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Bamboo forest in Maui
Bamboo forest in Maui. (Photo by R. Butler)

Reduced-Impact Logging

By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated July 22, 2012

Sustainable Logging and Improved Forest Management

Although numerous companies claim to practice "sustainable logging", few actually do. Economics is a primary reason — waiting for timber stocks to recover after selective logging can take a generation. It is more profitable to harvest and run or convert the concession to an industrial plantation.

However recovery can be hastened, and ecological damage reduced, by adopting reduced-impact logging practices. These include: 1) cutting climbers and lianas well before felling; 2) directional tree felling to inflict the smallest impact on the surrounding forest; 3) establishing stream buffer zones and watershed protection areas; 4) using improved technologies to reduce damage to the soil caused by log extraction; 5) careful planning to prevent excess roads which give access to transient settlers; 6) reducing wood waste for cut areas (anywhere from 25-50 percent of the wood from a given cleared patch is wasted); 7) limiting the gradient of roads to prevent excess erosion. These steps can limit damage to the surrounding forest, cut erosion of topsoil, enable faster recovery of the forest, and reduce the risk of fire. The biggest drawback to such harvesting methods is the great management expense, because more supervision, planning, and training are required and fewer trees can be removed, reducing output and income. Nonetheless, it seems clear that some short-term sacrifices will have to made to establish new forest management for long-term benefits. The big question is whether it is in the economic interest of timber operators to adopt these methods without prodding from government agencies or specific market demand for "greener" products.

Increasing the transparency of business transactions and standardizing the procedures of awarding concessions will also improve forest management. By stimulating open competition through auctions, questionable concessions granted through nepotism or corruption can be reduced. Instead of bribes, concessions could be granted to bidder who make the best offers, both in terms of cash and minimal environmental impact. Governments could also require a "performance bond" worth 10-15 percent of the value of a firm's investment for companies exploiting the forest. The bond is held to guard against environmental degradation and used to repair damage caused by poor logging practices.

Examples of More Sustainable Forestry

Sustainable management implies the maintenance of the productivity of the asset base. Thus, in theory, under sustainable forest management, logging should meet the needs of the present without compromising the continuity of the ecosystem and the goods and services that it provides. There are sustainable methods of harvesting rainforest hardwoods, although these appear to have the most success when conducted on a small-scale, in the form of well-managed community forestry. For example, the Amuesha Indians in the Yanesha Forestry Cooperatives Project of Peru employ a technique sometimes known as strip logging, based loosely on a rotating concept much like their traditional technique of slash-and-burn agriculture. They log a strip of forest 65 feet wide and use their oxen to take trees to a local sawmill. The gap is narrow enough to allow rapid plant colonization and seed dispersal across the clearing, while the soil is relatively undisturbed by the use of animal transport. The surrounding forest rapidly fills in the gap and within 20 years the strip is covered with secondary forest. In the meantime, the Indians take timber from other strips. When the forest has recovered, the Indians can again return to log the secondary forest. The rotating cycle only impacts a relatively small area and is a renewable practice. Commercial logging companies could follow an adaptation of this renewable technique. Though in the short run it is more costly and inefficient, in the log run it helps preserve the rest of the forest and the services and resources it provides. In any case, many ecologists argue that it is important to leave some areas of forest — especially old-growth or primary forest — completely untouched to accommodate those species that cannot tolerate life in disturbed forest.

Studies have found that reduced-impact logging can be used to reduce carbon emissions by up to 40 tons per hectare of forest compared to conventional logging. This, combined with the preservation of higher levels in biodiversity in selectively logged forests, lends a strong case to sustainable forest management over standard timber-harvesting techniques.

Using Alternatives to Tropical Timber

There is much potential for using alternatives to tropical rainforest timber, including wood sourced from plantations established on degraded, non-forest land. Studies have show there are 800 million to 1.6 billion hectares of degraded land with little or no forest that could be suitable for timber plantations. With remote sensing technology, watchdog groups and governments need to ensure that forests aren't converted for new plantations.

Another alternative is to shift toward non-wood fibers like bamboo and straw, especially for low-value pulpwood for paper production, which is an important driver of deforestation in many parts of the world, especially Indonesia. Bamboo — members of the grass family — grow rapidly and can also be used in construction and for clothing manufacture.

Reused and Recycled Wood Products

Tropical rainforests are used as sources for pulpwood in paper manufacturing. However, with improved methods of paper recycling and more dependence on plantation forests, less wood need come from natural forests.


Increasingly, timber firms are turning to plantations to provide forest resources. Forest plantations are essentially tree crops planted for the particular purpose of providing a specific source for wood products. Forest plantations are generally composed of a few tree species which have useful attributes like rapid growth, low management requirements, and high product yield.

Plantation forests have the potential to help meet demand for forest products like industrial roundwood, fuelwood, and pulpwood while at the same time providing some of the functions of natural forests including soil stabilization, prevention of erosion, carbon emissions mitigation, and maintaining the water cycle. However plantations established in place of natural forests — especially primary forest or well-developed secondary forest — generally represent a net ecological loss. Furthermore, the establishment of plantations on contested community land can spark social conflict.

Therefore it is critical that forest plantations be limited to highly degraded forest and non-forest lands. Provided they are established in such areas and that local communities are properly consulted, plantations can offer substantial benefits, including generating local livelihoods and acting as buffers around protected areas.

chart: global plantation expansion between 1990 and 2010
Plantations, or "planted forests" as termed by the FAO, expanded from 178 million hectares in 1990 to 264 million by 2010. More than half the expansion occurred in Asia.

Smallholder plantations are an important source of local income in the tropics. For example, small rubber plantations in Indonesia — sometimes called "jungle rubber" — provide a livelihood for over a million people and generate more than half the country's rubber export revenues. Plantation species, primarily used for oil, food, and rubber production, are increasingly being used as secondary fuelwood sources by local families after harvesting primary products.

Review questions:

  • What are some ways to reduce the impact of logging in the rainforest?
  • What are alternatives to rainforest wood?

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