Conservation news

Can loggers be conservationists?

Sawmill in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Sawmill in Indonesia. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Last year researchers took the first ever publicly-released video of an African golden cat (Profelis aurata) in a Gabon rainforest. This beautiful, but elusive, feline was filmed sitting docilely for the camera and chasing a bat. The least-known of Africa’s wild cat species, the African golden cat has been difficult to study because it makes its home deep in the Congo rainforest. However, researchers didn’t capture the cat on video in an untrammeled, pristine forest, but in a well-managed logging concession by Precious Woods Inc., where conservationists’ cameras also photographed gorillas, elephants, leopards, and duikers.

“At the particular area I had my cameras set up, logging had taken place just two years previously, and active logging was going on just a few kilometers away,” Laila Bahaa-el-din, University of Kwazulu Natal graduate student, told at the time, adding that her findings “indicated that logging alone should not mean the depletion of wildlife.”

In fact, a new policy paper in Conservation Letters agrees, making the case that logging in tropical forests could aid overall conservation efforts in the tropics by keeping a home for species like the African golden cat as well as safeguarding many ecosystem services. The authors assert that selective and well-managed logging should be considered a “middle way” between forest protection and outright destruction for monoculture plantations, agriculture, or livestock ranches.

“Selectively logged tropical forests, especially if they are logged gently and with care, retain most of their biodiversity and continue to provide ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and hydrological functions,” lead author Francis Putz with the University of Florida explained to, but he added that such forests are viewed very differently by many because “they lose the semblance of being untrammeled, pristine, virgin, or entirely natural.”

Currently, over 400 million hectares (nearly a billion acres) of tropical forest is under timber production concessions, an area twice the size of Mexico.

The good

Putz and his colleagues set out to discover how different a selectively logged forest was from a pristine one. Examining over 100-plus studies, they found that on average a forest that had been selectively logged once still retained 76 percent of its carbon and 85-100 percent of its biodiversity, with birds the most sensitive to one-time logging. For the researchers these findings implied once-logged and selectively logged forests should not be viewed as degraded, and thereby simply allowed to be cleared for plantations or agriculture. Instead well-managed timber concessions should be seen as conservation opportunities.

Rainforest timber in port in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“Consider the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. This forest was logged over several decades up until 20 years ago. Now, it is one of the most important National Parks in Africa for biodiversity values and a major tourist draw,” co-author Douglas Sheil, a forest ecologist based at Bwindi, told mongabay. “The mountain gorillas that bring in major revenues to the country still prefer to go to the open areas in the forest where they can feed on dense herbaceous vegetation —a relic of the logging. It’s not a result I would generalize but it is a real example—timber harvesting does not always mean conservation values drop to zero.”

Of course, the researchers are aware that their study may be deemed controversial to many, and even anathema to some. They insist, however, that they are not advocating for increased logging in primary forests, but rather looking at the evidence for conservation potential in already-logged forests.

“Our study does not say that unlogged forest is equally valuable to pristine old-growth forest. They are different. All the authors will agree that we need to protect large areas of primary forest. Our point is that logged forests remain very valuable,” Sheil says.

Putz adds that, “logging is going to happen anyway, so we should work to be sure that it is carried out in the most responsible ways possible. Secondly, logged forests retain vastly more of what I value than areas that have been converted into oil palm plantation, soybean fields, or cattle pastures.”

Tropical biologist, William F. Laurance with James Cook University, recently co-wrote a paper warning of “peak timber” in the tropics—whereby loggers are cutting faster than forest can re-generate—however he says he generally agrees with Sheil and Putz’s conclusions.

“A key priority right now is ensuing that logged forests aren’t being cleared on a large scale. In this sense Jack Putz and his colleagues are quite correct in their arguments,” Laurance told “For instance, Indonesia has around 35 million hectares of selectively logged forest—a vast area the size of Germany—that is currently unprotected and subject to being cleared. This includes much of the country’s vulnerable lowlands forests, which are among the biologically richest on earth. It would be a great tragedy to lose these logged forests.”

As Laurance points out, many conservationists have come to see conversion as a much more pressing and terrible threat to forests than logging, even a logging concession with little oversight.

Patterns of deforestation in Brazil. Scientists see selective logging as a far better alternative than conversion to cattle pasture or monocultures. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“We need to recognize that even a badly managed forest is still forest and can, given time, recover most of the characteristics of pristine forests,” asserts Sheil.

