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Saving the Rainforest and the Consequences


The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This seems even more true when a new study came out that shows, when it comes to fixing deforestation and forest degradation, even good intentions can lead to bad outcomes. I hate to sound like a broken record when it comes to this whole “climate change” stuff, but it really needs to be addressed sometime…

“We need to be careful about what is it we’re losing and gaining,” UF biology professor Francis E. “Jack” Putz said. [Putz worked with a UF biology professor, Claudia Romero on the paper]

Deforestation continues at an increased pace in much of South America, Southeast Asia and the Congo Basin. Furthermore, escaped agricultural fires and uncontrolled logging harm huge areas of tropical forest around the world. It’s sad when you think that the destruction is linked to loss of habitat for wildlife, soil erosion and even accelerated climate change. Estimates of how much land is deforested run as high as 18 million acres a year — to give you an idea that is nearly as large as South Carolina here in the States —  and a similarly large area is degraded.

The people deciding what to do in those areas range from the villagers of these areas to large [wealthy] landowners and even global stakeholders. The few options open to sove the problem include letting the forests recover naturally, assisting natural regeneration, or planting new trees so as to make the areas more wildlife-friendly and biodiversity-rich — but unfortunately each comes at a cost.

So, when developing forest access and use policies, people need to consider several factors, including [but not limited to…] short- and long-term financial profits, biodiversity and local needs for timber and non-timber forest products such as medicinal plants. The authors offer some hope that it’s possible to minimize environmental impacts if decision-makers pay attention to ecosystem structure, composition and dynamics. They shouldn’t base everything on a single statistic, such as the total land area occupied by forest, especially if the state of that forest is not specified.

What the authors point out is that even when there’s technically no net deforestation, tropical forests can still suffer. For example, if degraded natural forests are replaced by plantations of invasive exotic trees or low water-use efficiency trees, biodiversity will diminish, wildlife could suffer and soil erosion could render streams unusable by local villagers.

According to the recommendations from the study, the discussion needs to center on the definition of “forest.” The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations describes it simply as an area of more than 0.5 hectares, or a little more than an acre, with trees taller than about 16 feet and more than 10 percent canopy cover. Using that definition could obscure great losses of forest values because the definition lacks any sort of substance in regards to the type of forest and forest life.

In general, the benefits of a forest are jeopardized when land-use decisions are based on that overly loose classification, according to the paper.

Under that designation, for example, tree plantations qualify as forests. Although plantations can supply services to society such as slope stabilization, firewood and carbon, they can also result in avoidable losses of biodiversity. They have less value in some ways, the authors say, and more value in others.

But once people differentiate among types of forests, alternatives to environmentally destructive management will become real options. Then, decision-makers can fully examine the local, regional and global benefits of natural forests versus their economic priorities.

“We need to demand clarity about what’s meant by ‘forest’ and what the full range of costs are of different interventions,” Putz said. “Then we need to figure out the mechanism to get decision-makers to employ the interventions that are least damaging to naturalness but that still satisfy their other desires.”

The real bottom line to the study is that if I have an acre of palm trees– that might fall under a forest definition– but think of all the diversity [plant and animal] that was lost when I cleared out that acre for those palm trees. So really, can we please just do something to save the planet yet?

[Loony Hint: I just pulled the palm trees example from my… brain. You can substitute it with any tree that will fit the vague definition of forest]

Want to read the full study? You can find that —here!

Putz, F., & Romero, C. (2014). Futures of Tropical Forests
Biotropica, 46 (4), 495-505 DOI: 10.1111/btp.12124

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