The term forests or forest lands is used to describe forest ecosystems, which besides trees include soils, waters, animals, microorganisms, and the plants in the area in question. Forests are an integral part of the Earth’s life – support systems. Most cultivated and inhabited lands were once forest lands.
Forests play a crucial role in regulating the atmosphere and climate. They regulate the local hydrological (water) cycle, protect soils from excessive erosion, and reduce the silt loads of rivers by regulating water run – off .Forests help to maintain spawning habitat for fish and sustain major fisheries. They also provide range for livestock production.
Forests supply a wide range of resources. These include timber and fuel wood. In addition, forests supply large quantities of forage, food, medicines, non – wood fibres, furs and skins, essential oils, gums, waxes, latexes and resins, and other non-timber commodities. Forests provide substantial income and employment, and are therefore important for the domestic economies of forest – dependent communities.
Forest constitutes an important part of the resource base of tourism. And they also provide an inestimable cultural value: sources of beauty, recreation, amenity, religion, art, music, and poetry.
Modification and Conversion of Forests
The need to accommodate and feed people has made it inevitable to convert forests to infrastructural facilities and farm lands. The natural forests are increasingly under heavy pressure due to urbanisation. But extensive tracts of natural forests are vital for life and human welfare and should be conserved. Therefore, an optimal balance should be struck in protecting natural forests and meeting the diverse and conflicting demands that people need forests for.
Forests are being destroyed or degraded due to the following reasons:
a) Indiscriminate and unsustainable logging;
b) Air pollution, acid rain, and fragmentation as a result of infrastructural development;
c) Clearing of tropical forests and wood lands for unsustainable shifting cultivation, settlements and infrastructural developments, ranching and other agricultural purposes.
Main conditions of Forest Lands
Depending on the degree of modification and/or conversion of natural forests, a forest land
may be in any of the following conditions.
a) Natural Forest. It is also known as primary or old – growth forest. It is a forest where trees have not been felled or which have not been seriously disturbed for severed hundred years. It provides the following benefits.
i) maintenance of ecological functions and genetic resources;
ii) conservation of biodiversity, and the habitats of fish and other wildlife resources;
iii) provision of facilities for scientific research and education;
iv) wilderness creation and wilderness-based recreation and tourism;
v) maintenance of life styles and culture of forest dependent people;
vi) provision of non-timber goods such as forage, food, medicines, etc.
b) Modified Forest. A forest which has been subjected to human activities during the past 250 years, usually by loggers or shitting cultivators or where other products have been harvested, but where cover of trees or shrubs or indigenous species persist. Modified forests can be managed to provide a wide variety of timber and non-timber products. However, it is commonly managed to supply only timber products.
Modified forests contribute the following benefits:
i) production of timber (including fuel wood), forage, food, medicines, non-wood fibers, furs, skins, essential oils, gums, waxes, latexes and resins and other non-timber products;
ii) provision of environmental services such as carbon sink, water cycle, prevention of erosion etc;
iii) conservation of biological diversity, the habitats of fish and other resources and genetic resources;
iv) scientific research and education;
v) general recreation and tourism.
c) Planted Forest. A forest in which 51% or more of the woody biomass have been planted or sown by people. It serves the purpose of controlling deforestation and degradation of natural forests. But it is not a replacement for natural and modified forests in terms of ecological functions and genetic resources. Planted forests provide the following benefits:
i) a means of rehabilitating degraded forests
ii) sustainable timber and fuel wood production
iii) protection of biological diversity and life- support systems.
d) Cropland and Pasture. It is a cleared forest land, now under agriculture, including
agroforestry and orchards.
Sustainable Use of Forests
Old – growth (or natural) forests are essential for the conservation of species which cannot tolerate any disturbance. Therefore, natural forests should be maintained for genetic resources and other goods which the modified and planted forests cannot provide.
It is, however, impossible in this modern time for any nation to maintain 100% natural forest on its territory. In this case, sizeable areas of natural forests are earmarked as protected areas and should be surrounded by large tracts of modified or planted forests. The greatest number of species can be conserved through maintaining an optimal balance of old-growth (natural) and modified forests.
In countries where the forest resources are so depleted that it will be impossible to establish an adequate system of protected old-growth forest, it is necessary to establish buffers or near-natural forests and maintain same in totally protected areas.
While old-growth or near-natural forests should be protected from human impact, products should be harvested sustainably from modified and planted forests.
Sustainable management of forests entails the following:
a) Involving the communities that live in or near forests on decisions about forest conservation and development.
b) Establishing a comprehensive system of protected natural forests.
c) Ensuring timber royalties (stumpage fee) reflect market values and the costs of regeneration and ecosystem protection.
d) Ensuring that modified and planted forests are managed sustainably to provide not only timber and fuel wood, but also other non –timber commodities (such as food, forage, medicines, non-wood fibres, furs & skins, essential oils, gums, waxes, latexes & resins, etc.)
e). Promoting products harvested from sustainably managed modified and planted forests.
f) Using economic disincentives to discourage production of products from unsustainably managed forests.
A good forest policy should strike a balance between profitability and sustainably. In the light of this, forestry operation should be done in such a way as to avoid permanent adverse effects on soil and water; protect biodiversity and all plant and animal species; protect all archaeological and historic sites; and make reasonable allowance for the public to enjoy the forest for recreation and tourism purposes.
Sustainable development of forests entails establishing a system of protected natural forests; and ensuring that modified and planted forests are managed sustainably, to ensure harvest of timber and non-timber products (food, forage, medicines, non-wood fibres, furs & skins, essential oils, gums, waxes, latexes & resins, etc.)
It is, however, unfortunate that in most developing countries, including Nigeria, most so-called forest policies are timber production policy, which have no regard for maintenance and enha
ncement of all forest values.