How long does it take for logging roads to recover from clearance?

Roads are generally terrible for biodiversity. They fragment habitat, can increase habitat loss and hunting as a result of increased access, and cause direct loss of biodiversity as a result of collisions. However, not all roads are the same. Some are massive, permanent structures, while others are temporary, dirt tracks that may seemingly disappear once they fall into disuse.

One example of ephemeral roads is those that logging companies construct in tropical forests to provide access and transport of logs. There has long been concern that these roads can increase the risk of fires occurring, as well as increasing access for hunting, and other forms of forest exploitation. However, in a recent(ish) paper* has shown that some of the negative effects of logging roads are relatively transient.

In the paper, Fritz Kleinschroth and colleagues showed that in Central African forests, after 30 years of recovery logging roads had similar canopy cover, species diversity, and leaf litter to logged forests nearby* . However, the amount of carbon stored in the form of biomass lagged behind and was only 6% of that seen for logged forests after 30 years of recovery. At this rate, biomass recovery would take more than 300 years.This incredibly slow recovery at first appears puzzling, given that secondary forests, which have had almost all their trees cut down in the past and turned into agricultural fields, tend to take between 60-100 years to recover biomass to pre-disturbance levels (see here for a blog post and here for a recent paper on this). However, the probable cause of this delayed recovery is the compaction of soils on the roads by heavy vehicles which reduces seed germination and root growth***. Taken together the authors suggest these results indicate that logging roads have the potential to act as areas in which timber species could regenerate and that they may become inaccessible to hunters within 10 years.

So how does this study compare to similar ones carried out previously? Firstly, this study is a little different because it is one of the few that used chronosequences to assess recovery, and so the only study I know of which can assess longer-term dynamics on logging roads. However, other studies present a similar picture for the recovery of biomass and forest structure – forest canopy cover recovers relatively quickly (see here and here), but biomass and basal area lag behind (see here and here). The major difference between this study and previous ones is that it presents a more optimistic outlook of biodiversity. Previous studies have estimated that species richness may be 50-95% lower on abandoned logging roads when compared to logged forests (see here, here, and here). As such, the relatively fast recovery of species richness shown by Kleinschroth and colleagues appears to be outside of the norm, and further similar studies will be needed to see whether the pattern of recovery shown in this paper is an outlier. So we can’t really give a solid answer to the question posed in the title of this post – sorry about that.

While results vary from study to study it is obvious that more efforts need to be made to reduce the number of logging roads, their initial impacts to forests, and to help them recover once they are abandoned. In order to reduce the number of roads, reduced-impact logging could be used. This method, which I have been accused of disliking in the past, seems to be very successful in reducing the number of roads in logging concessions where it has been used (see here for an example of this). This is done by producing a plan for road construction prior to any trees being cut, rather than the ad-hoc approach often taken in conventional logging. Reducing the impact of roads could be done by limiting their width. Finally, improving recovery could be done by planting seedlings/saplings on former logging roads, as well as reducing access to roads.

One suggestion that the authors made in their paper that I really like is to re-use logging roads when forests are re-logged. Given that logging typically occurs every 30 years, this would allow some time for recovery of biodiversity on the roads but clearing them would reduce the damage caused by their construction spreading to other areas of the forest.

*I admit it, I’ve been terrible at keeping up with my reading recently.

**John Healy and Fritz have written a nice summary of their paper on the website “The Conversation” which is well worth a read.

***Anecdotal, I know, but I have seen similar things on restored salt marshes in the UK where diggers have been used to breach sea walls. At least for the ones I remember, this resulted in reduced vegetation cover.


Does reduced impact logging in tropical forests benefit carbon storage and species richness?

After a bit of a traumatic review process* we have just had a paper published in Forest Ecology and Management on the impacts of tropical selective logging on carbon storage and tree species richness. I’m really pleased that we finally got this work out there. If you want to give it a look you can get it here.

Selective logging is one of the most widespread drivers of tropical forest degradation. As I have said before around 400 million hectares of tropical forest are now used for logging – an area twice the size of Russia. Or one hundred and ninety two and a half times the size of Wales – if that’s your thing**.

High intensity logging can result in loss of animal species richness, but on the whole logging is seen as one of the least damaging human uses of tropical forests. That said, there are still concerns about its sustainability in the long-term. Poorly managed concessions commonly remove high timber volumes and do not leave enough time between logging cycles to allow forests to recover.

