What is forest restoration and how do we do it well?

A forest landscape

Every forest in the world today is affected by human activity at some level, either directly by destruction or the introduction of invasive species, or indirectly by the impacts of climate change. Forest restoration—the process of improving the health, productivity, and array of life of a forest—is a complex undertaking that can never fully bring back the original forest. That’s why it’s far better to conserve existing healthy forests and prevent them from being degraded or destroyed in the first place.

Much of the work of restoration focuses on bringing back natural processes that contribute to the forest’s productivity, like how water interacts with soil, streams, and plants. This requires starting with a diagnostic exercise to figure out what has gone awry, as the appropriate approach to forest restoration depends on what is causing a particular forest to falter. The damage is not always immediately apparent—a forest may look very healthy and green but be suffering ecologically. The problem may be invasive species, infrastructure development, agriculture, mining, fire, or some other stressor.

Degraded forest

Healthy forest

The right approach must consider the human demands on the forest. If it does not, then a restored forest is likely to be degraded again. For example, establishing sustainable sources of fuel for cooking—ones that people can use over and over again without permanently harming a forest—may be an essential element to restoring a forest. People across the developing world use charcoal for cooking—some because that’s their only option and others because of cultural traditions or taste preferences. Successful forest restoration in such countries must involve setting aside some land for fast-growing species suitable for charcoal, such as eucalyptus, to take the place of wood from natural forests.

Providing people with sustainable access to the natural resources they depend on allows us to create a strategy for repairing natural forest processes. The landscape then can support people’s needs while taking the pressure off forests that can most benefit from restoration.

Core elements of forest restoration These can be combined in various ways

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Planting trees.

This is an important part of forest restoration, but funding for doing so often runs dry. Many reforestation programs need to plant seedlings and grow their own native trees.

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Improving soils.

Soils need microbes and small bugs such as centipedes, beetles, and worms to thrive. Adding organic matter to the soil can radically change a forest and support restored forest health.

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Protecting wildlife corridors.

Looking at how plants and animals move and reproduce across landscapes is key to forest restoration. A corridor the width of a swimming pool can allow animals to travel among forest fragments, significantly improving their chances of surviving, reproducing, and flourishing.

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Managing land sustainably

Successful restoration must address the needs of farmers who care for small plots of land and whose access to resources profoundly affect forests. Working with governments to promote practices like agroforestry—a farming technique that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees among crops or pastureland for more productive and sustainable land use—provides huge benefits to forest restoration efforts.

 

Any kind of forest restoration must be undertaken with the participation of as many people involved as possible, both directly and indirectly. The efforts are most likely to succeed when experts and conservationists deeply engage with the communities who depend on the forests in question and work with the government and other key parties that manage the land and work to conserve forests.

Learn more about WWF's work on forests.