Another recent study, also in Conservation Letters found that forests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra are as well protected in timber concessions as they are in conservation areas, such as a national parks, which often face illegal encroachment. According to the study, logging wasn’t the primary threat in Sumatra, but large-scale conversion for plantations. The lead author of that study, David Gaveau, told that conservationists have begun to change their views on the perils of logging, at least in comparison to plantations, especially in Indonesia, where protected areas on paper are often not well protected in practice.

“Conservationists have depicted logging as ‘evil’ for several decades. In the 1980s, in Indonesia, conservationists were accusing logging companies of destroying Indonesia’s forests. That was before the advent of a bigger ‘evil’: forest conversion to industrial plantations, beginning in early 1990s,” Gaveau says.

The current market poses a major problem for forests in general and logged forests in particular. Although scientists and policy-makers recognize that forests are vital for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, freshwater protection, erosion mitigation, and even rainfall production, it is still worth much more money in the short-term to clear a forest for commodities like palm oil or cattle, instead of protecting it. Even though in the long-term society must pay the bill for the ecological costs of climate change, biodiversity loss, and rainfall decline. Put simply, current markets don’t value non-production forests, even though forests provide untold ecological benefits.

Given this Gaveau says environmentalists must be practical about their approach, if forests are to be preserved.

“Conservationists must propose conservation solutions that are economically attractive to make any progress. Logging concessions have the merit to address economic goals. Protected areas, on the other hand struggle to provide direct economic value. We are now slowly seeing a change in perception with increased understanding that logging concessions are an important component of maintaining those forests while promoting economic development.”

But in many cases it is also worth more to clear a forest altogether than to set-up a well-managed selective logging concession.

“Unfortunately, numerous recent studies have shown that forest management for timber, even with substantial payments for carbon, falls far short of the profits from oil palm,” says Putz. “Efforts to retain forest cover in areas where the Net Present Value (NPV) for oil palm or other intensive, non-forest use, are high, will most often not be successful.”

In other words, for companies in developing nations the most attractive approach from a short-term economic perspective is often not protection or even logging, but outright conversion of the forest. This is one reason why scientists say there must be a truce between loggers and conservationists. Keeping logged forests as timber production forests is far preferable to what economics often demands: the total destruction of the forest.

The bad

Still not everyone is convinced that logging should play a major role in conservation efforts.

Simon Counsell, executive director of the Rainforest Foundation, says that research has shown that logging can have long-term and devastating impacts on tropical forests. Logging a forest can lead to fragmentation, which over time imperils biodiversity and makes the forest vulnerable.

Impact of various disturbance regimes on biodiversity in tropical forests. Chart based on Gibson et. al 2011. Photo by Rhett Butler. Click to enlarge

“A logged forest is usually a lighter, hotter and more combustible one; the evidence from Amazonia has shown that almost all rainforests that catch fire had previously been logged,” Counsell says, pointing to research by Greg Asner of the Carnegie Institution.

In addition, says Counsell, allowing industrial logging “[reduces] the viability of alternative forms of sustainable management, such as community-based forestry.”

Industrial logging may impoverish locals or indigenous people who have depended on the forest for generations, and locals are rarely given adequate information let alone compensation. According to Counsell, it would be better to set-up community programs than to continue to hand out vast forests to foreign companies.

Counsell also takes issue with some of Sheil and Putz’s findings. For instance while logging may not diminish biodiversity immediately, it could have more insidious impacts over the long-term.

“There is reasonable evidence, not referred to specifically in this paper, that forest fragmentation typical in the logging-landscape context, can lead to long term species collapse,” Counsell says, noting that there is little research so far on the long-term impacts of logging on biodiversity, in part because many of these forests are eventually cleared. “The jury remains out as to whether even ‘well-managed’ industrial logging concessions can even theoretically retain the original composition and diversity of wildlife.”

He sees a similar problem when it comes to carbon sequestration. One year after the first-round of logging, three-fourths of the original carbon may still be present, he admits, but that carbon may not stay long.

“Studies have suggested that carbon losses continue long after the first pulse [of logging] due to removal of wood from the forest, and which can accelerate for a few years as logging debris starts to decompose, soils damaged by heavy logging equipment start to release stored carbon, and methane is generated from anaerobic decomposition of vegetation in streams and watercourses blocked by logging equipment and debris.”

