Complete Guide to Forest Conservation From Importance to Methods

Sustainable Forestry
June 3, 2022
Avely Pütsep

People are talking about the importance of forests more, especially in the context of climate change, which is the main reason forest conservation is thought to be essential.

However, it’s also crucial for humankind’s survival and halting biodiversity loss. As is often the case in nature, these three things are closely linked.

​​“We cannot protect the earth’s biodiversity without protecting our forests. They harbor most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and support food security, jobs, and livelihoods for millions of people.” —Senior Programme Officer of the UNEP-WCMC.

In this article, the following is discussed:

  • What is forest conservation and why is it important?
  • What are some methods of forest conservation?
  • Why is forest conservation crucial for humankind’s survival?

What is forest conservation?

Forest conservation is the protection and preservation of forests. This can include:

  • Planting and maintaining forested areas for the benefit and sustainability of future generations
  • Preserving the forest ecosystem, including plant and animal species

“In most places of the world, forests are the last stage of the vegetation process. The ultimate goal of forest conservation should be to get as close to complete naturalness as possible: restore the primary forest’s dynamics, biological richness, and ecosystem services.” —Remy Poncet, Chief Research Officer at Single.Earth

Some examples of forest conservation are silvicultural practices that are oriented toward biodiversity conservation, creation of protected areas with participatory forest management (a sustainable land management form), and generating as much profit as possible with different cutting methods.

“Forest conservation is a broad and complex concept. Differences in the ecological state of woodlot make it impossible to identify one-size-fits-all measures and practices. Usually intact forests need to be protected from logging and no other management interventions are needed. The situation is different for a young forest that is the result of a reforestation project. Climate change is altering the conditions to which tree species are adapted, which is making the discourse on forest conservation even more complex. Is it necessary and acceptable to apply specific management interventions to relatively intact forests to help them adapt to climate change? Researchers are trying to find an answer.” —Massimiliano Sanfilippo, Senior Carbon and Natural Climate Solutions Expert at Single.Earth

According to the UN Environment Program forest conservation aims at preservation of the forest ecosystem, including species and the environmental benefits deriving from it. This makes it clear: forest conservation isn’t just about forests, but also about the biodiversity connected to it and the effect forests have on the environment all around the world.

Importance of forest conservation

Ecosystem services are a big part of why forest conservation is important. It’s amazing how much of our everyday lives and how the planet works are affected by the health of the earth’s forests. Protecting forests is crucial for keeping ecosystem services going.

In addition, forest conservation is about Indigenous peoples’ rights. Indigenous peoples have been living in forests for tens of thousands of years and there’s evidence that when Indigenous peoples’ rights to traditional lands and self-determination are respected, forests stay standing.

Ecosystem services

Ecosystem services include a variety of vital services that benefit humankind. These services underpin many of society’s basic needs, economic processes, and cultural/spiritual values.

Ecosystem services can have different definitions and categories. In this article, we’ll use the one by Holzwarth et al. from 2020 that focuses on the ecosystem services of forests.

These are divided into four pillars, as seen in the graph below:

  • Provisioning
  • Supporting
  • Regulating
  • Cultural
Forest ecosystem services

All of the ecosystem services are integral, as ecosystems are connected across the planet and keep humankind alive. If one service is disturbed, all the others are affected.

Forests as provisioning services

Provisioning services that forests provide include:

  • Timber and fiber
  • Food
  • Chemical and medicinal products
  • Water

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 350 million people around the world depend on forests for their livelihoods, which is more than the population of the United States. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says it’s 1.6 billion. But what’s certain is that forests and people’s livelihoods are closely connected and forest conservation is vital.

More than 1 billion rural people depend on forests for food to some extent.

Rainforests are called nature’s medicine chest, as many medicines sold worldwide are derived from plants found in rainforests, and many are yet to be discovered. For example, the cancer drug Vincristine and the malaria drug Quinine both come from rainforests.

Forests as supporting services

Supporting services provided by forests include:

  • Habitats for biodiversity
  • Photosynthesis and primary production
  • Soil formation
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Pollination and seed dispersal

These services show up in different ways, for example, as pollinator habitats and acting filters for multiple types of bodies of water.

Forests’ diversity is closely linked to habitats for pollinators, which is a vital ecosystem service for the reproduction of most fauna. Losing pollinators threatens the existence of specific plants, which can endanger other services of other organisms.  Forests are “living filters” for rivers and streams, absorbing sediment and storing and transforming excess nutrients and pollutants. They can reduce nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations by up to 99 percent.

