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Are tree plantations a viable alternative to natural forests for pulp supply?

LISTENING STUDY: It is important to note that there are many different kinds of tree plantations, and the problems presented by some are not always presented by all. Discussion, therefore, should be specific about which types of plantations, which geographic areas, and which local issues are under discussion.

LISTENING STUDY: Some responses suggest that tree plantations may be used for pulp supply and can help relieve pressure on natural forests.

Sure, I think they can and should be in the mix. - Michael Snyder, Forester

The conversion of natural forests to tree plantations is a serious environmental concern. In the U.S. South, where most of the trees used to make paper are grown, pine plantations grew from 2 million acres in 1953 to 33 million acres in 1999. Forests intensively managed for wood and paper production generally exhibit less biodiversity, lower habitat and water quality, and in some cases reduced soil productivity relative to natural forests. - Victoria Mills, Project Manager, Corporate Partnerships, Environmental Defense

Boise began fiber farming in 1991 on land near our pulp and paper mill in Wallula, Washington. Fiber farming is an innovative agricultural enterprise dedicated exclusively to producing wood fiber for papermaking. Compared with traditional forestry, fiber farming can economically produce more fiber from less acreage in less time. Designed, located, and managed as farms, these agricultural operations can provide a stable source of high-quality fiber for manufacturing paper. The forest products industry will always need adequate, dependable harvests from public and private forests for most of the fiber required to make the vast quantity of paper and wood products our society uses, but fiber farming will likely grow as a supplemental source of that fiber. - Boise Cascade

In theory, the global demand for paper could be met from a plantation area of 40 million hectares, or roughly the size of Sweden which is a small percentage of the total global forest cover, currently 3,440 million hectares. In the long run, there is no need to rely on original natural forests for pulpwood.
     If management practices, particularly on social issues, continue to improve, this (plantations) could be an acceptable way of providing fibre. The challenge is to manage both plantations and natural forests so that between them the different demands from forests are covered. - Robins 1996

Forest plantations, if managed sustainably and in conjunction with natural forests on the landscape, can provide most or all of the ecological functions of a natural forest ecosystem. In addition, using fiber from fast-growing forest plantations takes harvest pressure off of intact natural forests. - International Paper

Plantations can provide increased yield compared to natural forests. - Stora Enso

If plantation development is targeted at the most appropriate ecological zones and if sustainable forest management principles are applied, forest plantations can provide a critical substitute for natural forest raw material supply. This substitution by forest plantations may help reduce logging pressure on natural forests in areas in which unsustainable harvesting of wood is a major cause of forest degradation and where logging roads facilitate access that may lead to deforestation. - Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2000

While plantations can provide an array of social and economic benefits, and can contribute to satisfying the world's needs for forest products, they should complement the management of, reduce pressures on, and promote the restoration of, natural forests.
     Well-managed plantations can help meet the increasing demand for forest products. Demand for forest products such as timber, paper and firewood continues to grow. This demand places considerable pressure on the world's forests. By growing our wood products in plantations, it is possible to preserve other forests, such as old-growth and high biodiversity forests, and still meet out demand for wood. - Forest Stewardship Council, Principles and Criteria and Forest Plantations

The key to conserving biological diversity in the world's forest ecosystems may have two sides: the protection of large, undisturbed bioreserves in which the pathways for penetration by alien invasive species is actively minimized; and intensively managed plantations to meet global wood fiber needs from the smallest possible area, while relieving development pressures on those remaining large, native forests. - Sample 2003

LISTENING STUDY: Other responses indicate that tree plantations may be used for pulp supply, but only under specific circumstances.

Generally, "no." In some cases, plantations may be an ecologically acceptable alternative, such as when they are established on former agricultural lands, and are managed to avoid impacts to water supplies, fish and wildlife, and other values. However, in the US, most plantations are established by eliminating the natural forests that would normally exist on those sites. - Daniel Hall, Forest Biodiversity Program Director, American Lands Alliance

Objections to plantations are based largely on their perceived "monoculture" characteristics. The challenge is to build more diversity and resilience into plantation systems. It is probably inevitable that plantations will increasingly become the focus for wood pulp production. They offer significant opportunities for increased income and employment in many developing countries. However, plantations should be established on lands of low conservation value, and where there are few competing uses or irreconcilable rights or claims. - World Business Council for Sustainable Development 1996

They (tree plantations) are best viewed as a compliment, not an alternative. Because plantations can be used to grow more fiber per acre, they can be used to take to pressure off natural forests and allow more wilderness areas and old growth forests to be set aside. - Robert R. Bryan, Forest Ecologist, Maine Audubon

