Steps to increase forest cover

Although the Forest Dept is taking up over 500 sq km of plantations every year, forest cover has not gone up.

During World Environment day celebration on June 5, 2017, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah ridiculed the afforestation claim of the Forest Department saying that the green cover of the state was still 20% after 25 years.

The forest cover, as interpreted by Forest Survey of India (FSI) consists of two parts: cover due to tree growth inside recorded forests and cover due to tree growth outside forests. Areas less than one hectare are not picked up by sensors. Thus, individual tree groves, linear plantations etc, outside recorded forest areas are separately assessed by the FSI through ground inventory, which is called tree cover. The forest cover of Karnataka is 18.99% and the tree cover is 2.89% of total geographical area.

In 2001, the FSI changed the visual interpretation method to digital image processing. The digital data of forest boundaries of many states are not available and FSI uses ‘green wash areas’ from Survey of India topo-sheet. The digital data for Karnataka is available and FSI has worked out its forest cover as 22,854 sq km. Forest cover of Karnataka based on green wash area is reported as 27,322 sq km. This difference is on account of thickly wooded land in control of the Revenue Department and paisary lands.

The total forest cover of Karnataka is 36,421 sq km. The cover in excess of 27,322 sq km is private wooded area, coffee estates, coconut gardens etc. The abrupt rise and fall in area figures from 1999 to 2003 is due to change in technology by the FSI, which has improved considerably in recent years. Forest cover is stagnating since 2007.

Although the Forest Department is taking up more than 500 sq km of plantations every year, forest cover has not gone up. Nearly two-third of the annual extent of plantations is taken up in the gaps of natural forests where density of trees is more than 10%. This would obviously not add to the area figure of the FSI report. We also extract older plantations and replant the area, which would also not add to the figure.

Nearly one fourth of annual planting is done in degraded patches where density of vegetation is below 10%. These areas are highly refractory and are subjected to heavy anthropogenic pressure. At the end of three years, many of these plantations register very poor survival. The surviving trees are subjected to illicit cutting and plantations eventually fail.

Fresh plantations are repeatedly attempted in these areas every five to seven years. These plantations do not increase area figure. However, such plantations prevent other forests from being decimated. Under the circumstances, holding onto forest cover without further shrinking is no mean achievement.

Two third of the plantations are grown in areas where tree density is more than 10%. The latest trend adopted by FSI is to classify forest cover in three density classes: 10% to 40%, 40% to 70% and 70% and above. The reports confirm that the area under each class is stagnant. The gap planting appears to be failing or is making up only for illicit cutting of trees. Actually, it is a combination of the two.

The matter requires investigation. The department must obtain the coordinates of places having abnormal increase or decrease of area and assess the reason why the gap planting has not contributed to the increase in density of the forest cover.

Rocky areas

Karnataka has 38,284 sq km of recorded forest land. The next question is why only 22,854 sq km is having forest cover. The difference 15,430 sq km is devoid of tree growth. These areas comprise of reservoirs of many big dams where tree growth was cleared, grassy blanks interspersed with shola forests, nearly 800 sq km forest land is encroached and brought under cultivation and also some rocky areas of dry zones where no plantations can succeed.

Grassy blanks are in high altitude of Western Ghats and together with shola forests contribute perennial water to rivers. These are climatic climax and no planting should be done. Attempt to plant up grassy blanks in the past was a blunder.

There are limitations in increasing cover in recorded forest areas. The Forest Department has taken up several important initiatives such as incentive under Krishi Aranya Protsah Yojana for encouraging tree planting on farm land.

We must focus on extension and outreach programmes, which should be handled by the Social Forestry divisions. Presently, these divisions are working under Department of Rural Development. The staff position, nursery infrastructure, vehicles, buildings etc, in these divisions require up gradation.

Many of these divisions are wasting their time and resour­ces as the plantation and nursery targets are far too lower than their territorial counterparts. Territorial divisions should focus on recorded forest lands.

The department should bring down their gap planting programme as many species are light demanding, and also fail in root competition. The budget should be diverted to increase tree cover outside recorded forests so that the tree cover on 5,552 sq km (2.89% of state’s area) is further increased.

(The writer is retired principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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