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Reduced-Impact Logging: What's the Bottom Line
by Dennis P. Dykstra
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A study in contrasts: Tree canopy views illustrate the impacts of conventional logging (left) and reduced-impact logging (right)

Dennis Dykstra, formerly Director of Research for the Center for International Forestry Research, is an international forestry consultant for Blue Ox Forestry, Portland, OR.

It all comes down to the bottom line. Often, the only way to protect forest resources in cash-strapped developing countries is to find ways of using them that are both sustainable and profitable. Reduced-impact logging seems to fit the bill.

Reduced-impact logging not only does less environmental damage than conventional logging, but can also be more efficient and cost-effective, according to some studies. Tom Holmes, a USDA Forest Service economist, working with the Tropical Forest Foundation and its Brazilian subsidiary, Fundaçao Floresta Tropical, compared costs and revenues from a typical reduced-impact logging system to a typical large-scale conventional logging system in the eastern part of the Amazon basin in the Brazilian state of Pará.

His findings are remarkable. Under reduced-impact logging, training investments produced more efficient use of machinery and timber. The overall cost per cubic meter of wood produced was 12 percent less for reduced-impact logging than for conventional logging.

However, study results do not necessarily apply to other timbersheds in the Amazon basin, let alone elsewhere. Moreover, reduced-impact logging incurs costs that conventional logging does not, such as preharvest mapping, planning, and vine cutting. Some studies have found that the costs can outweigh the savings from using reduced-impact logging.

Businesses are naturally risk averse, and many loggers are loathe to adopt techniques that might reduce their profits. Moreover, preconceived notions that reduced-impact logging is less profitable might prevent its adoption by companies that would otherwise benefit.

The trick is to let individual loggers actually see in advance how reduced-impact logging would affect their bottom lines. In 2001, a team of international cooperators began developing software to do just that. The primary sponsor is the USDA Forest Service, with support from the Center for International Forestry Research; the University of Florida; and Blue Ox Forestry, an international forestry consulting practice based in Portland, OR.

The software, named Reduced-Impact Logging Simulator (RILSIM), was "beta tested" in May 2002, with distribution planned for late 2002. Available at no cost if downloaded over the Internet and for a modest fee on CD-ROM, it can operate on computers with little memory and limited disk capacity. It is easy to install and use. Users simply complete a series of "data forms" based on local site conditions, wages, equipment costs, and other factors. The analysis then shows the profitability of using reduced-impact logging.

In many tropical forests, conventional logging depletes timber stocks and inflicts severe ecological damage, costs that future generations must bear. Reduced-impact logging can be part of the solution, but only if private producers see its profitability. Now, the USDA Forest Service and its partners are harnessing the power of information to show the potential payoffs.

What is Reduced-Impact Logging?
Loggers in the tropics typically remove only the most valuable trees, such as mahogany. Other trees are often killed or damaged in the process. Reduced-impact logging is designed to minimize the disturbances associated with selective timber harvest. It is not a fixed prescription; it adapts the best possible harvest techniques to local site and market conditions.

Reduced-impact logging typically includes extensive pre-harvest planning. Trees are inventoried and mapped for efficient, cost-effective harvest. Roads, skid trails, and log landings are planned to minimize the number needed. Vines are cut to protect adjacent trees. Trees are felled in the direction least likely to damage adjacent trees and other forest resources. Stumps are cut low to the ground to utilize every inch of wood. Construction techniques for roads, skid trails, and landings are designed to minimize soil disturbance. Heavy machinery is kept to skid trails, so logs are winched. Slash is reduced to prevent fire hazards from developing.

Benefits are palpable. Reduced-impact logging systems typically produce less damage to residual forests, fewer roads and skid trails, less erosion, better water quality, fewer fire hazards, and faster forest regeneration.

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