The Role of Working Forests in Protecting Wildlife

You might think of a “working forest” as a forest where timber is being actively managed and harvested, and that’s usually true. But these days, a lot more goes into forest management than just growing and cutting down trees. Forestry companies are increasingly integrating conservation work into their operations, hiring wildlife biologists and other specialists, and working with government and non-profit organizations to protect and increase biodiversity.

In the United States, maintaining certification from entities like the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) requires companies in the forest products industry to meet stringent standards for protecting fish, wildlife, clean air and clean water. Active forest management backed by this kind of third-party certification is a proven conservation tool, and maintaining working relationships between business interests and conservationists is critical for the health of our forests.

The Wildlife Society, an international organization working to create a better future for wildlife and their habitats, has written about the importance of these collaborations, and their success in protecting habitat for birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals and other creatures that live in these environments.

“For the past century, forest cover has remained stable in the United States —thanks largely to private landowners. About 180 million hectares — 58% of the nation’s forests — are in private hands (Oswalt, et al. 2014). Income from forest management helps forestall conversion to other uses, allowing landowners to keep the land forested (National Commission on Science for Sustainable Forestry 2005) while providing conservation benefits. These working forests are vital for the conservation of biological diversity, including at-risk and listed species, including 60% of species listed under the Endangered Species Act.”

Private landowners ranging from huge multi-national companies to individuals are collaborating under an approach called “Conservation Without Conflict,” building trust between the public and private sectors and making a commitment to conservation in working forests. A new partnership established by the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) called the Wildlife Conservation Initiative (WCI) is dedicated to finding innovative science-based solutions that benefit everyone involved.

“There are examples of success from such collaborations. The first example — a 1,505-hectare conservation easement on property managed by Resource Management Service, LLC (RMS) — is a step toward the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service goal of conserving 3.2 million hectares of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) by 2025. This easement will benefit multiple species adapted to open pine forest conditions such as the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) and reticulated flatwoods salamander (Ambystoma bishopi ). As another example, the Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) has recently been delisted due in large part to a public-private collaboration.”

“Conservation Without Conflict and WCI are interrelated, collaborative efforts, much like past efforts that have successfully conserved at-risk and recovered species, including the Louisiana black bear, which was delisted thanks to partner-ships to create forest corridors on private lands connecting critical areas… This success means that we all win — the private forest community, natural resource professionals, the public that uses and enjoys our wildlife resources and, of course, the diverse wildlife communities that call forests home.”

Read the whole Wildlife Society report here (PDF).

Image of the endangered New England Cottontail Rabbit via Wikimedia Commons

5 Hidden Benefits of Forests

Forests are commonly known as the lungs of the planet, providing much of the oxygen we breathe. Covering about a third of total land area on Earth, they host millions of species of trees, plants, animals and fungi. These benefits are obvious, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is pointing out a few more you may not have realized.

Did you know, for instance, that forests are natural aqueducts? Most of the world’s population lives downstream of forested watersheds. A 2003 survey of 100 of the world’s most populous cities revealed a clear link between forests and the quality of water provided by catchments. They reduce the number of pollutants entering headwaters, reducing the need for treatment and reducing the supply cost. There’s also evidence that forests help maintain water flow. Many forests are managed to prioritize water supply. 

Forests also help provide a livelihood for 86 million people around the world. Often, that’s through jobs related to recreation, conservation or the forest products industry – foresters, geologists, biologists, technicians, equipment operators and even high tech jobs like drone pilots. But sometimes it’s as simple as a nearby forest providing shelter for a farmer’s free range flock.

Of course, they give us material things, too: shelter, furniture, paper, fuel and byproducts that go into everyday items like medicine and detergents. More than 1 billion people around the world also rely on wild foods like meat, insects, plants and mushrooms foraged from forests. 

FOA notes that forests nurture the soil. They’re host to vast unseen worlds of microorganisms involved in the cycling of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, helping in the decomposition of dead plant mass and animals, and supporting the incredible biodiversity of forest species. Forest soil also traps and stores 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, keeping it out of the atmosphere. 

You may associate all of these benefits with nature preserves where trees go untouched for many decades or even centuries, but they apply to working forests, too. As commercial timberlands cycle through different phases of growth and re-growth, they play different roles in the local ecosystem. 

An estimated 420 million hectares (about 1.6 million square miles) of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990, even though the rate of deforestation has decreased. Large-scale agricultural expansion, mostly for cattle ranching and the cultivation of mono crops like soybeans and oil palm, is responsible for 40 percent of tropical deforestation. In other places, smaller forests are often lost incrementally to development. Once a forest is turned into a neighborhood, it’s unlikely to ever return to its original state.

Learn more about how sustainably managed working forests support rural families, keep our water sources healthy and play a crucial role in the fight against climate change.

Related topics to check out:

Forest Facts: U.S. Joins International Effort to Fund Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable Forestry Initiative

The United States has joined Norway and the United Kingdom to pledge a combined $280 million toward sustainable forestry in an effort to slow the effects of climate change. The initiative, managed by the BioCarbon Fund, will establish environmentally friendly tracts of forest in a wide variety of regions around the world, and expand forest protection technologies and climate-smart agriculture.

Announced during an event at the United Nations climate summit in Warsaw, the new initiative comes just after a report revealed that our planet has lost an area the size of Western Europe to deforestation over the last decade. That’s not just a problem for wildlife and the communities in which the forests are lost; deforestation speeds up climate change.

One of the crucial components of a climate-friendly sustainable forestry system is establishing new markets for timber. That’s part of the effort that will take place in Oromia, a region that contains 60 percent of Ethiopia’s forests. As demand for sustainable forest products increases, incentives to manage forests responsibly do, too.

“The fate of the climate, forests, and agriculture are bound together. If agriculture and land-use change continue to produce up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gases, it will mean further disaster and disruption from climate change”, said Rachel Kyte, the World Bank’s vice president of sustainable development. “That’s why the new BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes it so important. Its grants and results-based financing aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the land sector, through REDD+, climate-smart agriculture practices and land-use planning.”
Image: Geoff Gallice