1. Nine Unique Features of Forests

Before reading this chapter, please review FOR2 to learn more about ecosystems, silviculture and the occurrence of forests.

Special and unique features of forests as natural resources

Forests have many features in common with other natural resources, and particularly with "renewable" natural resources. Many any of these features are more pronounced in forests and therefore it is useful to give them special attention. When using the term "natural resource" one implicitly refers to their usefulness from mankind's point of view.

1. Extensive, visible and "open" resources. Forests are terrestrial. They occupy large areas of land and trees are large in size. Forests are the most visible natural resource when compared to any others; particularly to the "hidden" natural resources of the world (such as many minerals, oil reserves or marine resources). As a land use, forests in general are not very intensive and often have to compete with other uses where more fertile land is concerned. Forests are often very open areas both in terms of the landscape and also in terms of accessibility (physically walk into the forest). Sometimes, regardless of the form of ownership, they are considered one of a few resources that are open to visitors.

2. Renewable resources. Traditionally, natural resources have been divided into two major groups: (1) renewable and (2) non-renewable. The renewable resources usually refer to biological resources - such as forests, agricultural resources, fisheries, and wildlife, which when properly managed, can be sustained "indefinitely". Non-renewable natural resources refer to non-biological materials available in our physical environment (including fossil fuels such as oil and coal, minerals, sand and gravel).

Forests are the classic example of a renewable resource. Trees can be renewed after being harvested naturally - by leaving seed trees or by new planting. Single trees (as a living organism) each have each their own life span, and they are capable of producing seeds and renewing themselves without man's help. When forests are properly managed, they can be regenerated and managed sustainably for future generations. History has dramatically illustrated, however, that with human mismanagement and exploitation, forests and other renewable resources can either be degraded or entirely lost.      

3. Production capacity. When a tree grows, it produces an annual ring. This is known as "annual production" and is an inseparable part of the tree. It cannot be separated "yearly", because it is a living, growth-producing unit. Harvesting, therefore, is only possible by cutting down the entire whole tree. Therefore annual or periodical harvests need to take into account the impacts on the production capacity on the growing stock. This feature is typical to many, but not all, biological populations and their harvests, such as animal or wildlife stock. For example, wool from lambs and milk of cows provide a different type of production. Certainly trees that produce smaller products such as fruit, nuts, resin or leaves, can to some extent be harvested annually or periodically without harming production capacity.

4. Multiple use. From a production point of view, the fact that both trees and forests can produce different goods and services at the same time is an advantage but it also poses complex management problems. Some products can be produced without requiring the sacrifice of one product for another. However, for many products increasing one product requires decreasing the other so there exists a trade-off. This calls for an economic analysis and/or a political solution. Relationships can be very complicated between various products and services, and one needs to be aware of this when optimizing the private or social benefits from a forest. The solution to the problem may often require managing forest land for multiple purposes. This is one of the important concepts and principles in forestry.  

5. Forests are both ecosystems and production systems. As discussed in FOR2, forests are ecosystems made up of different elements, functions and structures. As a forest ecosystem they are connected to other ecosystems. Forests are also production systems upon which forest industries are based and can connect either directly or indirectly to other branches of production such as agriculture, the energy sector or tourism. The existing conflicts (with regard to forests) often can create tension between these two concepts (ecosystem and production). However, this is not always the case. For instance, we can say that by conserving a forest ecosystem for biodiversity purposes, it is also possible to maintain the "production" function by retaining the benefits of this biodiversity for society. In a way, this kind of forest has become managed ("a tamed forest"), which is different from the monotonous fast-growing plantation forest that produces pulpwood (the latter being an ecosystem with a very simplified structure).

6. Product and benefit multiplicity. Many terrestrial or aquatic ecosystem-type natural resources (e.g., grass-land, lakes) can be used for different purposes. However, there are no natural resources that can compare with forests in terms of the number of uses, goods and services they provide. The list of benefits and products from forests is extensive. This is illustrated in more detail in FOR6.

7. Geographical and biological varieties. The wide variety of trees and forests and the extensive range of their occurrence (FOR2) in both climatic and socio-economic contexts means that there must be plenty of local research and expertise available, to adopt and apply general silvicultural and other management knowledge to specific conditions and needs. This is true for many biological resources but it is of particular significance to forestry.

8. Long rotation times. Despite the existence of many varieties of different species and climatic conditions, in most cases, the time it takes for trees to grow from seeds or seedlings, and their ability to reach maturity for different purposes (rotation time), is long in duration. This long time period usually spans from 20 to over a 100 years. Even when there are major exceptions (i.e., fast growing tropical plantations, which can be harvested between 5 and 15 years), the production time is sometimes too long for poor small-scale farmers when compared with their agricultural production. This results in difficulties when calculating optimal rotations, the profitability of forest growing or the value of the forest (ECON 4 and 5), the needs for stable land ownership forms (POLICY7) and long-term national planning (POLICY8).           

9. Non-renewability of forest ecosystems. Recently, emphasis has been given to those aspects of forests that cannot be regarded as renewable. One of the most important non-renewable aspects of the forest ecosystem is the gene pool. The genotypes of the plants, animals and microbes that constitute the biocoenose have been fashioned by millions of years of natural selection, with organisms adapting to the wide variety of physical and biotic environments that exist in any area. If particular genotypes are lost from the gene pool they will probably never be recreated (Young 1982, Kimmins 2004).

It has also been claimed that many tropical forests are non-renewable in the strictest sense. For instance, it has been found that tropical forest ecosystems are unable to return to the complex and diverse structure that they once had before logging or other uses.

Learn more about benefits and products from forests in FOR6. More about implications of some long maturing times, optimal rotations, and profitability in ECON 4&5, land ownership forms in POLICY 7 and long term planning in POLICY 8.


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