Forests as regulating services

Regulating services that forests provide include:

  • Carbon storage
  • Purification of air and water
  • Climate regulation
  • Protection against erosion/avalanches
  • Flood mitigation
  • Protection against coastal erosion and storms

All of these services are vital for humankind’s everyday lives, which is why forest conservation is so important.

Forests as cultural services

Cultural services of forests include:

  • Recreation and aesthetics
  • Spirituality
  • Education
  • Tourism

The cultural services of forests are often connected to the supporting, provisioning, and regulating ones. For example, small-scale fishing is about food and income, but it’s also about fishermen’s lifestyles.

The benefits of interacting with nature and engaging in outdoor activities are extremely important. Cultural services are often seen as the strongest connection humans have to nature. It’s vital to understand these services and protect them through forest conservation.

Halting climate change and biodiversity loss with forest conservation

Forests play an essential role in the climate of the earth. Halting biodiversity loss is at the heart of stopping rapid climate change, and both depend on how much forest there is.

Forests contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, especially:

  • SDG 15: “Life on land,” aiming to protect, restore, and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems
  • SDG 13: “Climate Action,” focusing on the changes in forests due to climate change with an aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Two problems that threaten humankind’s survival are biodiversity loss and climate change.

Protecting biodiversity to keep the earth habitable

Without biodiversity, the chances of humankind’s survival are slim. The earth’s biodiversity is heavily dependent on forests, as forests are home to 80% of species living on land. Moreover, tropical forests have unmatched biodiversity, as they cover roughly 10% of the earth’s land mass and contain around half of all living species on the planet.  

Forests are home to over 60,000 different tree species, 80% of amphibian species, 75% of bird species, and 68% of mammal species. Destroying forests destroys homes, migration routes, and biodiversity in general. 68% of wildlife has been lost since 1970 and there are more than 38,500 endangered animal and plant species.

“Everything is made better with biodiversity, whether that's stakeholder voices at the table or bugs in the soil or trees in the forest. In the forest, especially, biodiversity above-ground means more habitat for more animals, and biodiversity below-ground is how trees communicate. Trees in forests support each other, and they actually do that more effectively by being different from each other.” —Katherine von Stackleberg, Senior Researcher of Natural Climate Solutions at Single.Earth

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity is calling for 30% of the planet to be protected by 2030.

Halting biodiversity loss is crucial to stopping climate change and keeping the earth habitable for humans. If forest conservation attempts are taken seriously and continuously improved, the planet will stay habitable for longer.

Halting climate change to keep the carbon cycle going

Forests are an essential part of the carbon cycle, which mitigates climate change. Forests capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their biomass and soil through complex biogeochemical processes.

Protecting forests is crucial for slowing climate change, as:

  • Around 25% of global CO2 emissions are sequestered in forests, grasslands, and rangeland.
  • Forests absorb carbon through photosynthesis and store it. Along with the ocean, forests are one of the largest carbon sinks on Earth.
  • The more forests are cut down, the more carbon is released into the atmosphere, heating up the planet.

In fact, according to some studies, forests absorb twice as much carbon as they emit every year. The world’s forests sequestered about twice as much carbon dioxide as they emitted between 2001 and 2019.

It’s believed that the older the tree, the greater its potential to offset and store carbon. Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems could make up one-third of the action needed to avert the worst impacts of climate change. This includes old-grown forests.

Because it can take decades for a tree to start absorbing and sequestering carbon, it’s essential to protect existing forests with forest conservation.

Methods of forest conservation

Forest conservation methods can be defined in various ways.In this article, the focus is on mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss and keeping ecosystems intact.

Some of the most popular methods of forest conservation are controlled deforestation, sustainable land management, forest fire prevention, reforestation, and improvement of farming practices. Other ways to conserve forests include involving local communities, regulating overgrazing, Indigenous forest conservation methods, and land sparing.

Proforestation as a powerful forest conservation method

Proforestation is letting existing forests keep growing so they continue to be or will become huge carbon sinks and home to a lot of biodiversity. Proforestation could be a game changer in forest conservation.

