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‘Green deserts’ or functional forests? New research proposes a framework for assessing the benefits of planted forests

Natural forests support life in complex ways. Forest ecosystems are habitats for animals and humans, they regulate air quality, temperature and carbon cycling, protect soils and water quality, help mitigate climate change, and much more.

‘Planted forests’, “composed of trees established through planting and/or through deliberate seeding of native or introduced species”, rarely manage to fully replicate the rich ecosystems of natural forests. But can they provide benefits for the environment, and for human well-being?

New research "A proposed framework for assessing ecosystem goods and services from planted forests" led by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) aims to provide an improved basis for assessing the contribution of planted forests to ecosystem services. Researchers from CIFOR and the University of Melbourne propose a framework for assessing the well-being benefits of planted forests.

Their findings show that plantations can contribute ecosystem services, and that it is possible to assess these benefits using a simple approach. This will enable a better understanding of the capacity of different types of planted forests to provide services such as timber, water quality, carbon sequestration or habitat benefits, and their contribution to forest landscape restoration goals.

Read the full text research article "A proposed framework for assessing ecosystem goods and services from planted forests"published in the journal Ecosystem services.

Himlal Baral, the lead author of the paper, says the term ‘planted forests’ is not without its critics. The broad definition by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), as given above, encompasses everything from ecological restoration efforts to industrial plantations.

Critics are quick to point out that “plantations are not forests”, and often label them “green deserts” because they are perceived to provide few benefits to conservation of plant or animal species. “Plantations of the right species in the right places can provide multiple benefits, not just timber. It depends on where they are in the landscape, what they replace, how they are managed, and so on,’” he says.

MEASURING ECOSYSTEM SERVICES

The commonly cited TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity) definition of ecosystem services is “the direct and indirect contributions of ecosystems to human well-being”. These are further divided into provisioning, regulating, supporting (or habitat) and cultural services.

Forest ecosystems provide food, raw materials and medicines. They regulate clean air and water, support habitats for a diverse range of species, and hold spiritual and recreational values for mental and physical health.

So can these services can be provided by planted forests, and to what extent?

In their new paper, Baral and colleagues aim to find answers by introducing a framework for quantifying and assessing the ecosystem services of natural and planted forests. In theory, the paper finds that planted forests can be better than agriculture and pasture for almost all ecosystem services measured. In comparison to natural forests, planted forests are generally higher for timber production and carbon sequestration.

“By increasing the area of plantations for timber production on degraded lands, we can reduce the pressure to clear natural forests,” Baral says.