To improve the sustainability of the practice, reduced impact logging has been proposed. This method aims to reduce negative environmental impacts by cutting lianas and vines before logging, identifying which trees to cut and mapping them before logging starts, planning the roads to be built, and training staff in methods to reduce damage to the forest.  The first papers testing this method showed promising results, appearing to indicate that reduced impact logging causes lower carbon emissions when compared to conventional methods.

However, many papers that have  looked at the impacts of reduced impact logging failed to account for the volume of wood taken out of forests. Crucially, if this differs between reduced impact and conventionally logged sites this represents a hidden treatment, which if not accounted for can lead to faulty conclusions. Given that there are calls to pay people who use reduced impact logging as a means to reduce carbon emissions, we need good, solid science to support this policy.

So, we tried to solve the question of whether reduced impact logging still reduces negative effects on residual tree damage, aboveground biomass, and tree species richness using meta-analysis. We compiled data from all over the globe, all from previously published papers.

Locations of study sites where data we used was collected
Locations of study sites where data we used was collected

Cutting to the chase, the results for reduced impact logging were mixed.

It seemed to reduce the damage to residual trees once logging volume was accounted for…

Reduced impact logging (blue) tended to cause less residual damage than conventional logging (red) once logging intensity was accounted for

… however, this did not obviously result in reduced biomass losses, and evidence of an effect on tree species richness was poor as well.

Effects of logging intensity on (a) aboveground biomass and (b) tree species richness. Reduced impact logging sites are blue points, and conventional sites are red. Note the relatively low intensity for most reduced impact logging sites.

Though residual damage to trees was reduced, this didn’t cause a  reduction in overall biomass loss. This may be the result of a few different factors. Firstly, residual damage is often to smaller trees so it is not necessarily that surprising that this had little effect on biomass. Secondly, we are really lacking enough data to be sure of the relationship between biomass changes and reduced impact logging. Nearly all of the data is from forests logged at low intensity so we cannot say if the slope of the relationship differs from that of conventional logging.

In the case of tree  species richness, the relative lack of change over a gradient of logging intensity is not too surprising. Newly logged areas richness is probably enhanced by fast growing pioneer species. However, richness is not a fantastically useful measure of biodiversity, in the future it would be much more useful to be able to say what type of species are being lost/gained not just the total number of species in a site (see the recent paper by Zuzana Burivalova and colleagues that tries to do this with bird species).

So what does this all mean? Does our study mean that reduced impact logging doesn’t work? The short answer is no. The long answer is a bit more complicated than that.

First we need to decide whether reduced impact logging is synonymous with low yield logging. If it is then that is fine, but we need to be upfront about this. Logging is after all mainly about timber production. However,some people have previously argued that reduced impact logging can reduce damage whilst maintaining yields. If this is true, it would represent a win-win situation.

If we decide that reduced impact logging isn’t synonymous with low yields then our research question needs to change from “Does reduced impact logging cause less damage than conventional logging?” to “How do the impacts of reduced impact and conventional logging vary over a gradient of timber yields?” Generally in ecology we focus too much on using categorical x variables in statistical tests, and this case is a great example of why this approach can hold back our science (see the fantastic post by Brian McGill on this subject here).

Previous studies show that animal species richness declines with increasing logging intensity and reduced impact logging causes lower losses of animal populations. As a result, a combination of reduced impact logging and reduced logging intensity may appear the best way to reduce carbon emissions and biodiversity loss from logging. However, reducing local yields may cause expansion of logging into previously unlogged areas. This mirrors the current land sharing/sparing debate on how to balance agricultural yields and food production. This debate is taking off regarding logging, and I am keen to see more work on tropical logging that acknowledges the importance of yields. As I said to someone at a conference recently, if we ignore the importance of logging yields why study logged forests?

However, to inform this debate we need more powerful tests of different logging methods than we could do in our paper. One possible source of data for this are studies where logging intensity has been calculated for each sample plot used. For most of the studies I used logging intensity was only available at the site level. Getting this detail would give more statistical power to our tests and provide a more solid evidence base for management of tropical forests. Large-collaborative projects such as the tropical managed forests observatory represent a great chance to answer this question in a more satisfactory manner.

*I will write more about this next week.None of the journals were to blame, just some very biased reviewers.

**If any US citizens want this calculating as relative to Rhode island, I did it. It’s 1273.8 Rhode islands.

Forest regeneration provides cheap carbon and biodiversity benefits

First of all, hello again and apologies for my sporadic posting on here recently. I have now successfully defended my viva and have a few corrections to make but hopefully should be able to post on here a bit more regularly from now on.

