Natural forest management

Many of the world’s natural forests provide wood products critical to people’s lives and livelihoods. Halting all logging in natural production forests would achieve maximum carbon sequestration, but an end to logging is not realistic or necessary. Improving forest management practices will allow natural forests to store more carbon while maintaining wood production over the long term. Logging should be halted in some sensitive places, with the lost wood production made up by new wood production in some reforestation lands.

Extending harvest cycles, for example, allows trees to grow larger before they’re felled, increasing the average carbon stock across a working forest. Reduce-impact logging practices like cable winching can avoid damage to trees not harvested. And competing vegetation, such as vines, can be thinned to allow trees to grow faster and bigger. Implementing such techniques will allow our working forests to sequester more carbon.

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The Numbers

Improved natural forest management practices could be applied to some 2 billion hectares of wood-production forest worldwide, an area twice the size of the United States.

These improving practices (and halting harvests in some areas) could prevent the release of up to 882 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year (MtCO2e/year). That’s comparable to the emissions from 189 million passenger vehicles per year.

The Challenges

One of the major challenges to improving forest management techniques is the instability of land tenure. Loggers without long-term rights to the land aren’t inclined to invest in sustainable forest management. Improving land tenure is particularly important for forests managed by communities with traditional use rights.

Moving Forward

Unlike reforestation and avoided deforestation, improving natural forest management doesn’t require changing land use. Where stable land tenure exists, forest owners can improve forest health and carbon storage while also making their businesses more efficient and more sustainable.

Many improved forestry practices are low-cost, and some could deliver cost savings. Working with loggers and landowners to improve forestry practices and long-term planning strategies will be an important step toward moving this pathway forward. While some questions and challenges remain, implementation of this pathway could begin immediately.

Case study

Spotlight: Pennsylvania Working Woodlands

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In the temperate deciduous forests of the eastern United States, a technique called “high-grading” is the standard business-as-usual approach to logging. High-grading involves harvesting all trees of high commercial value above a certain diameter, leaving behind damaged, low-value and poorly formed trees. That practice damages the ecological integrity of the forest ecosystem and impairs the sustainable regeneration of the forest in the future.

In Pennsylvania, the Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program works in partnership with private landowners to help them create 10-year forest management plans that take advantage of more sustainable and efficient forestry techniques. Those strategies run counter to high-grading and include:

  • Keeping the healthiest, most diverse trees of all size classes and harvesting the rest.
  • Carefully planning the timing and intensity of harvests to maximize regeneration of trees and minimize the growth of competing grasses, brambles and vines.
  • Using logging operators selected to minimize damage to the remaining trees.

A similar approach is being used in the Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program in Virginia. Globally, this pathway will be most significant in boreal and temperate regions, which make up about two-thirds of the world’s wood-producing forests. However, improved forest management will also benefit foresters in tropical regions.

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Reforestation

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Avoided forest conversion

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Natural forest management

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Improved plantations

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Avoided fuelwood harvest

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Forest fire management

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Forests

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Grasslands & Agricultural Lands

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Wetlands

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