Counsell recommends that researchers look at the carbon impact over several decades after logging to see what is left and what has been emitted into the atmosphere.

For William Laurance, it’s not the selective logging that is the biggest concern in forests, but the roads that bring in the loggers.

“Loggers bulldoze labyrinths of roads that open up forests to illegal colonists, farmers, miners, and hunters,” he explains. “This can result in severe forest damage or outright forest destruction. That’s the real conundrum with logging—is it helping to save forests by providing an economic incentive for developing nations to retain and manage their forests, or is it just contributing to rapid forest loss? I don’t think there’s a simple answer.”

But Sheil says that if an area is well-managed, roads would no longer be a major issue.

Logging road in Gabon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“There are many examples around the world where roads pass through forests and the forests remain safe and intact—consider wealthy countries for example. Roads are a problem when enforcement is lacking…whether related to timber harvest or not.”

Hope, or at least clarity, may be found in well-managed timber operations—that is, if any exist in the tropics.

Why management matters

The defining characteristic in this debate may not be between who sees logging as an opportunity and who doesn’t, but instead what is good forestry management? And are timber concessions in rainforests abiding by the best standards?

“To me ‘well managed’ means not only an extraction rate and cutting cycle that allows forest to persist and remain productive, but also a range of other practices that includes areas set-aside for conservation, buffers around streams and waterways, identification and protection of seed trees, avoidance of using machinery that will damage soils, prohibition of hunting, and long-term protection against conversion,” says Sheil, who notes that “a well managed forest is often going to be better protected than an unmanaged primary forest.”

But excluding a few timber concessions like Precious Woods’ in Gabon, few, if any, logging companies in the tropics fits Sheil’s demands.

“Just a few percent of all logged forests in the tropics,” Laurance says should be considered low-impact logging.

But Counsell is even bleaker: “if ‘well managed’ were to be defined as something like ‘fully compliant with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria’, then probably a very small fraction of one percent.”

Church for loggers in Guyana. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

Gaveau is also concerned about the “small fraction” of forests that are sustainably managed or eco-certified.

Putz and Sheil also agree that management has a long way to go in much of the tropics, but suggest in their paper that some improvements are already moving forward.

According to them, efforts to stop illegal logging could go a long way in improving forestry management in the tropics. In 2008 the U.S. amended its Lacey Act to prohibit the importation or sale of illegally logged wood. Meanwhile the EU has a similar measure in the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance, and Trade (FLEGT) initiative, and even stronger provisions coming into effect soon. Australia is also weighing new illegal logging legislation.

“[These] will serve to increase market prices and access for legally produced timber while promoting more responsible forest management,” the researchers write. Illegal logging currently depresses the price of tropical timber by avoiding regulations and taxation.

The rise of independent certification can also be a force for good both by replacing lax government regulations and increasing prices for tropical wood, Putz and Sheil note. They add that certification measures should now work to reduce the cost for companies to undergo certification and include biodiversity and carbon monitoring in their work.

However, there remains considerable debate about the efficacy of such schemes. For example the world’s leading forestry certifier, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), has been criticized by some for certifying clear-cutting and monoculture plantations, exactly what Putz and Sheil are trying to defend forests against. In addition, there have been occasions when FSC-certified companies have been in conflict with local communities. Despite such issues many of the world’s leading conservation groups, including WWF and Greenpeace, continue to support the FSC as a means to mitigate the environmental impacts of forestry worldwide.

Perhaps more promising, if it can ever get off the ground, is REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. This UN-developed program plans to build a fund that will pay tropical nations to keep from clearing their forests. Recent negotiations have also allowed carbon payments under REDD+ to be made to timber concessions, if their management is improved.

“Where REDD+ payments are used to improve rather than halt timber harvesting, the costs of maintaining forest cover are reduced relative to strict protection and there is less risk of activity-shifting leakage due to loggers going elsewhere to harvest timber,” the researchers write. In addition, they say REDD+ could help build empower local communities.

Finally, Putz and Sheil argue that giving control of forests to indigenous groups and rural communities would likely result in significant improvements in forestry management.

Aerial view of logging roads in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“But,” they caution, “given the many challenges involved in running a forest industry, communities with decision-making authority should be provided long-term support on the full spectrum of activities from business practices and marketing to road engineering and tree felling.”

In the end, these and other emerging trends could improve forest management across the tropics.

