To define future of forests, first define ‘forests’

More detailed categories of forests are need for meaningful management decisions.

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Tomorrow, most of the forests that our children and grandchildren will visit will be far from pristine. The extent to which those forests will provide what human societies require—such as ecosystem services and biodiversity—will vary with our understanding of what constitutes the “status” of a forest and the intensity with which we exploit or manage them.

Today, however, we still have no common reference point that could enable us to establish the status of forests. One is urgently needed, argue CIFOR Senior Associates Francis Putz and Claudia Romero in a new article in the journal Biotropica, so that we can move toward meaningful discussions of the future of tropical forests and potential management solutions.

Putz and Romero explore the natures of present and future tropical forests, including those that will remain standing as well as those that will be restored or created. They suggest we anchor our sense of direction about tropical forests to an ideal reference state of “old-growth forest,” areas with naturally regenerated trees older than the silvicultural or economic rotation ages.

From there, the authors develop timely and useful analyses of what is meant by “forest degradation,” “reforestation” and “restoration.” They point out that reference states and definitions need to be flexible enough to accommodate environmental, cultural and social change, but they also need to be more specific than is currently the case.

If we are to continue to use the term “forest” to describe a wide variety of states, as we do now, future environmental endeavors will suffer. Natural forest values, for instance, are jeopardized when land-use decisions are informed by remote-sensing analyses that distinguish only forest and non-forest, and when “forest” is defined solely on the basis of tree cover. These practices engender a somewhat false sense of accomplishment when the forests that are reported to cover substantial portions of tropical landscapes barely resemble “old growth.”

For meaningful management decisions to be made, we need to recognize more detailed categories. For instance, under the rubric “forest,” many analysts exclude multi-species agroforests, but include short-rotation fiber farms of woody species even though the former maintains more biodiversity and provides more forest services with canopy cover and carbon storage than the latter.

Once we establish and agree on a reference “status” and are satisfied with improved definitions, we will need to focus on tradeoffs, which will become clearer and more effectively negotiated among different states of forests, ecosystems and landscapes.

Putz and Romero acknowledge, for instance, that the expansion of plantation forestry will likely continue, if not accelerate, also at the expense of natural forests, in response to emerging markets, improved access and governance, new technologies, environmentally perverse policies, and increased awareness of associated business opportunities.

Unfortunately, there are additional financial costs associated with managing plantations so that they more resemble natural forests. To inform future tradeoffs on this issue, the authors challenge researchers to strive to demonstrate to the satisfaction of plantation managers the benefits of more “close-to-nature” silviculture. This will require that operational and marketing challenges are adequately addressed and/or effective compensation mechanisms are developed.

“Cultural” tradeoffs will also have to occur. If foresters of the future are not to be vilified and ignored, forestry training programs will need to be reinvigorated, rejuvenated and adapted to meet the challenges of the “new” forest landscapes. In particular, foresters need to be equipped to deal with a diversity of demands and to drive a clear shift from exploitative timber mining and fiber farming to responsible plantation and forest management.

This step toward a differentiation of exploitation and management will be facilitated if the tradeoffs associated with forest use are revealed, discussed, negotiated and minimized.

The foresters of the future will also need to be a lot more “local” than they are now. Putz and Romero note that as long as conservation agendas in the tropics are set, sold and imposed by extra-tropical environmentalists, tropical forests will remain in jeopardy. Global campaigns may help to slow the pace at which natural tropical forests are lost, but it is ultimately the people who live in the tropics who will forge the fates of those forests.

This is not a battle to be waged solely by foresters. In fact, judging from the authors’ frequent invocation of insights from economics, geography, sociology, and political science, tropical forest conservation is and will remain an interdisciplinary and multi-scale endeavor.

For it to be effective, forest management should become a holistic conservation strategy, and landscape-level approaches are needed that balance the desire for land-based profits against the many local, regional, and global benefits of forest protection and environmentally sound management.

For this to happen, politicians and decision-makers will also have to undergo a mental shift and accept that silvicultural practices are, on the one hand, prescribed to favor particular species, functional groups, or life forms at the expense of others, and on the other hand, that they can become tools for forest conservation.

On sites marginal for agriculture, natural forest management for timber and non-timber products can tip the financial balance toward forest retention.

In contrast, the balance is tipped steeply against forest on arable lands in accessible areas where the financial opportunity costs of not converting forest to other land uses are too high for investors, property owners and government officials to accept.

In this article, the authors remind us that many factors will continue to determine the fates of forests, including market forces, labor availability, governmental policies, the quality of forest governance, tenure and allocation of land and resource rights, and cultural values that interact in complex ways with the diverse impacts of climate change and the many effects of globalization.

Nevertheless, avoidable losses of natural forest can be reduced if forests are recognized and valued by society, and if the full range of forest users are considered when policies on forest access and use are formulated and implemented.

The Biotropica paper was carried out as part of the Future of Production Forests in the Tropics project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and implemented by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (CRP-FTA).

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