The UN’s International Day of Forests is on March 21. While some people might see this as merely a day for tree-huggers to crunch their granola a little louder, this day is important for celebrating one of the most valuable ecosystems — not to mention commodities — that our planet has. Forests clean our air, enhance water security, support critical biodiversity and serve as the world’s oldest and most proven carbon storage technology.
But on this International Day of Forests, as the world continues to see significant forest loss globally, I want to spotlight one important issue: we can’t ensure a sustainable future for forests by simply striving to protect them from development. We must also engage the forestry sector in sustainable forest management.
We rely on these forest businesses to deliver products such as timber and paper that we use every day. And whether we like it or not, we also rely on them to safeguard our forest resources, and ideally enhance the environmental services these working forests can deliver. Too often this does not happen, as economic gain is put far ahead of the forest’s other crucial contributions to the environment and society. This is where we must focus our collaborative energy.
The power of sustainable forestry is that it balances the needs of the environment, communities and economies — and the good news is that it is possible. Research conducted by a team of scientists including my Nature Conservancy colleague Bronson Griscom, shows that selective logging can retain 85–100% of a forest’s biodiversity and at least 75% of its carbon (Putz et al., 2012). Plus, well-run production forests also do a better job of safeguarding surrounding protected forest areas from illegal logging. In other words, one of the best forms of forest protection is managing better forest production.
To be clear, there remain important challenges to achieving sustainable forest management. But exciting new developments — new science, technology and tools, and business models — are enabling us to address many of these challenges today.
Science and technology take on the carbon challenge
One important scientific challenge has been measuring accurately the carbon emissions caused by logging. It’s easy to see and measure a large section of standing forest, or destroyed forest for that matter, by using satellite imagery. But it’s much harder to see and reliably measure what’s happening under the canopy of a managed forest — even if the degradation is dramatic on the ground. Compiling this crucial data requires precise measurement tools, careful monitoring of the forest floor, and collaborations at multiple levels of the industry across the world — a massive effort.
My colleagues Bronson Griscom and Peter Ellis have made a
significant step forward in the area of measuring and monitoring by recently developing
a carbon equation model that calculates a margin of error for each of the many scientific variables
in play on the ground. This more finely tuned model is a big move toward
achieving higher quality information needed to effectively inform and influence forestry decisions.
Equally important is including that data in forest management carbon
baselines so that we can then determine successful carbon reduction over
time. Many forest
operations haven’t yet made room to include carbon emission values in
project plans and evaluations. But successful forest management isn’t
just about the number of trees standing. By accounting for carbon
emissions data as well, forest managers will have a more detailed and
accurate snapshot of a forest’s environmental role and economic
potential. All comparisons of sustainable forest management practices
versus intensive commercial logging operations should be making space
for this data.