China’s Heilongjiang province, which borders Russia to its north and east, contains 18.5 million hectares of state forest – more natural forest than any other province in the country. However, since the mid-twentieth century, Heilongjiang has had over 600 million cubic meters of timber extracted from its woodlands. Now, China is trying out a complete ban on commercial logging in the province’s state-owned forests.
Heilongjiang is where much of China’s timber comes from. Forestry experts predict that this trial ban will allow forests to regenerate hence, replenishing timber supplies, but will also push the industry to focus on improved forest management.
A house in forest near the city of Shuangyashan in far northeast Heilongjiang, near the Russian border. Photo by Marka71.
To ensure that the ban is enforced and implemented over its intended time frame, the central Chinese government has allocated 2.35 billion yuan ($375 million) per year to cover forestry workers’ living costs between 2014 and 2020, according to the State Forestry Administration. If the ban succeeds, it could be extended throughout northeastern China and Inner Mongolia.
Former adviser to China’s cabinet-level state council and forestry expert Sheng Weitong told chinadialogue that some loggers who been laid off due to the ban, “will become forest rangers and learn how to manage forests because the vast numbers of young and semi-mature trees in these districts need management. Workers here neglected forest management in the past.”
Others will be encouraged to become involved in alternative industries like tourism, growing blueberries, ginseng, edible mushrooms and flowers, or raising chickens and frogs, Sheng said.
From 2001 through 2012, Heilongjiang lost over 470,000 hectares of tree cover representing more than 2.5 percent of its forested area, according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW). The ban comes after years of declining tree cover loss in the province over the past 15 years, from a high of 80,000 hectares lost in 2004 to just under 23,000 hectares in 2012, the most recent date for which GFW data is available.
Global Forest Watch shows Heilongjiang is almost completely devoid of intact forest landscapes (IFLs), which are areas of continuous forest that have not been affected by human disturbance and are large enough to support their original levels of biodiversity. Only one small, degraded tract is left in the northern periphery of the province. Click to enlarge.
The ban on commercial logging in Heilongjiang primarily affects two major state-owned logging companies – Longjiang Forest Industry, and Daxing Anling Forestry Company (Anling Forestry). Together, the two companies manage 18.45 million hectares of forests – covering 39 percent of the entirety of Heilongjiang province, according to China’s Xinhua news agency.
Weitong said this move suggests a shift in China’s approach towards managing forests from utilization to conservation.
“In the recent past, China has extracted forestry resources to support economic development,” Zhang Yuxing, Chief Engineer at the State Forest Administration’s planning institute, told the Guardian. Now, he said, China’s booming economy will allow it to feed money back into the forests.
Heilongjiang’s state-owned forests are at the center of China’s forestry industry, according to Hou Yuanzhao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Forestry. They also help stabilize the climate of northeastern China and secure the country’s grain supply, with the fertile black soils and major river basins in this region making it an important rice producer. The forests protect soils and agricultural fields by maintaining natural water supplies and moderating strong winds.
“A halt here means an end to the way China has been utilizing forestry resources since 1949, and creates an opportunity for China to move on to an era of improved forest management,” Hou said.
Experts say that the ban will allow the landscape to recover from over-logging and strengthen the forests’ role as an ecological buffer. It will also increase the supply of available timber, restoring the forest as a strategic reserve as more trees will reach maturity about 10 to 20 years after the felling stops.
Some of the most commercially valuable timber comes from trees like the Korean pine, camphor, and the Amur cork tree among others, which are found in Heilongjiang. The timber from Korean pine trees is so sought after in the commercial market that selective logging of the species in neighboring Russia has already contributed to the conversion of mixed boreal forests to secondary forests of oak and birch.
But it’s not just the timber industry that finds the Korean pine appealing. It is also the favorite habitat of the famous Siberian or Amur tiger (Panthera tigris altaica). With an estimated wild population of only a few hundred individuals, Siberian tigers are relegated to a relatively small area of forest along the Russian-China border. Secondary forests are poor habitat for the endangered Siberian tiger because oak and birch forests don’t support as many herbivores as Korean pine habitat does, which can reduce the food supply for the rare big cat.
Wild Siberian tigers (Panthera tigris altaica) are known to live only in a small area of the Russian Far East and northwestern Heilongjiang. They are listed by the IUCN as Endangered. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Dale Miquelle, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Russia Program told mongabay.com that the majority of Siberian tigers live outside protected areas and that protecting the extant of Korean pine forests is a first step in helping prey species bounce back.
While most tigers inhabit the Russian side of the border, researchers believe a small population may be holding on in China.
“We have a monitoring platform using camera-traps in Northeastern China along the boundary between China and Russia,” said Yu Tian from the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science in Beijing. “We have proof such as footprints based on snow field surveys and photographs based on infrared cameras, to show that tigers are moving between China and Russia.”
Other conservation projects have shown success in the past, with China’s Grain for Green Program reconverting 8.2 million hectares of cropland to forest since its nationwide launch in 2002.
“Based on our monitoring along the boundary, we have seen that tiger movements between China and Russia are more frequent after the Chinese Grain for Green Program, which would support the tiger’s prey for long term,” Yu said.
With conclusive evidence of frequent Siberian tiger movements in the Heilongjiang–Russia border region, the ban on commercial logging in the area could have more long-term benefits than previously thought. According to the Guardian’s interview with Zhang, a long-term ban will not only bolster future timber stocks, but will also go a long way in restoring sensitive habitat as trees reach maturity 10 to 20 years after logging ceases.
Greenpeace, University of Maryland, World Resources Institute and Transparent World. 2014. Intact Forest Landscapes: update and degradation from 2000-2013. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on Jan. 28, 2015. www.globalforestwatch.org
Hansen, M. C., P. V. Potapov, R. Moore, M. Hancher, S. A. Turubanova, A. Tyukavina, D. Thau, S. V. Stehman, S. J. Goetz, T. R. Loveland, A. Kommareddy, A. Egorov, L. Chini, C. O. Justice, and J. R. G. Townshend. 2013. “Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA Tree Cover Loss and Gain Area.” University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and NASA. Accessed through Global Forest Watch on Jan. 28, 2015. www.globalforestwatch.org.
Xiao-chun, W., Long, S., Xiao-feng, Z., Tian-ming, W., Shu-juan, L., & Qing-xi, G. (2003). Dynamic of forest landscape in Heilongjiang Province for one century. Journal of Forestry Research, 14(1), 39-45.
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