Proponents (of plantations) argue that intensively managed plantations will create jobs, rehabilitate degraded areas, combat climate change by absorbing carbon, and help "save" forests by providing most of the world's wood needs from a much smaller parcel of land than natural forests might by themselves.
     But plantation development as it is currently unfolding within the pulp and paper industry is not without drawbacks. When compared to degraded farmland, plantations may provide more ecosystem services such as wildlife habitat and soil protection, but when compared to a mature, native forest, they simply don't measure up. Like virtually all large-scale monocultures, plantations are susceptible to disease and pest outbreaks, so they commonly require regular applications of insecticides and fungicides. Herbicides are also used to prevent invasion of competing vegetation. The frequent harvests and site preparation procedures can result in soil degradation that reduces the long-term viability of the land. A mature pulpwood plantation might look like a natural forest, but it actually has about as much in common with a natural forest as a cornfield does with a native prairie.
     Some types of plantations can play a role in reducing the environmental impacts associated with the production of pulp for paper. Farming trees in a sustainable way is clearly preferable to harvesting the world's last remaining old-growth stands. But in general, plantations can be managed much better than they are now. It is important that they be established on lands that truly are degraded-that are not currently forested, farmed, or inhabited, and do not have high potential to regenerate naturally. - Abramovitz 1999

We believe that it is essential that governments adopt a landscape approach to plantation development. Investment in plantations should not be considered, and permission for private companies to establish plantations should not be given, if it can be demonstrated that the plantations will prevent the delivery of a full range of forest goods and services at the landscape level. For example, if a plantation is likely to adversely disrupt the hydrological cycle or reduce water quality, then it should not be established. Likewise, plantations should not be established if they have an adverse effect on local communities; if, for example, they are likely to lead to a net loss of employment or to local communities being deprived of firewood, grazing land and other goods and services on which they depend. All these factors should be considered together, not independently, as there may be trade-offs that are acceptable. In any case, local communities, like other stakeholders, need to be involved at the earliest stage of planning and development. Finally, we must stress that there should be a presumption against any planting which would lead to the loss of primary forest, ecologically significant secondary forest or other important ecosystems. - Cossalter 2003

Tree plantations would need to be Forest Stewardship Council-certified and should still be used only in combination with recycled fiber and alternative fiber sources. - Susan Hammond, Executive Director, Silva Forest Foundation

LISTENING STUDY: Still other responses suggest that tree plantations should not be used for pulp supply due to undesirable environmental impacts.

Plantations Destroying Biodiversity: According to world-renowned forest ecologist and Harvard professor E.O. Wilson, an industrial tree plantation has 90-95% less species diversity than a native forest. In addition, the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides is becoming more prevalent in pine plantations as a means of stimulating pine growth by eliminating competing hardwoods and other plant species struggling to regenerate after a clearcut. - Dogwood Alliance

They (tree plantations) could be in theory, but I haven't heard of an ecologically-sustainable one in practice. - Frank Locantore, Co-op America

While certain areas in the continental U.S. will see expanding plantations, notably the coastal Southeast and the Pacific Northwest (where poplar plantations already cover more than 40,000 acres in Oregon), most plantations will be in the Southern hemisphere. These plantations replace native forests, yet fail to provide the wide range of ecological functions provided by natural forests. These include watershed services, plant and animal diversity, and a local resource for wood, food, and medicines. - Native Forest Network 2000

Groups Urge End to Subsidies for Fast Forests:
Key environmental and research groups . . . called for an end to what they said were economically and ecologically damaging subsidies for fast-growing tree plantations, a major source of pulp for paper. In a joint report issued for a United Nations conference on preserving natural forests, they also said that richer countries would have to cut consumption of paper and packaging if the forestry industry were to survive in the longer term.
     "Evidence we have collected shows that most subsidies to the (fast-forest) plantation industry are perverse -- they are bad both for the economy and the environment," Chris Elliott of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) told a news conference. The report, "Fast-Wood Forests: Myths and Realities", was compiled by the Swiss-based WWF and World Conservation Union (IUCN), as well as the Jakarta-based Centre for International Forestry Research and Forest Trends of the United States.
     It argues that by reducing the cost to private firms of starting up fast-wood forests, government subsidies allow them to destroy natural forests which are vital to the ecology and the economy but which take much longer to produce timber. Ending subsidies would ensure that forest businesses only moved into areas where they could cover their costs, it says.
     . . . Fast forests . . . contain single tree species and produce harvestable timber in less than 20 years, against up to 50 in normal forests.
     . . . But the report rejected arguments . . . that large plantations were inevitably harmful. Well-managed, and created on otherwise unused land, they could aid development, boost local economies by providing jobs, and stimulate the natural environment, according to the report. - Reuters, reported on, May 27, 2003



