Natural forests, conservation and development

February 28, 2011

Is DAFF going too far by including 'naturalising' forests in their efforts to protect 'natural' forests from uncontrolled development?

 by Coert Geldenhuys, forest ecologist

Natural forest degradation stages

A. A crown condition deterioration with forest degradation, and B. Diversity in stand structure with forest recovery: Figure 1. Typical stages in (A) the degradation and ultimate destruction of a natural forest (stage CC5, i.e. total forest clearing, is not shown), and (B) recovery of indigenous tree species through a process of succession of initial pioneer (light-demanding) species (red arrows representing natural or introduced species) and stand thinning (black arrows by natural or manual means) with establishment of shade-tolerant indigenous tree species, with increasing biodiversity from stages 1 to 4.


Regrowing natural forest

Figure 2. Regrowing natural forest after forest gap disturbance: Left: Degraded natural forest regrowing together with Acacia mearnsii in Keiskammahoek, Amathole Mountain; Right: Indigenous tree species regenerating within a blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) stand planted in a forest gap within the Bloukrans forest, Tsitsikamma.


Naturalising indigenous tree species

Figure 3. Naturalising indigenous tree species within former grassland. Left: In un-planted areas within an area of fire-protected fruit orchards and timber plantations in the Magoebaskloof area, Tzaneen; Right: Within a Pinus patula stand planted within grassland at Entabeni, Soutpansberg. Figure 4. Coastal forest species naturalising with coastal scrub and invasive alien stands of chromolaena and lantana within an industrial complex in the Durban area.


Uncontrolled resource use and development threatens the small and fragmented cover of natural forests in South Africa. It is therefore encouraging to see that the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) is taking strong action through their newly adopted policy of 2009 on the Principles and Guidelines for Control of Development Affecting Natural Forests, as reported in the December 2010 issue of SA Forestry magazine. Such a strong action would also be necessary to control the illegal resource use and forest clearing in areas under control of the national, provincial and local government institutions, which affect much larger areas of important forest types.

The National Forests Act 1998 defines a forest to include natural forests, woodland and plantations. A natural forest includes a group of indigenous trees (growing naturally in South Africa) whose crowns are largely contiguous and the ecosystems (living organisms and their physical environment) which it makes up, including the stages of degradation or recovery where the crowns may not be contiguous.

The objectives of the DAFF policy document include 'to ensure a uniform approach towards effective protection and sustainability of natural forests through proper control over development and land use change affecting forests in South Africa in a co-operative manner in all regions, according to the National Forests Act 1998 and current environmental legislation'.

This action of DAFF would be applicable to all the ecosystems that make up natural forests, including those in a state of degradation, or those that had been cleared, as well as regrowth stages (Figure 1). Note that 'Regrowth forest' means that natural forest existed on the site before and is growing back from the disturbed, degraded or cleared state (Figure 2).

Stands of indigenous trees with contiguous crowns occur in many forms. Some stands may not be natural forest such as a stand of pine, wattle or other alien tree species which could structurally and functionally be a forest, even if they have an understorey of indigenous trees. Similarly, a planted stand of indigenous trees is not necessarily a natural forest. Confusion arises in cases where indigenous trees start to grow (naturalise) in areas where natural forest did not exist before (Figure 3 and 4). 'Naturalising' indigenous tree species occur where natural disturbances such as fire (see SA Forestry magazine May/June 2006) have been changed or eliminated to change or eliminate a previous natural ecosystem with own biodiversity such as fynbos, grassland or woodland. The stand structure of naturalised natural forest could resemble a natural forest regrowth stage and be perceived to be a specific type of natural forest.

I suggest that the difference between 'regrowth' natural forest and 'naturalised' natural forest underlies the conflicts between landowners and authorities in the application of section 7 of the NFA 1998. There are many examples of such conflicts, i.e. where indigenous trees, including tree species nationally protected under section 15 of the NFA 1998, become naturalised within original fire-prone areas historically covered in fire-adapted fynbos, grassland or woodland, or in such areas that have been managed or developed:

  • in a private nature reserve where the fire regime was changed to cool fires, or in parts where fire management has been totally excluded. The landowner wants to remove the indigenous trees to return to proper fire management of the natural vegetation of the the open zone between the natural forest and timber plantation (see SA Forestry magazine August 2010), and within the plantation itself, with an increasing density and species richness with increasing plantation stand age and decreasing stand density. The plantation owner wants to clear the indigenous tree regeneration at various stages to maintain timber production.
  • on some open patches of natural vegetation within a commercial farm. The farmer wants to clear the indigenous trees to turn the open patches to a fruit or timber crop.
  • on a farm where a farmer did not use a piece of land or did not burn it for some time. Stands with contiguous crowns (as in natural forest ecosystems) developed in places. The farmer wants to clear or burn the trees to turn this area back to the original productive use or to the original natural vegetation.
  • on private land in development in a semi-urban area because the surrounding area had been developed (housing and/or industry) with a small patch of true natural forest which had not changed in size over 70 years (from aerial photographs). The owner wants to clear the tree vegetation (outside of the natural forest) to develop a housing complex or small industry (the true natural forest will be excluded from the development, as required by the NFA 1998).
  • in stands of invasive alien tree species, in any of the areas mentioned in bullets 1-5 above (see SA Forestry magazine May/June 2006), with contiguous crowns of indigenous trees in some clusters. The landowner or Working for Water team wants to clear the aliens and indigenous trees to recover the area to its original natural state or to a productive farm or to residential development.
  • on my plot in the city, where I have planted some indigenous trees, with some establishing (naturalising) seedlings of the planted trees and of a tree of a nationally protected indigenous species planted outside of my property. The taller trees have contiguous crowns (but it is NOT natural forest). I want to cut some of the trees because they become too big, and remove the seedlings of most of them before they become too big.

In my view, there should be no legal restrictions posed in any of these and other related examples of naturalised natural forest, if the landowner decides to remove the indigenous trees naturalising in the relevant areas. If naturalised natural forests, as described above, are assessed in the same way as true natural forest, then it will have major implications for consistent application of the new DAFF policy.

The strong stand taken by DAFF and its associates in terms of residential and industrial development is important for true natural forest, but within landscapes with naturalised natural forest their current approach, where any removal of vegetation with indigenous trees is simply not allowed, is counter-productive. It creates confusion and landowners may become unwilling to collaborate in conservation of indigenous tree species and forest development on their land because of the potential to be constrained in their actions in future.

The approach of the authorities infringes on the integrity of other natural vegetation systems, the rights of private landowners, and socio-economic development in general (section 3(3) of the NFA 1998). I fully appreciate the problems they experience with illegal activities in many areas of true natural forest (and their regrowth stages), but there are landowners who have a sincere interest in developing their land in harmony with the natural environment, not only natural forest.

I suggest that in the case of naturalised natural forest, DAFF and their associates need to apply their stated objective of 'in a co-operative manner' to allow participatory discussion of options for incorporation of the naturalised natural forest into the changed land uses or development, or the policy needs to be further refined.

Published in February 2011

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