One paper I read that really impressed me while on my hiatus from the blog was by my old commuting buddy James Gilroy and colleagues. This paper attempted to identify the potential biodiversity and carbon benefits of forest recovering in the Tropical Andes in Colombia, an area full of species found nowhere else many of which are under threat from agricultural conversion. The paper also attempted to look at the cost effectiveness of carbon payments for landowners who converted farmland to forest when compared to different land-use options like cattle farming.

Gilroy et al - Fig 1
Recovery of secondary forest carbon stock compared to that of pasture and primary forest (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)

I was actually quite surprised by what Gilroy and his team found. Their results suggested that carbon storage in recovering forests was fairly similar to that in mature forests in the area after around 30 years, much less than the 100 years or so that I estimated these stocks would take to recover in a previous study.

Gilroy et al - Fig 4

Gilroy et al - Fig 3
Relationships between carbon stocks and similarity of dung beetle and bird communities to primary forest communities (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)


More surprising still was that bird and dung beetle communities in the regenerating forests were fairly similar to those of mature forests, suggesting that they have high conservation value. Again previous studies have generally estimated that animal species that are forest specialists may take a long time to colonise secondary forests, and plants probably take even longer. The fast recovery times may be attributable to the relative closeness of recovering forest to intact forests in the study area, allowing immigration of  forest animals and increased likelihood of transportation of seeds from long lived tree species.

Gilroy et al - Fig 2
Relationship between the additional cost of undertaking forest regeneration and the price paid for carbon per tonne. The solid horizontal line shows where costs are equal to zero. This graph indicates that there are potentially net economic benefits for people undertaking forest regeneration projects when the carbon price is greater than $4 per tonne. (Taken from Gilroy et al. 2014)

More important than these findings though was the discovery that if forest regeneration schemes were implemented in the area, they could be more profitable to land-owners than current land-uses like cattle farming. This was true for all pastures in the area when carbon trading prices were greater than $4 per tonne of CO2 and given that the median price of carbon in 2013 was around $7.80 per tonne, paying for the carbon benefits of regeneration in these locations works out cheaply. This is the part that I thought was really neat, because all too often restoration schemes fail to account for the costs and benefits associated with such projects.

Given that the study area has fairly representative socioeconomic conditions to those found in the wider Colombian Andes, the results suggest that regeneration of cloud forest may provide a great opportunity for REDD+ carbon based conservation, which can deliver multiple environmental benefits at minimal cost. Though REDD+ has its critics it has the potential to transform forest conservation so we need to work hard to make sure it is done in the right way.

Looking to the past for insights into tropical forest resilience

A few weeks back Lydia Cole and colleagues published a really cool paper exploring recovery rates of tropical forests. Seeing as it’s something I’ve covered a here before in relation to my work on secondary forests recovering after agricultural clearance and recovery from selective logging, I invited Lydia to write a guest post giving a different perspective to a topic I have discussed here before. Thanks to Lydia for stepping up to the plate and I hope you find her post as interesting as I did.

Anyone reading this blog probably doesn’t need reminding of how important tropical forests are!  Birds, bees, berries and a whole load of other plants, animals and services that we probably underestimate our reliance on.  Despite the many arguments in favour of keeping tropical forests standing, vast areas continue to be deforested at rapid rates resulting in changes like that shown below (Fig 1), under pressures of expanding human population, rising consumption and the agricultural footprint to match (Geist & Lambin, 2002).

Fig 1 – Forest disturbance like logging can lead to forests such as this one in Borneo being converted from intact (left) to heavily degraded (right).

Disturbance and recovery in tropical forests Despite this widespread clearance as a result of  recent international forest conservation initiatives and rising rural-to-urban migration (Mather, 1992), some degraded tropical forests are being given a chance to recover.  But how long does it take them to recover?  Much recent research has attempted to answer this question (e.g. the great work of Chazdon et al., 2007) but little has monitored change over time scales of >50 years. Since many tropical trees have lifespans much longer than this previous studies have only captured a snap-shot of the ecological process of recovery.  In our study, we attempted to answer the question again; this time by looking into the past to gather data over longer time scales that could offer a more complete picture of forest recovery post disturbance.

The palaeoecological approach

Palaeoecology, otherwise known as long-term ecology, uses fossils to decipher how plants and animals interacted with their environment in the past.  Fossil pollen grains come in all shapes and sizes, and their morphological characteristics can be used to identify the plant family, genus or even the species to which they belong.  When a collection of these grains are identified and counted from a layer of sediment, we can reconstruct what the vegetation was like at that point in time when those grains were deposited. In our project, we were interested in studies that documented disturbance-induced changes in fossil pollen from forested communities across the Tropics, over the last 20,000 years.  Types of disturbances ranged from climatic drying events and landslides, to shifting cultivation and human-induced biomass burning.  We found 71 studies published on tropical forest palaeoecology that satisfied our selection criteria (e.g. within 23oN/S of the equator, possessing a sufficient chronology), documenting 283 disturbance and associated recovery events.  The rate at which recovery was occurring across the different forests and disturbance events was the key variable of interest and was calculated as the percentage increase in forest pollen abundance per year relative to the pre-disturbance level.