“In the past decades, much emphasis has been given to afforestation and reforestation. A recently proposed concept provides a promising, complementary approach to both: proforestation.” —Massimiliano Sanfilippo, Senior Carbon and Natural Climate Solutions Expert at Single.Earth

Proforestation can significantly and immediately reduce forest loss. Because existing trees are already growing and sequestering more carbon more rapidly than newly-planted and young trees, proforestation is a powerful forest conservation method and a great way to protect biodiversity all over the world.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t do afforestation and we shouldn’t do reforestation. We should. But recognize that their contribution will be further in the future, which is important. But in order to meet our climate goals, we have to have greater sequestration by natural systems now.” —William Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University

William Moomaw is one of the main advocates of proforestation. He proposes paying forest owners, even for small plots of land, so the “ecosystem services of storing carbon and promoting old-growth biodiversity and the resiliency to climate change that these forests provide” can continue. This would be a huge step in forest conservation.

Importance of forest fire prevention and protection

Forest fires are a huge problem across the world. In the US alone, there have been 1.5 million wildfires since 2000. Even small fires have a huge impact on forests by eradicating ground vegetation, shrubbery, saplings, and small trees.

Preventing and protecting against wildfires is one of the most important forest conservation methods, as:

  • Natural forest fires occur in forests across the world, even rainforests.
  • When a forest fire starts, it’s difficult to get it under control.

Forest fires can be caused by natural conditions or human actions. In the US, only 16% of wildfires are caused by natural forces, while 84% of wildfires are caused by humans.

Weather conditions that can cause forest fires include:

  • High temperatures that raise flammability
  • Strong winds that speed up wildfire spreading
  • Forest fire seasons prolonged by climate change and droughts
  • Lightning

Human actions that can cause forest fires include:

  • Agriculture
  • Forestry
  • Vehicles, equipment, and machinery misuse
  • Debris burning and use of flammable liquids
  • Arson

Prevention of forest fires includes actions humans can take in their everyday and work lives, like following rules of where and when not to make fires and being careful in using vehicles, equipment, and machinery. There are also bigger schemes like wildlife prevention projects. These actions are all a part of forest conservation efforts crucial to preventing and protecting against forest fires worldwide.

Sustainable land management (SLM)

Sustainable land management includes:

  • Measures and practices adapted to biophysical and socio-economic conditions aimed at the protection, conservation, and sustainable use of resources (soil, water, and biodiversity)
  • The restoration of degraded natural resources and their ecosystem functions

In short, sustainable land management is the practice used to protect and sustainably use Earth’s resources and make it possible to restore exhausted resources.

“Sustainable land management is the only way to maintain healthy ecosystems while meeting the needs of humans. Biodiversity loss due the land-use change is one of the biggest threats to our planet. Let’s save the world by managing our lands differently.” —Kaspar Põder, Sustainable Forestry Manager at Single.Earth

Sustainable land management practices include:

  • Preventing land conversion
  • Protecting vulnerable lands
  • Preventing and mitigating land degradation
  • Restoring degraded soils
  • Controlling soil erosion
  • Improving soil-water storage
  • Managing soil organic matter for soil carbon sequestration
  • Managing and enhancing soil fertility
  • Rehabilitating and managing dryland environments
  • Improving crop-water productivity and managing soil salinity

Sustainable land management is an important forest conservation strategy with a huge impact. It should be on every landowner’s mind, as all nature across the world is connected. If nature somewhere is destroyed, it creates a butterfly effect that affects nature near and far.

Criticism of reforestation as a forest conservation method

Reforestation is bringing back forests to an area where they were destroyed.

It can create amazing results if done right, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. It’s expensive, difficult to plan, and hard to execute, so it’s often done poorly. Moreover, the results may be complicated or ruined by weather, pests, weeds, and other factors.

It can create amazing results if done right, but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. It’s expensive, difficult to plan, and hard to execute, so it’s often done poorly. Moreover, the results may be complicated or ruined by weather, pests, weeds, and other factors.

“If someone ruined the Mona Lisa painting and redid it poorly it wouldn’t be perceived as art conservation. The original Mona Lisa would be destroyed and couldn’t be replicated. It’s often the same case with reforestation -- it can’t replicate the forest that once stood with all the biodiversity that lived there and the ecosystem services it provided.” —Remy Poncet, Chief Research Officer at Single.Earth

One of the main criticisms of reforestation is that sometimes there is a quantity over quality mentality — the emphasis is on planting trees, but not making sure they will last. If a project is planned without consideration for scientific, political, social, and economic matters, it may do more harm than good.

