Forestry plantations as wildlife habitat: is the management of the understory sustainable?

Investigador responsable: Javier A. Simonetti
Coinvestigadores: Audrey A. Grez, Cristian F. Estades
Período: Marzo 2009 – Marzo 2012
Financiamiento: Fondo Nacional de Desarrollo Científico y Tecnológico, FONDECYT 1095046

Forestry plantations are regarded as «biological deserts», being devoided of any wildlife. Increasing evidence though suggests that pine plantations could support some native biodiversity, including endangered species like carnivores, if they hold a well-developed understory vegetation. If true, plantations might contribute to wildlife conservation providing some habitat for animal species. Managing the understory will be of benefits to both biodiversity conservation and forestry practices, as the presence of wildlife in productive forests will ease certification procedures as wildlife is incorporated into the forestry operations rather than setting it side. Despite patterns of animal abundance are well known, causality is yet to be tested. Furthermore, besides the need to test the causal relationship between understory and wildlife, two other components of understory management requires analysis. First, its must be analyzed whether to maintain understory for enhancing plantations for wildlife has an impact upon tree growth and hence, plantation profitability. Second, social response toward the potential presence of fauna within plantation ought to be unraveled across different stakeholders. Such three elements, environmental, economic and social, are pending evaluation to assess if pine plantations could be sustainably managed not only for providing forest products but contributing to biodiversity conservation as well, as demanded world-wide.

In this proposal, we will experimentally analyze whether the management of pine understory is a sustainable activity, tackling all three component of sustainable development: ecological, economic and social. On ecological terms, we will test if understory is determinant for the presence and abundance of wildlife. Dense understory will be removed from stands tracking the response of three taxa: insects, birds and mammals. If understory determines the suitability of pine plantations as habitat for these indicator species, they should flee stands with removed understory but remain in control stands. Analysis of presence, abundance, movement and survival will be performed to assess suitability of plantation with and without understory. On economic terms, we will experimentally test the effect of understory upon near-harvest pine growth. Further, we will translate changes in pine growth into economic returns and compare them to operational cost of removing the understory. To be sustainable, costs should be larger than increase economic returns when understory is left in these stands. On social grounds we will assess if pine stands with well-developed understory are better perceived and supported by stakeholders than understory-free plantations as the former provide habitat for native fauna. Further, stakeholders ought to be willing to pay more for forestry products derived from plantations that contribute to wildlife conservation.

To our knowledge, this is the first attempt to assess the sustainability of plantations in all three components simultaneously. Based on pine plantations, a significant component of Chilean forestry industry and economy, we will assess then if managing understory could enhance plantations as wildlife habitat, without hampering economic returns and be socially supported. If proven, managers will have a clear way to incorporate biodiversity into managerial plans, advancing environmental standards a step further, well beyond current accepted forestry and conservation practices.