For the past few years, Dick Rice and his colleagues at the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science at Conservation International have generated considerable controversy because they believe that trying to make commercial logging operations more sustainable will not help to conserve forests. Their latest paper, “Sustainable Forest Management: A Review of
Conventional Wisdom”, presents their arguments cogently.
The authors claim that donors have little to show for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have invested to promote ’sustainable forest management’. That is because companies find it more profitable to practice non-sustainable logging and governments find it difficult and costly to force them to manage their forests sustainably. Natural forests grow slowly, timber prices have risen only slightly faster than inflation, and in most tropical countries high interest rates are a powerful disincentive to long-term investment. So it makes little economic sense for companies to invest in long-term forest activities. The authors admit that reduced-impact
logging practices may in fact improve companies’ profits since practices like careful planning of skid trails and directional felling may make their operations more efficient. Still, they argue that such practices alone are unlikely to make commercial logging sustainable.
According to Rice et. al., many policies intended to make logging operations sustainable are likely to just encourage more traditional logging. These include policies designed to make logging and wood processing more efficient, create new markets for lesser-known species, provide greater tenure security for forest concessions, and promote local processing. While
the authors acknowledge that timber certification could in principle provide an incentive for sustainable management, they say that in practice only a small percentage of tropical timber goes to markets that are likely to demand certified products.
Even if companies did find it financially attractive to adopt more sustainable logging methods, Rice and his colleagues are not convinced that would be the best option. Logging they argue always has some negative environmental impacts. In some cases, these impacts may be even greater if companies adopt certain practices that proponents of more sustainable timber
production now encourage. Opening larger clearings, for example, might facilitate more rapid timber production, but have a negative impact on biodiversity.
What do Rice and company propose instead? They think governments, donors, and NGOs should invest more in public and privately owned protected areas, including areas that have been selectively logged in the past. Why governments or communities would support such an approach remains uncertain. Perhaps that is the topic of Rice’s next report.
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