Finding biodiversity in timber plantations

March 28, 2024
Eucalyptus plantation set back from riparian area, Karkloof.

Finding a balance between wood fibre production while conserving biodiversity and minimising environmental impacts is the big challenge facing the forestry industry all over the world. In South Africa it has a particular significance because almost all timber production comes from planted forests established in the wetter grassland areas located along the escarpment and eastern coastal plains.

These plantations, which occupy some 1% of South Africa’s land area, play a vital role in providing the primary raw material for a wide range of products from paper and packaging to structural timber, veneers, boards, fabric and charcoal, to name but a few. The forestry and forest products industry generates 10.4% of South Africa’s agricultural GDP and 4.5% of manufacturing GDP, creating 105 600 direct jobs and 43 500 indirect jobs in the process.

Crucially, these plantations have made it possible to protect the natural forests in South Africa from over-logging by providing the wood fibre needs of the growing population. Many of the plantations in this country were established by government specifically for this purpose.

But the loss of biodiversity which underpins life on earth and the ecosystem services upon which we depend, is a massive red flag for every country in the world, South Africa included. As populations increase more land is transformed from its natural state, and inevitably, the biodiversity supported by those natural systems is negatively impacted.

Sappi Forests Environmental Manager Hlengiwe Ndlovu (left) leads the way across a grassland conservation area at the top of the Karkloof mountains. It is located on Sappi’s Lebanon plantation, and borders with the indigenous forest in the Karkloof Nature Reserve.

This places a heavy responsibility on land managers to proceed cautiously when biodiversity, ecosystem services and the health of the entire natural environment is at stake.

So how do we continue to provide the wood fibre raw materials that we need from alien tree plantations that have transformed natural grassland, while at the same time conserving biodiversity? This was the focus of a recent visit by key staff members from SA National Biodiversity Institute, Department Forestry, Fisheries & Environment, Forestry South Africa and Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa, to Sappi’s plantations in the Karkloof in the KZN Midlands.

What followed was a fascinating journey from the comfort of the Karkloof Country Club (and a delicious cappuccino) to a natural grassland in the middle of Lebanon plantation at the top of the rugged Karkloof mountains; to the 160 ha Shafton-Kusane wetland surrounded by forestry, dairy and sugar farms; to the magnificent Karkloof Falls where the Karkloof river plunges 105 meters into a gorge before joining the Umgeni river which provides the primary water resource for several million people downstream.

Sappi Forests Environmental Manager Hlengiwe Ndlovu and Sappi’s former Environmental Manager (now retired) and Chairperson of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme, Dave Everard, provided fascinating insights into the company’s strategy to achieve this elusive balance.

The Karkloof falls, a popular picnic spot, is at the centre of an impressive network of mountain bike and hiking trails.

Water

The thread that stitched this journey together was the water that trickles out of the springs and seeps at the top of the catchment. It makes its merry way along countless streams, through wetlands, natural forest patches, plantations, grasslands and farms, gathering momentum as it goes before entering the mighty Umgeni River which provides life-giving water for millions of people all the way to the coast. The water’s journey serves to emphasize the connectedness of the landscape, the fact that how we use the land in one place ultimately affects the health of the land everywhere.

Key to understanding Sappi’s - and indeed much of forestry’s approach – was the patchwork nature of the landscape. From the top of the Karkloof mountain we could see that the plantations stretching across the valley below were not contiguous wall-to-wall trees. There were open grassland corridors between the tree patches, along the rivers and around the wetlands and the steep, rocky outcrops. These open areas constitute around one third of the forestry company’s landholding, and are proactively managed for conservation purposes.

The way these open, unplanted areas are connected to each other, to the wetlands, high conservation value areas and natural forest patches in the landscape, plays a crucial role in their effectiveness as biodiversity enablers. If well planned out and managed, timber estates can therefore become ‘green corridors’ that allow the free movement of plants and animals, thereby supporting biodioversity in the landscape.

The group that attended the Biodiversity in Forestry field day arranged by the Paper Manufacturers Association of SA (PAMSA) and Forestry South Africa (FSA) and hosted by Sappi Forests at their Karkloof plantations. Left to right: Dave Everard (Chairperson of the Sustainable African Forest Assurance Scheme), Hlengiwe Ndlovu (Sappi Forests Environmental Manager), Julie Borland (R & D consultant, PAMSA), Alex Marsh (SANBI), Jane Molony (Executive Director, PAMSA), Jennifer Zungu (SANBI), John Scotcher (Environmental consultant, FSA), Tshifiwa Ramatshimbila (Director Woodlands & Indigenous Forests, DFFE) and Trudy Sebelebele (Forest Certification Manager, Sappi).

Grassland

The grassland we visited at the top of the mountain was a kaleidoscope of different grasses, forbs and bulbs thanks to the fact that it has been protected from excessive livestock grazing, and periodically burnt to mimic nature and promote biodiversity. Encroaching alien vegetation has been kept at bay.

