The temperate forests of northeast China

November 15, 2014

Most parts of the northeast and northern regions in China belong to the temperate forest zone. In the case of China, the temperate zone ranges from relatively warm, evergreen trees to extreme cold in the coniferous forest temperate zones. The primeval forests in the warm temperate zone have almost disappeared, with only a small area of fragmented forest remaining. However, in the north east of China, large areas of coniferous forests remain. The northeastern region includes the provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning and parts of Inner Mongolia. They include the major distribution regions of the cold-temperate coniferous forest, mid-temperate mixed coniferous forests and deciduous broad-leaved forests.

by Michal Brink [CMO – Director, Innovation.]

Chainsaw operators work outside in extreme temperatures.
Chinese log truck (slghtly overloaded).

The largest forest area is located in coniferous forests of Heilongjiang Province. Structurally, these forests are rather simple, generally consisting of two layers: a canopy and understory. Some forests may support an intermediate layer of shrubs. The main species are larch, Korean pine, spruce, birch and oak. Pine forests support an herbaceous understory that is generally dominated by grasses and herbaceous perennials, and are often subject to ecologically important wildfires. This region remains one of the largest timber production areas in China.

Although a humid continental climate predominates in large parts of the north east, the areas in the far north are subarctic. Winters are long and bitter, with an average of minus 31 to minus 15°C in January. The region has a summer rainfall, averaging at 400 to 700 millimetres per year. One should remember though that snow forms a large part of the annual precipitation, which is not included in the rainfall figure.

Temperate coniferous forest is a terrestrial biome found in temperate regions of the world with warm summers and cold winters and sufficient rainfall to sustain a forest. In most temperate coniferous forests, evergreen conifers predominate, while some are a mix of conifers and broadleaf evergreen trees and broadleaf deciduous trees. Temperate evergreen forests are common in the coastal areas of regions that have mild winters and heavy rainfall, or inland in drier climates or mountain areas. Temperate coniferous forests can be found in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia. Many tree species occur in these forests including cedar, cypress, douglas fir, juniper, kauri, pine, Podocarpus, spruce, redwood, birch and yew. The understory also contains a wide variety of herbaceous and shrub species.

Definition of a ‘plantation’ in China
Due to the devastation of China’s forests over many centuries by agricultural expansion and wars, China embarked on a tree planting programme in 1981. Today, China has the world’s largest ‘plantation’ forest area of more than 53 million ha, accounting for 40% of the world’s total. The replanting of trees consists of various management regimes, from the planting of exotic Eucalyptus plantations, to enrichment plantings of native species in existing temperate forest areas.

The above practices have unleashed a hot debate around the definition of ‘plantation’, as anything defined as a ‘plantation’ that was planted after 1994 cannot qualify for FSC certification according to criterion 10.9 of the standard.

The interpretation of ‘plantation’ has been influenced by the local definitions in PR China and many foresters, NGOs and certification bodies are thus not defining a ‘plantation’ appropriately. This has resulted in the incorrect disqualification of some areas from FSC certification. There is a clear misalignment with the interpretations of ‘plantations’ vs ‘semi-natural forest’ in China with those elsewhere in the world, for example, Sweden and large parts of central Europe. Many forests in China that are today defined as ‘plantations’ are a lot more natural than many semi-natural forests found in Sweden and Germany. It is now contended by some forestry experts that the management objective of a particular forest should rather be used as the yardstick to decide its status, rather than the practice of ‘eyeballing’ a forest from roadside and making a call on its status as a plantation, or not. By rather concentrating on the silvicultural regime applied throughout the lifetime of a compartment, a much more scientific and therefore correct answer would be reached. The result would be that many forests that are currently hanging in the balance regarding their qualification for an FSC certificate, would be defined as semi-natural and could thus apply for FSC certification.

Forest certification in China
The national China Forest Certification Scheme (CFCC) was endorsed by PEFC in March 2014. This adds a new dimension to voluntary certification in China, as CFCC is fully supported and implemented by the Government of China. Contrary to this government initiative, FSC already has a strong presence in China with 78 FSC Forest Management certificates having been issued and over 3 700 FSC CoC certificates. There has been talk that the government may even be considering disallowing FSC in the future, but at this stage this is mere speculation.

China has also decided not to sign a Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the EU regarding Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) of timber products. The question is now being asked by importers of Chinese timber products in Europe, North America and Australia as to how China will be able to provide credible evidence that such timber products have not been manufactured from illegally harvested trees. Foreign governments and NGOs alike, are all watching what will unfold in the Chinese timber and timber products arena over the next few years.

A young larch stand (planted).
Forest worker camp. Temperatures during the week of my visit fluctuated between minus 34 and minus 20oC.
An 80-year-old planted large stand.
Inside the camp covered by plastic. The workers keep warm by lighting a fire in the barrels which serve as a makeshift fireplace.
Chinese log cabin in the forest.

*Published in June 2014

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