Ecological Restoration: it’s time to prioritise biodiversity in reforestation programmes

By Nick Gutkin
Sustainability Analyst

On World Environment Day (June 7) 2021, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) launched its Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a decade-long initiative aiming to promote global action to restore damaged and degraded ecosystems.[i] This has coincided with the release of a workshop report co-led by the IPCC and IPBES (Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change and Biodiversity, respectively) that highlights the interconnectivity between the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss worldwide and calls for their integration in future solutions.[ii]

Ecosystem degradation is a complex process that involves a spectrum of human activity that destroys, damages, or seriously disrupts natural habitats and environmental systems. The evidence that humans are causing the massive degradation of ecosystems all over the Earth is inarguable. Industrial overfishing is causing a collapse in fish stocks.[iii] The expansion of agricultural land is contributing to deforestation, driving changes in precipitation patterns.[iv] The destruction of coastal mangrove forests is contributing to greater flooding and storm damages.[v] These are only some examples of ways in which human actions are actively and continuously wreaking havoc on the ecosystems that support life on this planet. This degradation is directly tied to climate change, as natural buffer systems are removed, and the resilience of ecosystems is reduced.

One of the most well-known ecosystem restoration processes is that of reforestation, or the planting of trees on deforested land. As carbon offsetting and carbon credit systems become more widespread, reforestation initiatives are among the most common ways to neutralise a positive carbon footprint. However, not all reforestation schemes are made alike. In Canada, home to over 340 million hectares of forest (an area roughly ten times the size of Germany)[vi], as well as the world’s largest temperate rainforest, the reforestation industry is not only well-established, but is a vital part of the lumber and paper industries. Canada has a thoroughly developed set of forestry laws, which make logging companies responsible for reforestation, creating “sustainable harvesting practices”, according to the federal government.[vii]

With such stringent measures, it would seem that Canada is the ideal case study for not only sustainable harvesting, but also forest ecosystem restoration. But despite such thorough forestry legislation, Canada continues to appear in the news for appalling forestry practices, such as the recent Fairy Creek incident where a section of old-growth rainforest on Vancouver Island faced harvesting, drawing widespread protests against the government and forestry companies. Many of the old-growth trees in this part of Canada are hundreds of years old, with some individual trees estimated to be over 1,500 years old.[viii] These incredibly productive old-growth forests that harbour unique biodiversity make up less than 1 percent of the forests in the province of British Columbia, yet they continue to be harvested to make timber and paper products.[ix]

When forests are harvested in Canada, they are replanted by teams of treeplanters, following government regulations to replace the lost forest cover. However, tree planting practices in Canada effectively create “tree farms” rather than forests. This is because tree planting conducted by logging companies involves the planting of large swaths of monocultures – a single species covering the landscape with incredibly low levels of biodiversity and ecosystem service provisioning. As mixed-species old growth forests are increasingly replaced by monoculture plantations spaced two metres apart to maximise timber productivity, a forest ecosystem is not restored by any meaning of the word.

Tree monocultures are not only biodiversity deserts, but they are also dangerous for all the surrounding forests. They are threatened to a much larger degree by fires, insects, and disease. In the face of a stressor (such as climate change or a new pest), all the trees in a monoculture forest have an identical response. If that response is negative, it can lead to a disastrous die-off, leaving large stretches of dead trees that will struggle to regenerate naturally. A mixed-species forest faced with the same stressor will still face negative consequences, but the diversity of trees will prevent a single response, saving some trees and allowing the land to regenerate after the disturbance. This pattern is observed with fire, for example. Diverse, native forest growth does not fully protect against fire, but rather there are some species that prevent the fire going out of control, and the diversity helps the burned area regenerate quickly and effectively afterwards. In fact, the intensity of the 2016 Horse River fires in Fort McMurray, Alberta, which burned over 500,000 hectares of land, was linked to a forest management decision to drain a natural peat bog and plant rows of black spruce trees for maximum productivity.[x]

Stressors can have a greater impact on monocultures, whereas mixed-species forests show resilience to disturbance and can regenerate faster and more easily.

Western Canada remains somewhat of a standout in recent forestry management policy. Across other parts of Canada and the world, management of forest lands has shifted away from focusing only on wood yields and instead towards the creation of biodiverse ecosystems where timber is not the primary consideration.[xi] Ecosystem restoration focuses on the rebuilding of nature, including the complex networks and relationships between plants and animals. In the context of forests, this means mixed-species reforestation, because natural forests form complex patterns of microhabitats and interactions between different types of vegetation, and forest restoration practices need to reflect that.

