A new study has shown that selective logging of tropical forests may be one of the few feasible options for conservation in the face of the huge financial incentives pushing developing nations and tropical landholders to convert forests into cash.
The study analysed data from more than a hundred studies of tropical forests that had been harvested for timber across three separate continents. Their results showed that while biodiversity and carbon retention take an initial hit from selective logging, the hits are survivable and also, to a degree, reversible if the forest is given adequate time to recover.
That’s not the case when forests are converted to rubber or palm oil plantations, said the study’s lead author, Jack Putz, a University of Florida professor of biology. Once a forest is gone, it is hard to get it back in any semblance of its former glory.
“We aren’t advocates for logging,” he said. “We’re just acknowledging that it is a reality — and that within that reality, there is a way forward.”
On average, 85 to 100 percent of the animal- and plant-species diversity that existed prior to harvest remained after the forests were selectively logged. Under the same conditions, forests retained 76 percent of their carbon.
The authors of the study were well aware that the studies they analysed could have been overly optimistic portrayals of forest health. Nevertheless, they are certain that even moderately well-managed forests provide valuable benefits, and that forests which have been badly managed can eventually recover many of their most valuable attributes if given enough time.
Powerful Economic Forces
Putz noted that there are powerful economic driving developing nations to convert their forests in to cash crops and cattle ranches.
For example, a forest that is sustainably managed for timber and biodiversity may earn $2,000 per acre every 20 to 30 years. In contrast, a palm oil plantation can bring in the same amount of money in under a year.
According to the study, however, there are ways to tip the balance in the favour of conservation.
One such method is to increase the funding for programs that halt illegal logging operations. In the wake of successful programs, the price of legitimately harvested timber increases, which makes sustainable logging a more economically viable option.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of conservation biologists and ecologists in developed countries north of the equator are hesitant to support these policies in a public way, because in the past these policies have been horribly mismanaged leading to ecological disaster that conservationists do not want to be party to. As a result, those involved in conservation try not to align themselves with logging in any way.
But logging is going to happen anyway, Putz said. “Conservationists should be working to make sure it is carried out in the most environmentally and socially responsible ways possible,” he said.