Reforestation is commonly used for commercial reasons and to restore biodiversity:

  • Commercial reforestation is dictated by markets and soils. The best location is the one with the shortest transportation and highest productivity.
  • For biodiversity purposes, it’s more complex. The focus is usually on degraded areas within and around forested nature reserves or establishing forest corridors to link forest fragments.

These purposes can overlap, but unfortunately, they often don’t. Many programs aim to improve ecological services, but not restore biodiversity. The most beneficial programs do both, protecting nature and keeping the earth habitable for humans. That’s when forest conservation is done well.

Even though reforestation is vital and one of the solutions for halting rapid climate change, it’s only needed when land is already destroyed. If forests already growing and thriving were protected in the first place there wouldn’t be a need for reforestation. After all, reforestation is one of the most difficult forest conservation methods.

Improved farming practices for protecting forests

Conservation agriculture is a farming practice that aims to prevent the loss of farm lands while regenerating degraded lands. In forest conservation, it means increasing the amount of food farmers produce while preventing or significantly reducing further clearance of forests.

Conservation agriculture could be a win-win solution for farming and conservation.

Commonly used farming practices for protecting forests include:

  • No-till or zero tillage, a method where soil isn’t disturbed before the seed is planted
  • Fences around streams to prevent cattle from polluting the water
  • Planting cover crops to stop soil erosion
  • Collecting water runoff to prevent pollutants from reaching water resources
  • Integrating crop and pasture rotations

The result is using fewer resources and having a smaller impact on the land, which is one aspect of forest conservation.

Controlled deforestation as a forest conservation method

Deforestation is the cutting, clearing, and removing of natural forests. Many argue that deforestation shouldn’t be a part of forest conservation.

“Most forestry experts say “selective logging” or prescribed burns can be considered as measures to preserve forest ecosystems. Other stakeholders see any “management” measure as interference to natural processes.” —Massimiliano Sanfilippo, Senior Carbon and Natural Climate Solutions Expert at Single.Earth

The main reasons for deforestation are:

  • Clear-cutting
  • Forest conversion for permanent agriculture
  • Large-scale shifting cultivation
  • Forest conversion for permanent pasture
  • Mining operations
  • Large roads and infrastructure projects for human settlements and to logging, oil, and mining sites
  • Logging, oil, and other resources
  • Urban expansion

Widely used deforestation methods include logging and clear-cutting with the aim to make a profit. There is debate about which method is more damaging to the environment, but they both harm it.

That’s why there are rules in place to control deforestation caused by logging and clear-cutting all over the world. With the extensive biodiversity loss and climate change, protecting as many forests as possible with forest conservation should be a top priority.

According to Greenpeace, “Ending deforestation is our best chance to conserve wildlife and defend the rights of forest communities. On top of that, it’s one of the quickest and most cost effective ways to curb global warming.”

Single.Earth’s alternative to clear-cutting while preserving profit

Single.Earth was founded to solve one of the most critical challenges facing humankind: the destruction of natural ecosystems that support life. Protecting nature, including forest conservation, is at the center of everything Single.Earth does.

Single.Earth aims to make carbon removal and biodiversity tradable to help save nature. Clear-cutting a forest to earn money wouldn’t be necessary anymore.

Landowners and managers will receive money on a regular basis as carbon is sequestered on their lands. The new service will enable forests, wetlands, and other natural resources to generate profit without being sold as raw materials.

Nature will be connected to economy. Read more about Single.Earth’s approach: Your Forest, the Currency of the Future.

Forest conservation is crucial for humankind’s survival

In 2020, just 31% of Earth’s land surface was covered by forests. Since the last ice age, one-third of the forest cover has been lost, 50% of it in the past century.

“Forests are not only crucial to stabilizing climate and helping us to tackle global warming, but they are also home to millions of species and provide uncountable services (e.g., climate cooling, water purification) that are essential for human well-being and survival. Forests are also home to several Indigenous and native communities that depend on them for their livelihood. Protecting and conserving forests is one of the biggest tasks and challenges of our current time.” —Arildo Dias, Senior Researcher of Natural Climate Solutions at Single.Earth

The earth’s ever-growing population has demanded more and more resources in recent decades, meaning unbelievable amounts of forests have been lost and are still being destroyed. There is still hope, but forest conservation is needed immediately to keep Earth habitable for humans.

Single.Earth is on a mission to help preserve and restore existing ecosystems.

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