Forests as Supermarkets, Gyms, and Insurance Companies

SP-09 Forests for People: Ecosystem Services Under Pressure?


Photo by Mokhammad Edliadi for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
Photo by Mokhammad Edliadi for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Walking into this session I was prepared for grim predictions about resource scarcity and ecosystem collapse. The session tagline was pretty foreboding—“Ecosystem services under pressure?” It was totally a misnomer!

Rather than doom and gloom, the four speakers related stories about forests’ value to people. They briefly mentioned the environmental squeeze from climate change and population growth, which is fair. Threats to forest sustainability are real and frightening. But it’s also nice to hear something positive, like the small and big ways forests make us happy, healthy, and secure.

These presenters are involved in the IUFRO taskforce “Forests for People.” Taskforce members engage around four themes: culture and education, landscape development, livelihoods, and health / recreation / tourism. Their research is revealing crucial links between ecosystem services and human wellbeing.

Culture and Education

Canada established model forests in 1992 to encourage diverse stakeholders and rightsholders (people with legal rights to a resource) to experiment with new ideas under the banner of sustainable forest management. Success was contagious; there are now 60 model forests around the world.

Ma Maw Wechehetowin is the motto for the Prince Albert Model Forest in Saskatchewan. It’s a Cree expression that means “Working together, helping each other.” Sarah Welter (University of Saskatchewan, Canada) enjoyed firsthand the cooperative spirit embodied by this phrase.

Sarah immersed herself in the Beardys and Okemasis First Nations to study their role in the Prince Albert Model Forest. She was encouraged by their involvement in 29 different projects, including the Junior Resources Ranger Program (JRRP). To date, over 400 indigenous students, aged 16-18 years old, have graduated from this program.

Goals of the JRRP are to encourage young people to pursue careers in natural resource management and to provide critical skill development. Students defend the value of wood projects to an expert panel, turn stories of Tribal elders into a written book, and race to the finish line with fire hoses on their back.

Landscape Development

Engaging students in forest management is crucial for sustainability, but so is learning how to cope with change. Warming climates are forcing species to migrate or perish (I warned you climate change was brought up!). Fortunately, humans can assist in the adaptation of species to new climates.

Assisted gene-flow might represent a future win against climate change. Sally Aitken (University of British Columbia) is supporting this effort with a 70 km-tall stack of papers on her desk. Well, not really, but she’d need that much paper to print her genomic research in 12-pt font. Sally and her research team have sequenced a trillion DNA basepairs from lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, white spruce, and spruce hybrids. Why? To explore the genetic basis for climate adaptations.

Research from Sally’s AdapTree project shows tree seedlings from more southerly populations are adapted to warmer climates. Her findings could help managers identify which tree populations to plant where, improving forest regeneration and productivity as the climate warms.

Public support for assisted gene-flow is mixed, but support is very low for inaction. Findings from Sally’s research, data from pilot projects, and education materials could sway public opinion and help species fair better into the future.


“Forests are pharmacies, supermarkets, building supply stores, grazing resources, and insurance companies,” explains Felix Kalaba (Copperbelt University, Zambia). His research in Miombo woodlands, the most extensive forest time in Zambia, clearly shows the value of forests to human livelihoods.

Life in the Cooperbelt region of Zambia is characterized by food shortages and poverty, but also wealth derived from forests. Zambians depend on Miombo woodlands for actual and immaterial wealth. Citizens of the Cooperbelt region derive about 44 percent of their total income from forest resources, compared to 40 percent from agriculture. Dependence on forest resources is even higher for citizens with low incomes.

Miombo woodlands help citizens cope with chronic stresses and unexpected shocks. Income from charcoal, mushroom harvesting, and the collection of fruits and thatching grass serve as an “insurance policy.” One citizen told Felix, “when I run out of food in my household, the axe hits the tree.” His statement illustrates the importance of charcoal production during famine or financial hardship. Ensuring sustainable use of forest resources is another challenge, but perhaps not the most important when people are facing starvation.

Health, Recreation, and Tourism

People work and live in forests, but they also play in forests. Research by Ken Cordell (USDA Forest Service) reveals that growth in recreation on public land in the U.S. outpaces population growth. Visits to public land are projected to increase 9 percent from 2008 to 2015. Hopefully this reflects more and more people putting down their iPads to take a hike.

Speaking of which, time to close up the laptop. I’m heading outside to hug a tree!


Written by: Megan S. Matonis


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