Can’t see the wood for the trees?

Making the most of our forests for biodiversity and wood production.

Jan 11, 2019
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Our new paper aims to answer the very thorny question of how best to maintain the production of wood products while conserving biodiversity? Two contrasting approaches have been proposed: one divides forests to deliver these objectives separately (known as sparing); the other integrates both objectives in the same location (known as sharing). Typically, ‘sparing’ requires intensification of production through wood fibre plantations. This means you can take wood from a smaller area, thereby ‘sparing’ a larger portion of the forest for biodiversity. In direct contrast, ‘sharing’ aims to maintain biodiversity within extensive areas of forest that are harvested at low intensities. These selectively logged tropical forests can retain up to 80 to 100 percent of native flora and fauna species, but only if managed very carefully.

While the land sparing versus land sharing problem is often framed as polar opposites, landscapes can exist anywhere on the sparing-to-sharing spectrum through mixed landscapes. These might contain combinations of intensive plantations, lower intensity selective logging, and protected areas. We explored this sparing-to-sharing spectrum in the forests of East Kalimantan, Indonesia—a global biodiversity hotspot. We found that neither sparing nor sharing extremes were optimal for any combination of species tested, including primates, carnivores and bats. The best landscape configuration for all species was mixed, containing elements of both sparing and sharing, but was ultimately towards the sparing end of the spectrum.

But the story doesn’t end there. Not all landscapes are equal – even when they are on the same point on the sparing-to-sharing spectrum. Often, management can be improved without altering the balance of sparing and sharing in the landscape. For example, selectively-logged forests can use conventional methods, or employ reduced-impact logging involving cutting-edge planning, felling and extraction techniques. Likewise, protected areas can be better managed by curbing forest loss and degradation through increased patrols and fire management. Intensive wood fibre plantations can improve habitat for some species by allowing longer periods between harvests.

We included these improved management types in our analysis, and contrasted them with landscape configurations allowing only conventional management methods (which is more ‘typical’ management, with no improvements).  Improved management, whatever the balance between sharing and sparing improves forests for wildlife, even when accounting for the higher economic costs that come with improving management. This held true for all combinations of species, but was particularly for endangered species such as the Bornean orangutan.

Based on our findings, it is time to question the utility of using the ‘sparing versus sharing’ frame for forest management. Tropical forests are highly complex systems, with many species already facing extinction. Restricting management options to only sparing or sharing strategies risks oversimplifying these systems. Improved management - in conjunction with systematic planning - can maintain wood production while conserving biodiversity at a broad scale. The conclusion is perhaps obvious – we’ll have healthier forests and wildlife, allowing more economic opportunity when we improve how we manage forests rather than solely fixating on how partition them. 

Paper citation:

Runting R K, Ruslandi, Griscom B W, Struebig M J, Satar M, Meijaard E, Burivalova Z, Cheyne S M, Deere N J, Game E T, Putz F E, Wells J A, Wilting A, Ancrenaz M, Ellis P, Khan F A A, Leavitt S M, Marshall A J, Possingham H P, Watson J E M and Venter O. 2019. Larger gains from improved management over sparing–sharing for tropical forests. Nature Sustainability. 2 53–61. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-018-0203-0

Photo by Peter Ellis.


Rebecca Runting

Lecturer, The University of Melbourne

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