convert their forests to cash crops and cattle ranches.

“The solution is creating good incentives and good governance to make sure that when a harvest happens it happens in a wise way and is not simply a free for all,” Professor Vanclay said.

“Entrepreneurs can earn a lot of money for cutting trees down in the first instance, and then make more money soon after from cash crops yielding a quick harvest. Whereas it may take 20 or 30 years before timber can be harvested again.”

Professor Vanclay and Dr Sheil outlined three solutions:

• Governments to supervise harvests and review their land tenure systems to ensure that the practice of clearing forests for land claims does not strengthen land claims.
• Timber importing countries, like Australia and European nations, to work with certification agencies to allow efficient import of sustainable timber while restricting timber from land conversion activities.
• The global community to offer incentives through mechanisms like the Global Environment Fund (GEF) and provide subsidies for forests that maintain good habitat for wildlife and carbon storage.

“We need to ensure that aiming at good management makes good business sense for forest-based companies and government enterprises,” Dr Sheil said.

“We need incentives and regulations. We need government buy-in and support. We need training. We need awareness. We need to educate consumers and develop markets where the true costs of good management are covered.”
Photo: Dr Douglas Sheil (left) with Professor Jerry Vanclay.