LISTENING STUDY: There are many papers and reports on issues regarding tree plantations. One that tries to analyze the competing viewopoints is Fast-Wood Forestry: Myths and Realities, by Christian Cossalter and Charlie Pye-Smith, May 2003.
A forward signed by CIFOR, WWF International, IUCN, and Forest Trends reads:
     Each year the area of fast-growing tree plantations in the world expands by around one million hectares. The planting of large areas of eucalypts, acacias, pines and poplars has sparked off bitter controversy, especially in the developing world. Some claim plantations will destroy the environment and displace small farmers. Others say they will help protect natural forests and provide economic growth. Most of the public does not know what to believe.
     As four of the main international organizations concerned with forests, we are committed to promoting an informed debate about this controversial topic. We believe that 'Fast-Wood Forestry-Myths and Realities' by Christian Cossalter and Charlie Pye-Smith makes a major contribution to that debate. It is the most up-to-date, credible and balanced report on the topic thus far. Over thirty of the world's leading experts from all sides of the debate have reviewed the report and provided detailed comments.

Establishing plantations might sound like a laudable activity. Trees, after all, have many virtues. They convert water, sunlight and carbon dioxide into wood and oxygen, and it is frequently claimed that they regulate the water cycle, stabilise steep slopes against erosion and prevent flooding. Trees also provide a habitat for countless creatures and micro-organisms, and hundreds of millions of people rely on them for timber, firewood, fruit, nuts, resins and other products. Planting trees, it would seem, is an unreservedly good thing.
     Or is it? During recent years the planting of large areas of fast-growing trees has sparked off much controversy, especially in the developing world. Critics of these 'fast-wood' plantations include environmentalists, who argue that they are replacing natural forests and causing harm to wildlife, water resources and the soil, and local communities, who complain that plantations are taking over land which previously provided them with the means to feed themselves and earn a living. The controversy is also about the use, or misuse, of public money.
     . . . This booklet examines the various arguments for and against fast-wood plantations. This is a complex topic. Sometimes planting trees is an excellent way to use the land; sometimes it is not. In one location a plantation of fast-growing eucalypts might have a profoundly negative impact on wildlife, or reduce the amount of water available to other users. Yet a similar plantation elsewhere might do little or no harm to wildlife and water resources. A plantation of fast-growing pines might produce significant social and economic benefits. Yet a similar plantation elsewhere might lead to changes that hurt local communities.
     Besides looking at the impact of fast-wood plantations on wildlife, water and the soil, we also examine the claim made by those in favour of fast-wood plantations that their ability to produce large quantities of wood fibre over a relatively short period of time helps to reduce the pressure on natural forests. We also examine in some detail the desirability, or otherwise, of using public money to encourage fast-wood forestry.
     . . . It is important to define, at the outset, precisely what we mean by fast wood and to indicate the ways in which fast-wood plantations differ from other plantations.
     Plantations come in many shapes and guises, and are established for a variety of reasons. Some provide shelter, shade and fodder for livestock; others fuelwood for households, and timber for furniture and the construction industry. Sometimes they are established for the benefit of wildlife or as a recreational resource. Plantations may even provide a valuable service to urban populations, particularly in arid zones, by absorbing storm and sewage water. And plantations frequently fulfil a whole range of roles-for example, by providing peasant farmers with fodder, villagers with fuelwood and industry with high-quality timber.
     The sole purpose of fast-wood plantations, in contrast, is to produce large volumes of small-diameter logs at competitive prices as quickly as possible, yielding at least 15m3 of wood per hectare per year. Although fast-wood plantations produce a range of goods, most have just one function. Some supply wood to make panel products and reconstituted boards; some supply charcoal; a few provide sawn logs; and, most important of all, fast-wood plantations supply pulpwood, the raw material for the paper industry.
     . . . [Many environmental] groups would more or less concur with the critique advanced by Ricardo Carrere and Larry Lohmann in Pulping the South. 'As swatches of exotic trees invade native woodlands, grasslands, farmlands and pastures,' suggest the authors, 'the results, in country after country, have been impoverishment, environmental degradation, and rural strife.'
     No coherent lobby actively promotes fast-wood plantations at an international level. However, industry-led groups lobby for plantations, and rebut the allegations of those opposed to fast-wood forestry, in several countries. Many companies, foresters, academics, development agencies and institutions also believe that fast-wood forestry is useful to society, and we examine their arguments as assiduously as we do those of the anti-plantation movement.

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