Logging as conservation?
by Christina Hulbe
A news article in the current issue of the journal Nature reports on a negotiated plan to pair conservation with tree farming goals in Borneo's north-western state of Sarawak (one of the Malaysian states). The argument for the Planted Forests Project is that the Malaysian government is determined to develop its pulp paper industry one way or another so it is better for conservationists to work with industry than to be shut out entirely.
Borneo's tropical forests are incredibly diverse (they are also vulnerable to climate change). Much of the forest in question is already disturbed (by farming and logging) and debate rages about whether or not it is possible (or desirable) to return these forests to their undisturbed state. It is clear that some tree plantations, such as oil palm, which is used for food and biofuels, are more damaging than others. Because of this, some ecologists argue that industry attempts to integrate science and sustainability goals into the business model should be encouraged. Others wonder if it is all just greenwashing, and that concern has some basis in fact.
It is also worth considering whether or not tree plantations really do protect endangered species. A small body of research exists on this subject and the short answer is "no." For example, a study in northern Australia's Tiwi Islands, published last fall in the Journal of Biogeography (abstract), concluded that the small mammals of interest to those researchers simply didn't venture into the Acacia mangium plantation that had replaced the native eucalyptus forest. Other studies yield similar conclusions.