How far and how fast have tropical forests recovered in the past?

Our results demonstrate that in the past the majority of forests regrew to less than 100% of pre-disturbance levels, prior to declining again or reaching a new baseline; the median recovery was to 95.5%.  They also recovered at a variety of speeds, ranging from rates that would lead to 95.5% regrowth in less than 10 years to those taking nearly 7,000 years; the average was 503 years.  This is significantly longer than the periods adopted by logging companies between extraction cycles!

What affects the rate of recovery?

Three of the different factors we investigated for their potential effect on the forest recovery rate seemed to be of particular importance: geographical location, disturbance type and frequency of disturbance events. Of the four key tropical regions, Central American forests recovered the fastest and those in Asia the slowest (Figs. 2 & 3).  This is concerning, given that forests in Southeast Asia are currently experiencing some of the greatest rates of deforestation of all tropical regions, primarily due to the economic profitability of oil palm agriculture (check out mongabay for details).

Tropical forest recovery
Fig. 2  Map of tropical forest distribution, the location of studies and relative recovery rates across regions.

The most common form of disturbance, and one from which forest regrowth happened relatively slowly, was anthropogenic impact, i.e. via logging, burning and/or for agriculture (Fig. 3).  The slowest rates of recovery occurred after climatic disturbances and the fastest after large infrequent events, e.g. landslides, hurricanes and natural fire.  This latter result is somewhat intuitive given that these perturbations are a natural part of all ecosystems, leading to the evolution of a dynamic response in the native plant communities.  

Figure 3
Fig. 3  Composite figure showing how the recovery rate varies with different variables.

Insights into resilience

When we looked at the standardised rate of disturbance events (SRD), i.e. the number of disturbance events per 1,000 years, we found that the greater the frequency events occurred in the past, the more quickly the forest responded to each subsequent disturbance.  This runs counter to contemporary theories on resilience that describe slowing rates and diminishing ability to recover with each subsequent perturbation (e.g. Veraart et al., 2012).  Our results suggest that over ecologically meaningful timescales, i.e. over the life-span of entire forest communities rather than single trees, increased exposure results in adaptation to that disturbance over time, leading to a greater ability to recover quickly from the perturbation.

What does this all mean for tropical forests?

From looking back into the past, it seems that tropical forests can take a long time to recover from disturbances, and that different regions may require different management regimes to encourage more complete reforestation after natural or anthropogenic events, such as fire.  Central American and African forests may bounce back from impacts more quickly than the other regions, with disturbances such as tropical hurricanes and climatic fluctuations being a more common component of these ecosystems than in the other tropical regions.  However, all of the forests we looked at demonstrated a greater vulnerability to anthropogenic impacts and climatic changes than large infrequent disturbances: the two major forms of disturbance occurring today and at levels that far exceed those experienced over the past 20,000 years – reasons for caution.

Sustainable management

Identifying and understanding the different ecological requirements of forests across the different geographical regions, and of the forest-types within those regions, is vital for developing more sustainable landscape management plans.  With increasing international concern over deforestation rates, the associated loss of biodiversity and elevated carbon dioxide emissions, the conservation and restoration of tropical forests is becoming more politically and economically feasible.  Indonesia, for example, has introduced ‘ecosystem restoration concessions’ in the last decade, providing a legal means for forest protection from the further expansion of industrial agriculture.  And the potential of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (now REDD+) to save the World’s forests continues to generate international debate. Of importance to all of these programmes and initiatives, is the suggestion from our study that forests take time to recover, and if we give them that time, they will persist, and continue to provide their faunal inhabitants, including us, the greatest collection of biological riches on Earth.

Are large, old trees in decline?

as is this dragon's blood tree on the island of Socotra...

I’ve banged on enough about the crisis in forests for people here to know what the deal is.

Anyway, there has recently been a bit of back-and-forth regarding the state of large, old trees at a global scale.

These trees are key in both forest and non-forest ecosystems. The definition of what is ‘old’ and ‘large’ is specific to each region but it is widely accepted that these trees tend to store lots of carbon and are valuable for many species because of their structural complexity.

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David Lindenmayer and colleagues published a note last year on the importance of large, old trees and evidence for their declines, and they expanded on that with an article discussing policy options to deal with these declines.