Directly below the grassland an indigenous forest blankets the steep slopes of the mountain. This forms part of the 3 275 ha Karkloof Nature Reserve which includes 198 ha of Sappi owned land, land leased out by several other private landowners as well as land purchased by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Although the forest was heavily logged back in the day, it has remained undisturbed for half a century and harbours a huge array of birds and animals, plant and tree species including the magnificent yellowwoods and stinkwoods. It lies within the upper catchments of the uMgeni and uThukela rivers which are of crucial strategic importance in supplying water to millions of downstream users.

Undisturbed grassland conservation area in between Lebanon plantation and the indigenous forest of the Karkloof Nature Reserve.

Wetland

The Shafton-Kusane wetland is situated in the centre of the Karkloof valley, and fulfils a vital function of capturing, storing, filtering and slowing down the water that drains out of the mountains. It covers an area of 160 ha and was ranked as highest priority in terms of broad regional conservation priorities and opportunities for providing key goods and services. Sappi has pulled its trees back to expand and protect the wetland, and does on-going invasive alien weed control. They’re also busy upgrading all the stream crossings above the wetland to ensure the water flows freely and unimpeded.

The Karkloof river meanders through the 160 ha Shafton-Kusane wetland before plunging over the Karkloof falls.

Karkloof trails

Below the wetland the river enters forest land again, and then plunges over the spectacular Karkloof waterfall. Here we encounter a different side of forestry. This is the focal point of one of the country’s best known trail networks. There are 250 kms of carefully curated single track trails and forestry roads snaking through plantations, grassland corridors and conservation areas, used by mountain bikers, runners and hikers from far and wide who come here to savour what the beautiful KZN midlands has to offer. There is also a well-kept picnic area for day visitors who just want to unwind and enjoy the scenery.

Providing safe public access to these forests and trails is part of Sappi’s social commitment to promote eco-tourism and the local economy.

In the midst of all this, Sappi needs to operate an efficient and productive forestry operation that sustains jobs and keeps shareholders and stakeholders happy.

The Biodiversity field trip ended at the picturesque picnic spot located in the middle of a Sappi plantation, with the magnificent Karkloof Falls as the backdrop.

Biodiversity

Sappi has partnered with organisations such as the SA National Biodiversity Institute and WWF, as well as other plantation owners through Forestry South Arica, to mainstream biodiversity into the forest sector. This includes ambitious catchment management projects that extend beyond their own borders as well as the stewardship programme which facilitates the proclamation of nature reserves and protected areas on forestry land.

Sappi maintains 160 important conservation areas, including seven nature reserves, on its plantation lands in South Africa.

This work includes on-going water quality assessments and monitoring, integrated weed management plans and maintaining and enhancing soil function, a crucial component of sustainable forest management.

Forestry in South Africa is regarded as a streamflow reduction activity, and is regulated and controlled by a raft of legislation. New afforestation is restricted to catchments where spare water is available. The total planted forestry area has actually shrunk over the past 10 years or so, and is unlikely to be expanded in the foreseeable future. Plantations range in size from several thousand-hectare estates all the way down to tiny, one or two hectare plots grown by small-scale farmers located in tribal areas.

Like any crop, growing trees use water, but they use it efficiently in the production of wood fibre, a key natural resource that is renewable, sequesters carbon from the atmosphere and – unlike a material like plastic - leaves behind zero waste. Commercial forestry plantations in South Africa account for some 3% of total water use, according to an Overview of the SA Water Sector, published by the Department of Water & Sanitation. Plantations are not irrigated – they only intercept rainfall, which reduces runoff into rivers and streams. By way of comparison, agriculture/irrigation utilises 60% of total water resources in South Africa.

View of the Karkloof valley from the top of the mountains showing patches of indigenous forest, farm land and plantations.

Moreover the forest sector uses very little chemical weedicides and pesticides, the use of which are also heavily regulated by certification bodies.

So how much biodiversity can thrive in this typical patchwork plantation environment?

During 10 birding events held on Sappi plantation land in the KZN midlands between 1997 and 2007, a total of 455 bird species were recorded. A camera trap survey during the same period yielded 30 mammal species. These included jackal, caracal, civet, genet, serval, porcupine, mongoose, aardwolf, badger, otter, samango monkey, baboon, warthog, bushpig, reedbuck, bushbuck and duiker. Several sightings of leopard have also been recorded in plantations around KZN and Mpumalanga.

These sightings indicate that timber plantations – when properly managed – can play an important role in protecting and enhancing biodiversity.

A trickle of water threads through Shafton plantation at the picnic spot above the Karkloof Falls.

Last word

“Given that plantations are effectively green corridors that facilitate movement throughout the region, it is entirely possible that a land-sparing approach combining large patches of grassland in a mosaic with intensively used plantation patches provides the best compromise to produce the required volumes of wood while preserving meaningful biodiversity outside of formally protected areas.” This summation was provided by Michelle Pretorius and Justin O’Riain of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town, and Kirsten Wimberger of the Wild Bird Trust, in an article titled ‘Preserving large tracts of natural grassland promotes mammal species richness and occurrence in afforested areas’, published in the Forest Ecology & Management journal.

*Images & video by Samora Chapman

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