Through the hard work of both scientists and activists however, the tides are changing in the reforestation industry. In the Western USA, scientists are now recommending an approach that combines natural regeneration with cluster planting of different species to mimic natural forests.[xii] The UNEP’s Decade of Restoration is promoting initiatives that aim to restore the world’s forests for biodiversity and ecosystem functions rather than paper or timber production.[xiii] And the Scientific Outcome of the IPBES-IPCC workshop directly links the restoration of biodiversity in forests and other ecosystems with climate goals to mitigate the worst outcomes of climate change.[xiv]

There is a final component that must be considered when ecosystem restoration projects are undertaken, and that is people. Human populations do put pressure on our surrounding environments through unsustainable land use, but we can also be the primary stewards and caregivers for our natural lands. Indigenous peoples around the world have traditionally held roles and responsibilities of protection and stewardship for their forests, and local communities have a direct connection to their surrounding lands. Reforestation initiatives should focus on empowering local communities, engaging with traditional knowledge, and building cohesive and resilient ecosystems in conjunction with those who have the largest stake in the success of said initiatives. If local cooperation is secured, and biodiversity is prioritised throughout the process of ecosystem restoration, only then do we stand a chance of fighting climate change on a local level.

References:


[i] ‘World Environment Day: Millions rally behind movement to restore the earth’, UNEP News, June 7, 2021, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/world-environment-day-millions-rally-behind-movement-restore-earth

[ii] ‘Launch of IPBES-IPCC Co-Sponsored Workshop Report on Biodiversity and Climate Change’, IPBES, June 10, 2021, https://www.ipbes.net/events/launch-ipbes-ipcc-co-sponsored-workshop-report-biodiversity-and-climate-change

[iii] Dragomir Nikolov, ‘Black Sea facing ecological disaster due to overfishing’, EURACTIV News, Last modified June 8, 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/agriculture-food/news/black-sea-facing-ecological-disaster-due-to-overfishing/

[iv] Mauricio Angelo, ‘More deforestation – and less rain – threaten Brazilian agribusiness’, Reuters, June 4, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-deforestation-rainfall-agribus-idUSKCN2DG1FS

[v] Pelayo Menéndez, Iñigo J. Losada, Saul Torres-Ortega, Siddharth Narayan, and Michael W. Beck, ‘The Global Flood Protection Benefits of Mangroves’, Scientific Reports, March 10, 2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-61136-6

[vi] ‘How much forest does Canada have?’, Natural Resources Canada, Last modified December 16, 2020, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/state-canadas-forests-report/how-much-forest-does-canada-have/17601

[vii] ‘Legality and sustainability’, Natural Resources Canada, Last modified December 3, 2020, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forestry/sustainable-forest-management/canadas-forest-laws/legality-and-sustainability/13303

[viii] Justine Hunter, ‘Fairy Creek blockade: What you need to know about the anti-logging protest in B.C.’, The Globe and Mail, Last modified June 10, 2021. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-fairy-creek-blockade-2021-what-you-need-to-know-about-the-anti-logging/

[ix] Ibid.

[x] S.L. Wilkinson, P.A. Moore, M.D. Flannigan, B.M. Wotton, and J.M. Waddington, ‘Did enhanced afforestation cause high severity peat burn in the Fort McMurray Horse River wildfire?’, Environmental Research Letters, January 17, 2018, https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaa136/meta

[xi] Victor J. Lieffers, Bradley D. Pinno, Jennifer L. Beverly, Barb R. Thomas, and Charles Nock, ‘Reforestation policy has constrained options for managing risks on public forests’, Canadian Journal of Forestry Research, April 30, 2020, https://cdnsciencepub.com/doi/10.1139/cjfr-2019-0422

[xii] Malcolm P. North, Jens T. Stevens, David F. Greene et al., ‘Tamm Review: Reforestation for resilience in dry western U.S. forests’, Forest Ecology and Management, January 15, 2019, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378112718313161

[xiii] ‘Preventing, halting and reversing the degradation of ecosystems worldwide’, UNEP, Accessed June 16, 2021, https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/

[xiv] ii Ibid.

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