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Managing Deforestation Through Policy and Monitoring

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Better policy and monitoring is key to managing global deforestationWhen combined with the right policies, new monitoring capabilities may significantly enhance our capacity to manage forests. As an homage to the International Day of Forests on March 21, here is a review of forest management policy recommendations and new global monitoring solutions.

After a United Nations General Assembly resolution in 2012, the International Day of Forests was observed for the first time in 2013. The day is meant to acknowledge forests, trees and climate change. On this day, people raise awareness about the value of arboreal ecosystems and they explore the different ways that we can protect them. The day is specifically designed to incorporate forests into future climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

Acknowledging the value of forests

Last fall, the UN announced that Sustainable Development goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals which will expire in 2015. In his 2014 International Day of Forests message, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “As we deliberate on the post-2015 development agenda, let us acknowledge the vital role of forests and pledge to work together to protect and sustainably manage these vital ecosystems.”

Forests provide priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits. According to the UN, forests cover one-third of the Earth’s land mass and they are one the most biologically diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are home to 80 percent of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity including a wide range of animals, plants, insects and people.

Forests directly contribute to the life and livelihoods of 1.6 billion people around the world and they provide substantial economic benefits including jobs.  Wood production and associated industries account for nearly one percent of global gross domestic product.  Non-monetary benefits from forests, such as water, energy, shelter and medicine, are estimated to be two to three times as great.

Amazon deforestation has only gotten worse since 2006

Forests and Climate Change

In addition to the ecological, economic, social and health benefits, forests play a pivotal role in the health of our planet, this includes oxygen production, watershed protection, and food production. Forests also combat climate change by acting as carbon sinks. While the importance of forests to planetary health has been reviewed by countless researchers, recent research suggest this role may be even greater than previously imaged.

Citing UN statistics, Mongabay quantifies the destructive impact of deforestation on climate change.  According to this assessment, deforestation accounts for 12 to 20 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions.

Total deforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates eliminated approximately 45-50 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) absorption per year. (This is based on the very general assumption that 2.9 tons of CO2 are absorbed per average hectare of “forest”). Reforestation at the 1990 to 1995 rates added back the capability to absorb only 5.5 million tons per year.

Global Deforestation and Reforestation

You would never know just how vital forests are if you look at the devastating rates of deforestation being recorded in many parts of the world. A total of 13 million hectares (ha) of forest are currently being destroyed annually. Industrial logging, agriculture (including slash and burn) and forest fires are responsible for the bulk of global deforestation today.

An interactive world map called Global Forest Change, created by researchers at the University of Maryland shows that between 2000 and 2012, 2.3 million square kilometers of the Earth’s forest was lost. Indonesia’s deforestation rate doubled from 10,000 square kilometres per year to more than 20,0000 during this time.

According to data derived from the “Forest Resources Assessment 2005,” assembled by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we are rapidly losing our forests. In 1990 there were 4,077,498 ha of forest cover and as of 2005, that number shrunk to 3,953,063. Between 1990 and 2000, we were losing 8,885 ha per year and between 2000 and 2005, we were still losing 7,317 ha per year.

Each day at least 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest disappear from Earth. At least another 80,000 acres (32,300 ha) of forest are degraded. Overall, FAO estimates that 10.4 million hectares of tropical forest were permanently destroyed each year in the period from 2000 to 2005, an increase since the 1990-2000 period, when around 10.16 million hectares of forest were lost.

Among primary forests, annual deforestation rose to 6.26 million ha from 5.41 million ha in the same period. Primary forests are being replaced by less biodiverse plantations and secondary forests.

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “World Culture Report: 1998,” from 1990 to 1995 reforestation accounted for only 11 percent of the deforestation amount, meaning the world regenerated only a single tree for every ten burned down.

In the past few decades the US contributed more to reforestation than any other single country adding 29,000 net sq. km. of forest from 1990 to 1995 or 31 percent of the world’s total reforestation effort.

U.S. Forests

While the U.S. is a global leader in terms of reforestation, the nation is still facing some serious problems. As reported by ecoRInews, a two-year study entitled “Changes to the Land,” by Harvard University’s Harvard Forest and the Smithsonian Institution, development poses quantifiable threat. This research highlights the problems and suggests solutions for U.S. forest management. The research shows that the current rate at which forests are being lost to development in Massachusetts will undermine significant land conservation gains, jeopardize water quality and limit the natural landscape’s ability to protect against climate change.

“What we found is that land-use decisions have immediate and dramatic impacts on many of the forest benefits people depend on,” said Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest and lead author of the study.

“Massachusetts is an important place to study land-use because it is densely populated, heavily forested, and experiencing rapid change — much like the broader forested landscape of the eastern U.S. The results of the study show that sprawl, coupled with a permanent loss of forest cover in Massachusetts, create an urgent need to address land-use choices.”

The study’s findings point to three policy fixes:

  1. Recommitting to land conservation
  2. Promoting sustainable forestry
  3. Redoubling land-use planning and smart-growth efforts

The study further suggests that a number of benefits can be had through “improvement forestry” and increased forest conservation focused on priority habitat. Here are seven benefits that such efforts could yield by 2060.

  1. Limit flooding risks in virtually all of the state’s major watersheds.
  2. Protect water quality by minimizing impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots.
  3. Grow 20 percent more high-value trees such as large oak, sugar maple and white pine.
  4. Double the amount of local wood harvested.
  5. Maintain a 35 percent increase in the storage of carbon that would otherwise warm the earth.
  6. Reduce forest fragmentation by 25 percent.
  7. Protect a quarter-million more acres of high-priority wildlife habitat.

The study is going to be expanded to include five other New England states.

On the West Coast, the U.S. faces other problems related to forests and trees. One of the most troubling trends involves the loss of iconic redwoods. These are some of the most majestic trees on Earth, they can live for thousands of years and grow to a height of 350 feet.

As part of the quest to expand grape yielding vineyards, Grist reports that wineries are cutting down trees in California including the redwoods. Although they have been challenged by environmentalists, Artesa Vineyards and Winery has already secured permission from California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to cut down thousands of trees in Sonoma County.

While it is widely known that illegal logging and poaching of trees is rampant in many parts of the world it is also occurring in the U.S. One of the most egregious examples involves California’s redwoods. As reported in the New York Times, poachers have been clandestinely cutting away at redwoods. The poachers are removing burls and bunions which can be incredibly damaging to the ancient trees and the local environment. To help address the problem, roads through the Redwood forests are being closed at night when most of the poaching occurs.

WRI Forest Monitoring Tool

There are promising new tools being developed that will help to manage forests. An important part of managing forests involves being able to monitor them. On February 20, 2014, World Resources Institute (WRI) announced the release of a tool that may revolutionize forest monitoring. The platform is called Global Forest Watch and it draws on a wide array of big data. This is the first tool to monitor global forests on a monthly basis which allows for a response time almost as deforestation occurs.

Global Forest Watch crunches vast amounts of data and includes almost 700,000 Landsat images as well as data from other sources. The result is a high resolution map that reveals changes in forest cover anywhere in the world. The platform is similar to the system Brazil has used to help reduce deforestation by nearly 80 percent since 2004. The site will be publicly launched later this year.

While we are far from doing a good job at managing our forests, when combined with responsible policy, these new monitoring systems give us hope that we may be able to do a better job going forward.
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Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Main image credit: Naiyaru, courtesy flickr

Deforestation map image: Lou Gold, courtesy flickr

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