When forest fires sweep through large areas of tropical rainforest they generally leave many trees standing. The fires may kill a large portion of the trees, but the dead trees can still provide valuable timber. In the wake of such fires, logging companies often pressure governments to allow them to harvest the burnt logs, so they don’t get wasted. Governments usually agree.
Based on recent research in dipterocarp forests in East Kalimantan in Indonesia, Mark van Nieuwstadt from Utrecht University and Douglas Sheil and Kuswata Kartawinata from CIFOR say governments should think twice before they permit salvage logging after burning. Their paper, ’The Ecological Consequences of Logging in the Burned Forests of East Kalimantan,
Indonesia’, published in Conservation Biology, shows that forests are particularly fragile after fires and that salvage felling can prevent forest recovery.
The recovery of dipterocarp forests after fires depends heavily on resprouting by the lower parts of tree seedlings and saplings whose above ground portions were killed by fire. These resprouts are particularly important because fires kill a large share of the tree seeds in the soil and reduce the number of trees that produce seeds. As a result, how tree populations recover over the medium-term in this context depends more on sprouts than on seeds. The heavy machinery used for salvage felling can damage these sprouts and greatly reduce their survival. Instead, grasses and ferns become more widely established. This flammable mix of vegetation is vulnerable to further burns, which may lead to the ultimate conversion of these forests into grasslands. To avoid that possibility, the authors suggest that governments should not allow timber harvesting with heavy machinery in these areas if they wish them to remain as forest.
In addition, if governments permit loggers to salvage timber from burnt forest that could actually encourage them to provoke forest fires or make them less interested in avoiding them. The paper does not provide evidence for that, but the possibility should definitely not be ruled out.
So maybe the next time companies request the right to salvage burnt timber, governments should just say no.
To request a free electronic copy of the paper by van Nieuwstadt, Sheil, and Kartawinata or to send comments or queries to the author, you can write to Kim Wan at: mailto:M.Wan@CGIAR.ORG.