Breaking down the myths about forest management

2014-06-27 Ashley Bach

For people who don't understand how sustainable forestry works, it can be easy to issue wide proclamations like "Don't cut down any trees!" or "Don't print that email!" When you have no idea timber can be harvested sustainably and help improve forest health or how much timber contributes to our world, perhaps it's inevitable that you would fall back on empty platitudes that don't have any connection to how forests actually interact with humanity. 

We wrote last fall about a speech from James McDonald, the sustainability manager for International Paper, that debunked the myths that lead to people thinking they have to avoid printing emails or buying paper products. 

Here's an excerpt from McDonald's speech:

We want to ensure that our global forests are healthy, that they’re able to provide the resources that we need, the recreation, the entertainment, and, certainly, the products for generations to come. But if I can leave you with one thought, as your finger hovers over the Print button, the next time you are considering printing that email, remember the renewability of the raw material, remember the renewability of energy that goes into the production of the product and the recycling ability of that product, that has the ability to go on to become several other products in its lifetime.

Now enter Bill Cook, a district forester for the Michigan State University Extension. Cook wrote a column this month entitled, "It's OK to cut trees!" Cook says that wood is better for the environment than concrete, steel or oil, boosts the economy in rural communities and when harvested sustainably, makes forests healthier.

Trees in managed forests provide habitat diversity for the largest number and greatest variety of wildlife and plant species. While a portion of our forest should remain in older, less vigorous conditions for biodiversity reasons, the managed majority of our forest base will provide more abundant habitat for birds, game species and long lists of relatively unknown fauna and flora.

Trees in managed forests are healthier than in unmanaged forests. With an extended number of recent dry growing seasons, some of the unmanaged forests are beginning to decline while the managed forests remain relatively healthy and vigorous. Stressed trees are more vulnerable to attack by insects and diseases.

Cook writes that it's time to retire the old myths.

Less than a generation ago, most people understood that cutting trees was essential if we are going to enjoy all the thousands of products made with wood. With nearly a century of research and experience, foresters know how to sustainably manage forests for all their values. They have actually been doing it for decades. So, why is it that so many people seem to think cutting trees is a bad thing?

Cook's perspective is backed up by a new report released this week by the United Nations. The report, called “The State of the World's Forests,” (full report here) says that the world's forests are being underutilized. According to the report, "Forests provide essential services in reducing poverty, providing energy and ensuring food security across the world, yet government policies fail to harness these benefits."

Sustainable forestry is the key to unlocking many of the benefits of forests, but there will be challenges to increase sustainable forestry around the globe, according to a Q&A this week with Adrian Whiteman, a United Nations economist.

Q: The (United Nations) report says that replacing a current emphasis on prohibition with one of sustainable production will be a major challenge for forestry administrations in many places due to the large numbers of people involved in informal activities. This raises the question of how sustainable production can be a benefit over prohibition? Do we have a choice?

A: With ever-increasing demands for land, we have to demonstrate that forests are worth keeping, and one way to do this is to ensure that people can use them to meet their needs.

Currently, the preservationist approach to forests is interpreted in many countries to mean that people should be discouraged from entering forests and local uses that are important for livelihoods are ignored at best, if not illegal in many places.

Such approaches are unlikely to work in places where forest law enforcement is weak and many people have few alternatives for many of the products that they currently take from forests. Giving people a stake in the future of forests and, especially, helping them to use forests more effectively could strengthen implementation of sustainable forest management compared to what often happens at present.

The last two paragraphs of the United Nations report are a call to action:

As countries work towards a more sustainable and greener future, demands will increase for many of the benefits that can be produced by forests. There is therefore a potential for forests to make an even greater contribution to socioeconomic development in the future.

A common theme throughout this publication has been the importance of putting people at the centre for both the measurement of socioeconomic benefits and the development of policies and measures to enhance these benefits. If this is done, it seems likely that the socioeconomic benefits from forests can be developed to meet the growing demands of society while maintaining the integrity of the forest resource base. This will improve the prospects for sustainable forest management and demonstrate how forests should be conserved for the multiple benefits that they provide. This publication has suggested some ways that this might be done and it is now up to countries to take action.