This is all important stuff and they had me convinced. It makes sense. Large, long lived species are disproportionately vulnerable to threats because they take a long time to reach maturity and they are targeted simply because they are large – for animals see hunting of ungulates, for trees see selective logging.

However, a recent letter by Edward Faison has made me doubt the claims of Lindenmayer. Faison points out that there have been increases in the abundance of large trees in forests in Sweden, Spain, Hungary, Italy and Switzerland. In addition there have apparently been relatively few declines of large trees in North America.

Lindenmayer and colleagues have since rebutted this letter, saying that there is a difference between large old trees and simply large trees.  They point out that there have been increases in Europe and North America but that these increases have been from a very low point since both regions have historically cleared large swathes of forest for agriculture. They also point out the loss of large trees as a result of logging in the tropics as well as in Australia, North America and Siberia.

And yet I am still not entirely convinced.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that large old trees are probably in decline in the ecosystems they talk about, but is this a general trend all over the place?

I am also a little scared that all of the discourse on this so far has been in the form of reviews/essays that could easily cherry-pick some cases and then craft a nice narrative around them. It is easy to believe the stories we tell ourselves and this is where we as scientists should be most self critical. After all how many beautiful sounding theories have been seen to have nothing to do with how things work in the real world? The only way to confront such problems is with cold, unemotional statistical analysis.

How long does tropical forest take to recover from agricultural clearance?

Intermediate secondary forest in Paragominas, Para, Brazil – Photo credit to the fantastic Ricardo Solar, you can see more of his pics here

Today our work on the recovery of secondary tropical forests got published in Royal Society Proceedings B. I’m really chuffed with this piece of work and in this blog I’m going to summarise what we found out and why I think it’s important. If you want to read the paper you can get it here.

Large areas of tropical forest have been cleared for agriculture over the last 100 years.

Why does this matter? Well it matters because these forests are vital for the unique biodiversity in the tropics but also because humans can benefit from them remaining intact.

Their loss causes extinction, release of carbon into the atmosphere – worsening climate change, and changes the ecosystem services we get from these forests.

Because of the importance of these forests their restoration is seen as a priority by some. There are valiant attempts to restore tropical forests in Brazil and various Central American countries. In addition there are also international initiatives that aim to encourage the restoration of carbon and biodiversity (E.g. CBD & REDD+). These are great and ambitious aims but, until now, we didn’t really know how long these recoveries took, or whether recovery was different for different disturbance and forest types.

To solve all this we collected the biggest dataset yet compiled on recovery of aboveground, belowground and soil carbon as well as plant species richness and community composition following agricultural clearance. All this data came from previous studies.


We found that after about 80 years aboveground carbon storage was around 85% of that found in undisturbed forests, while belowground carbon storage seemed to recover more slowly. Soil carbon showed no relationship with time since clearance.


In terms of biodiversity both tree and epiphyte species richness seemed to increase over time, with tree richness recovering after around 50 years since disturbance but epiphytes took around 100 years.


However, when we looked at species that are found in the undisturbed forests, relatively few of them are found in the recovering forests. They didn’t seem to accumulate over time either. Given that these species are likely to be more prone to extinction it is worrying that they don’t seem to be doing very well in secondary forests.

We think that carbon recovers relatively well following abandonment of land since there tends to be a rapid influx of woody species. However, we also think that complete recovery of carbon is likely to take more than a century since this is likely to be dependent upon large, slow-growing trees.

Differences between tree species richness recovery and that of epiphytes is likely to be because tree seeds are more easily transported between forests than those of epiphytes. Also epiphytes seem to be found more on big trees, and there don’t tend to be many of these in secondary forests.

The lack of recovery of species found in undisturbed forests is perhaps the most disturbing thing that we found. We think that to improve this situation there may be a need for management of these forests by planting trees and helping to increase dispersal of seeds throughout the non-forest areas.

Disturbed forests like this are not worthless.
Regrowing forests like this are vital if we wish to conserve biodiversity in our human dominated world. Photo credit again to Ricardo Solar

There’s been lots of great work recently on the value of disturbed forests. We hope our work goes into a bit more detail where the soon-to-be-classic work of Luke Gibson etl al  left off which showed that primary forest has greater conservation value than any types of disturbed forest in the tropics. We agree with this, particularly for specialist species. However, most tropical forests are not primary forests and have been logged, cut down or burnt at some point in recent history. Because of this we think that older secondary forests need to be recognised as important for conservation and carbon storage and their clearance should be avoided. These forests are not worthless.