“Previous efforts to reform tropical forestry have had only limited success partially because they were not designed in ways that reflected the diversity of drivers of forest degradation and did not consider the perspectives of many important actors,” Putz says. “Today, given the overlapping goals of interventions designed to reduce carbon emissions, to maintain other ecosystem services, to assure the legality of forest products, to capture the revenues due, to certify products from responsibly managed forests, and to devolve control over forests to local people, there are enormous shared co-benefits and efficiency increases to be derived from their synergies.”

Still neither Sheil nor Putz are naive that broad efforts will be needed to succeed in management improvements across the tropics.

“We need to ensure that aiming at good management makes good business sense for forest based companies and government enterprises. We need incentives and regulations. We need government buy-in and support. We need training. We need awareness. We need to educate consumers and develop markets where the true costs of good management are covered,” Sheil says, but he adds that, “we shouldn’t expect perfection and we actually don’t need it. Even moderately well managed forests maintain many values that we need to recognize and cherish.”

The middle way?

Sheil and Putz say their paper outlines a “middle way” for conservation, a way that combines protected areas with logging concessions to sustain large forest landscapes, even if means giving up an idea of such landscapes as pristine.

“One conservation vision is to have large forested landscapes with strictly protected areas and well managed forests providing good habitats even for rare but wide ranging species. The alternative is the small fragments of strictly protected forests [which means] wide-ranging low density species will be lost. Which option do we prefer? I prefer the first if we can find a way to achieve it,” Sheil says.

Counsell, however, sees the “middle way” as headed in the wrong direction.

Raw logs waiting for transport in Guyana. Photo by: Jeremy Hance.

“Our energies would be better placed in closing down industrial scale logging operations in primary or other high value tropical forest areas. There would seem to be no justification for continuing to degrade and destroy the most diverse ecosystems on the planet for the sake of a relatively low quality and low value commodity that in almost all cases can easily be substituted with something else,” he says.

But what about the jobs and economic output?

“Given the very limited benefits which tropical logging operations generate for state coffers, it would not be too expensive to pay a fair price to shut these operations down, compensating retrenched workers and generating alternative livelihoods for them,” Counsell explains, adding that tropical forestry would not disappear altogether but change considerably. “Some tropical timber production can still be provided by smaller-scale community-based and small-medium enterprises where the use of heavy machinery is prohibited and as much value-added is generated within the forest itself—thus providing real benefits for local communities and incentives to sustain the forest in the long term.”

For Counsell the key is to move overall control of tropical forests from governments and logging corporations to the local and indigenous people who live in and near the forests. Sheil and Putz approves a similar idea in their paper, but they see it as one solution among many and envision a different version than Counsell’s. For them, partnerships between local owners and corporations would be the most fruitful.

Logging truck carrying timber out of the Malaysian rainforest. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Cautious in their remarks and careful to denote the complexities of the issue, Putz and Sheil do not say their paper should be the last word on how logging concession should be fit into conversation efforts, but the beginning of a debate. Still, they both believe that the evidence is in favor of calling an overall truce between environmentalists and loggers.

“Any time you take a stance, especially on such unsure ground, there is a chance of misinterpretation, but denial of the compromise benefits or disregard of tropical forestry does not make much sense,” Putz says.

“I don’t believe conservation science should censor itself when the implications are unpalatable or unpopular,” Sheil says. “The anti-logging arguments have been very well articulated and seem widely recognized. Our concern is to look at the evidence available and ensure that these larger discussions and debate are informed by the most objective and accurate information.”

One thing, however, is certain: time is running out for many of the world’s rainforests, both logged and unlogged, as they fall to feed a global economy that doesn’t yet value their services.

D. L. A. Gaveau, L. M. Curran, G. D. Paoli, K. M. Carlson, P. Wells, A. Besse-Rimba, D. Ratnasari,
& N. Leader-Williams. Examining protected area effectiveness in Sumatra: importance
of regulations governing unprotected lands. Conservation Letters. 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00220.x.

Francis E. Putz, Pieter A. Zuidema, Timothy Synnott, Marielos Peña-Claros, Michelle A.
Pinard, Douglas Sheil, Jerome K. Vanclay, Plinio Sist, Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury, Bronson Griscom,
John Palmer and Roderick Zagt. Sustaining conservation values in selectively logged tropical forests: The
attained and the attainable. Conservation Letters. 2012. doi: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2012.00242.x.

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