Asia-Pacific, Climate Change, Environment, Headlines

CLIMATE CHANGE: New Value For Old Forests

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - Newly sensitised to the dangers of climate change, researchers around the world are making progress in helping to protect old growth forests that are threatened by fires, urban development and logging.

This week the International Union of Forest Research Organisations (IUFRO) published a scientific summary of the ‘Old Forests, New Management’ international conference, held February, in Hobart, Tasmania, that is expected to influence current thought and policy worldwide.

IUFRO, which networks more than 15,000 forest scientists in almost 700 member organisations in over 110 countries, co-hosted the Hobart conference along with the Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry, Tasmania.

“Old growth” forests have different connotations in different countries. In parts of North America, it may mean the open forests of Ponderosa pine that were fire-managed by the native Americans. In Europe, it may mean the great oak forests that were planted in the middle ages to feed pigs and to supply timber for ships. In Australia, it may refer to forests that have been undisturbed by human activity for long periods.

But issues and responses to silviculture and management of old growth forests have many similarities across Australia, Europe, North and South America, according to several participating forest scientists contacted by IPS.

“We are making good progress in the United States and Australia in recognising the non-timber values of old growth, defining old growth, finding ways to protect existing old stands and developing new silvicultural systems that can retain or create biodiversity in managed forests,” said Tom Spies of the United States Forest Service.

“However there’s been much less progress at reaching social consensus on how much to protect and how to move from forest economies dependent on old-growth to ones based on sustainable management of native and non-native forests,” added Spies, a scientist long familiar with old growth forests and the public debates surrounding them.

Spies argues that harvesting timber and preserving old growth forests can go hand-in-hand if the goal is to preserve biodiversity across the entire landscape, while providing revenue from wood products.

Today many countries enforce rigid policies which help prevent loss of old forest areas. In addition, economic affluence and greater farming efficiency are leading to increase in old growth forests in some countries after centuries of contraction.

Prof. Juergen Bauhus of Freiburg University (Germany) says that the key to resurgence of some of the best–loved and most venerable forests include a strong economy and increasing skill at managing them for “old growth” characteristics as well as for timber production.

Giving the example of expansion of old growth forests in regions such as North America and Europe, Bauhus said, “This is nearly always the result of a strong economy. There is a distinct pattern emerging in which the forest area shrinks and the forest density declines as a country industrialises, which recovers again as its wealth increases.”

“But whatever it means, we are now realising that some of these old-growth elements and structures can be included in a forest managed for timber production. Here, they may even be better protected than in inaccessible forests left completely alone, which could be destroyed by a catastrophic wildfire,” Bauhus added.

Climate change may also spearhead the wholesale relocation of the world’s temperate forest tree species, warned a leading international forest scientist.

Today’s trees may have to migrate a lot faster than the 100 m a year which forests achieved naturally as the earth’s climate warmed towards the end of the last Ice Age – if they are to keep up with the changing conditions, said Prof. Sally Aitken of the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Forest Conservation Genetics.

“Another big issue is going to be the management and containment of weeds, pests and diseases which will move into old growth forests as they are stressed by climate change. We need to be a lot smarter in how we detect, monitor and control these,” says Australia’s Cooperative Research Centre for Forestry’s chief executive officer Prof. Gordon Duff.

Climate change and the growing risk of fire in highly-flammable forest landscapes are likely to throw a spanner in the current forest debate for both loggers and conservationists.

That warning was sounded by Prof. David Bowman of the University of Tasmania. “Already we can see we are facing an increased challenge of managing highly flammable landscapes due to global warming – while at the same time having to pay a lot more attention to the carbon storage potential of both old-growth and re-growth forests.”

Worldwide the pressure is rising to use forests to store carbon. While old growth forests are said to lock carbon, they do not remove much extra carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, whereas re-growth forests are said to be an important means of reducing the net amount of atmospheric carbon, and hence, there is lot of interest in using them as carbon traps.

An issue looming large for old growth forests in the 21st century is their role as carbon stores. “Forests are a big part of the carbon economy. If you want to maximise the stored carbon, you have to manage the whole forest and get the age-class distribution of trees right,” said Steve Read, Forestry Tasmania’s chief scientist.

Read outlines ‘reservation, restoration and retention as the three rs of modern management of old forests’. ‘’Variable retention silviculture, a stand-level management and conservation approach using nature as a guide, is the global standard for harvesting of old forests,’’ he says.

“They are naturally disturbed systems, and this means it is possible to take timber from them and still have old growth characteristics, still have the same biological and ecological qualities in the landscape,” added Read.

Old growth forests have become one of the most contentious issues in the forestry debate. The term evokes images of ancient forests with a spiritual link, tall majestic trees and an ecosystem which is a haven for unique biodiversity.

David Lindenmayer, professor of ecology and conservation biology at the Australian National University in Canberra, said, “We probably ought to look to phasing out old growth forest logging altogether.”

While the conservationists are for a total ban on logging, arguing that the jobs lost in forestry and logging will be replaced by jobs in ecotourism or other industries, the economists think otherwise.

Geoff Law from the Wilderness Society, a community-based environmental advocacy organisation in Australia, told a local radio: “The term ‘old forests, new management’ basically is modified clear-felling: there is still burning, we’re still cutting down 400-year-old trees, we’re still losing prime habitat. And most of the timber that’s extracted, up to 90 percent, still ends up being exported as woodchips. Science is being used as a means of legitimising an activity that the public no longer accepts.”

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