Sunday, September 13, 2009

Conservation group accused of failing to see the forest for the trees

A British conservation organization, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, wants to clearcut woodlands composed of non-native tree species, in order to create the open heaths favoured by many declining species. The problem is, this may not be good for the country's carbon balance:

It is an all-too familiar scene of environmental destruction. Deep in a forest, heavy machinery has felled a giant swath of trees to leave bare scrubland and a handful of stumps as forlorn memorials. The timber has long gone and cattle now pick their way across the clearing.

But the scene of this environmental vandalism is not Indonesia or the Amazon; it is affluent Surrey. And those responsible are not illegal loggers, but one of Britain's largest and most influential conservation groups. If it has its way, a forest near you could be next for the chop.

"Scots pine, Corsican pine, Japanese larch. There are clues in the names. These trees are not native to southern England," says Mike Coates, a project manager with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

In a controversial move, the RSPB has set its sights on England's non-native woodlands, which it wants to demolish to find space to restore a different type of English habitat, the open and rugged heathland immortalised in the novels of Thomas Hardy. Dominated by heather and scrubby plants, such heathland is an increasingly rare sight in England, and so is the wildlife that relies upon it.

Coates says: "Woodland is very common compared with heathland. But re-creating heathland is so much better for wildlife than a conifer plantation. Lots of the birds that live in the conifer forests are common and can survive elsewhere. Heathland stuff needs heathland, and much of it is very rare."

From the Guardian. So who's right? I lean towards the critics; the fight against climate change is a matter of damage control at this point. Biodiversity isn't going to fare well if global temperatures increase too much, and the RSPB's efforts will be insignificant compared to the damage that could result. Certainly, efforts should be made to preserve existing heathland, though.

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