Logging and conservation: Two sides of the same coin

James Erbaugh, winner of the Robert and Judy Marans & Kan and Lillian Chen Fellowship in Sustainability & Survey Methodology, is investigating how national programs to regulate forest production and conservation in Indonesia are playing out at the local level.

Photo courtesy of James Erbaugh

Photo courtesy of James Erbaugh

James Erbaugh’s regard for forests is like a sturdy vine twisting through his life. He climbed trees and scrambled through forests as a kid in central Ohio. His bachelor’s degree from Miami University was in philosophy and environmental principles and practices, with a focus on environmental ethics and forested areas. His two-year Teach for America commitment was in the struggling reservation and former milling town of Navajo, New Mexico; Erbaugh saw the human and environmental scars caused by logging Ponderosa pines until there were no trees left to cut.

He next taught with the Fulbright Program at a vocational farming school in central Java, and he returned to Java to do research for his master’s degree in geography and the environment at Oxford. Java was starting to buck the deforestation trend by replanting forests, and Erbaugh wanted to study how small land holders growing timber to feed the furniture industry fit in that picture.

Now, as a 2nd year Ph.D. student at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan (U-M), Erbaugh will go back to Indonesia. From 2000 to 2012, Indonesia experienced the greatest acceleration in deforestation of any country, Erbaugh says. But by 2013, the government had pledged to substantially reduce carbon emissions. It established tougher timber certification regulations and received substantial international funding for REDD+—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation—an effort to conserve and sustainably manage tropical forests.

Erbaugh inspects logs cleared from a farmers’ sengon crop in central Java. He is pictured with the man in charge of hammering in plastic bungs that keep the logs from splitting or cracking as they dry out and change shape.

Erbaugh inspects logs cleared from a farmers’ sengon crop in central Java. He is pictured with the man in charge of hammering in plastic bungs that keep the logs from splitting or cracking as they dry out and change shape. Photo courtesy of James Erbaugh

These programs look good on paper, Erbaugh says. But he wants to see what they look like on the ground in rural areas where forests remain crucial to livelihoods. He will begin by examining how policy definitions of forestland—for example, a concession for oil palm versus a national park—have changed over time.

Next he plans to compare the village census from Indonesia with maps showing which forest areas are meant to be for production and which for conservation, and overlay that with satellite images showing deforestation and forest cover.

Finally, Erbaugh will survey some 500 residents in eight Indonesian villages to learn about livelihood strategies and to see whether local populations recognize the same stark definitions of conservation and production that exist at the national level. “How permanent or impermeable are those boundaries that we put up across forests?” he asks.

Erbaugh isn’t sure what the surveys will reveal. Perhaps having a production forest right next to a conservation forest provides enough employment to deter illegal logging. Or it may do just the opposite, inadvertently giving people the knowhow to illegally harvest trees. Erbaugh realizes he’s unlikely to discover a “magic combination” of production and conservation forests, but he hopes to understand enough to make policy recommendations that promote both forest cover and economic development.

Erbaugh, who speaks Bahasa Indonesia, will conduct a portion of the surveys himself. And to design the surveys, he’ll draw on the certificate of survey methodology that he’s earning at U-M’s Institute for Social Research with the support of the 2014 Robert and Judy Marans & Kan and Lillian Chen Fellowship in Sustainability & Survey Methodology. “It’s been massively helpful,” he says of the fellowship. “One of the reasons I came to Michigan was to come to ISR and learn rigorous survey methodology, and I feel like I’ve gotten that. It’s been fantastic.”

In the end, Erbaugh isn’t just trying to save trees. Production, he says, is essential to conservation and to addressing the critical problem of worldwide carbon emissions. “The coin is the forest,” he explains. “On one side we have production; on the other side we have conservation. How do we understand the value of the entire coin?”

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