There is an estimated 4383 million cft of naturally fallen and decaying timber in J&K’s forests. The estimated cost of that is Rs 2,19,192 crore. That means money for at least 20 state-owned hydel power projects in J&K or a kind of social and economic infrastructure development that could put the state in the league of societies with decent quality of living. Can’t there be viable and environmentally-sensitive ways of extracting this timber? Arjimand Hussain Talib, Ziraat Times’ Editor-in-Chief writes.    

A couple of weeks ago, Ziraat Times published a report which said that the Vohra Government was considering systemic reform of the State Forest Corporation (SFC). The reform is said to aim at more efficient extraction of timber from J&K’s forests, enhance SFC’s revenue and make the corporation profitable. 

So far so good. 

I was trying to look for some insights from the report about the enormous amount of decaying timber in J&K’s forests. What does this government plan to do about it? What is SFC’s vision and approach in managing that timber?  

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 7.48.14 AMThe decaying timber in J&K’s forests and its worth and commercial viability have always been a matter of debate and speculation among forestry and agro-forestry professionals. Many people while roaming in and around our forests often spare a thought for this timber: why on earth should it decay there? Let us try to address this question today.

While trekking with a few friends across a large swathe of the Pirpanjal Range in recent months, I found what people normally find in the state’s forests – great natural serenity and uncountable fallen and decaying pine trees. 

In the forest wilderness, and even above the forest line, we often came across people with deep interest in timber issues. We were told they are the ones who, while masquerading as shepherds or whatever, pilfered timber. They are the Robinhoods of our woods, potent and omnipresent.

We also saw some genuine lumbering activity. Personnel and trucks of the State Forest Corporation (SFC) ferried timber from some unimaginably high terrains to the plains below. 

While traversing the forests through the regular pony tracks and deep wilderness, fallen trees were everywhere to be seen. But why do such a large number of trees fall down or get damaged?

Quite naturally, most trees are damaged or felled by snow, ferocious winds, soil degradation and, of course, deliberate human hands. 

Saddened and overwhelmed by the sights of great amounts of decaying timber – a common sight in almost all of J&K’s forests – we asked some SFC and Forest Department personnel whether they were able to harvest all that fallen timber. The answer, as expected, was: never!

We tried doing something manually. Traversing in perpendicular directions with the help of compasses and satellite maps (not GPS), we estimated how much of fallen timber actually lies in a square kilometre area. Doing that at several locations, we finally did some calculations and arrived at some figures. 

Since the number of fallen trees in a square kilometre area varied between 400 and 1150, we considered a modest average of 800 trees. There were definitely trees of different heights and circumferences, so we did some averaging there too, taking 336 cubic feet (cft) of timber per fallen tree. 

Considering the forest cover of 16,309 sq km across J&K state, excluding the cold desert area of Ladakh, and an average commercial value of Rs 500 per cubic foot (after subtracting the logistics costs), the cost of timber lying in J&K’s forests comes to a staggering Rs 2,19,192 crore. That means 4383 million cft of timber.

The margin for error in this method of calculation is possible. Even as we keep the margin as 10 per cent, the commercial value is still big. 

J&K government has done well by liberalising timber imports, and done away with the need for an import licence. The policy of granting licenses to private individuals in J&K to extract timber has been largely opaque. 

Given the kind of wealth our cash-starved state holds in its forests, cancelling all private forest licences and bringing structural changes and greater transparency in SFC makes a good case. 

After Europe’s Lothar and Martin storms ravaged most of its forests in 1999, I along with a group of international water researchers happened to traverse through Austria’s forests in 2002. We were a bit surprised to see mass scale lumbering of storm-fallen trees in very difficult terrains. Commercial extraction and environmental conservation would go hand in hand, we were told. 

About a decade later, last year I happened to lay my hand over an extremely interesting document a colleague from the UN was using on an assignment in Malawi and Zambia. It is called the Technical Guide on Harvesting and Conservation of Storm Damaged Timber. This UN guide, jointly developed by the FAO/ECE/ILO Committee on Forest Technology, is a brilliant description of how storm damaged timber could be commercially exploited without environmental damage. 

The reason, we are told, we do not extract the fallen timber is that there are environmental, technical and other concerns. Timber lobbies within and outside government could facilitate felling of more trees and their extraction as well. 

The Supreme Court of India has banned the felling of green trees, and rightly so. But what determines our selective approach to what and where to harvest our fallen timber? 

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“It is not viable to retrieve all the fallen timber because for many reasons. One reason being that the Supreme Court has a directive of retrieving only 80 lac cubic feet of the fallen timber in the whole state of J&K. And even if we start to retrieve more than that, its viability stands into question for the cost of retrieving being much more than the market cost of that timber.” – S.F.A. Gillani – Chief Conservator of Forests, Kashmir.

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“As most of the fallen trees are in the alpine range, therefore most of the fallen trees are Himalayan silver fir aka Budull which fetches the most cheap rates in the market. There are also practical difficulties of extracting timber from deep nalas, for there is no mechanised system in place to retrieve them.” – Irfan Rasool Wani – Conservator of Forests, Kashmir North Circle.

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First let us take the environmental concerns. It is true forest operations could impact soil conditions, biodiversity, and water quality. But there are established procedures for post-storm tree extraction management of forests. I am sure our forest experts know that all too well. 

Some people also argue that J&K’s mountain terrain was not logistically suitable for mass-scale extraction of the fallen timber. Some people also cite lack of technical know-how and equipment.

There are a number of modern techniques available to extract timber from difficult terrains. Full tree method, using mobile cable crane and delimber-bucker can easily be extended in J&K’s forests. So can the full tree method involving mountain harvester and energy timber bundler. 

Then there are advanced mountain extraction equipment like cable yarder, clam bunk skidder, cable skidder, chipper, tracked harvester, processor, wheeled excavator, forwarder etc. which make extraction possible in toughest of the terrains. Right from cutting, de-limbing, bucking, extraction and piling, machines do the job. 

A comprehensive capacity and training needs assessment for SCF could easily fill in the capacity and the equipment gap. 

In this debate what is generally also missing is the climate change factor. Extreme weather conditions are a reality of our world today. Damage to our forests, despite all conservation measures, is inevitable. For J&K, quick and cost effective extraction of this timber at a mass scale should be an integral part of our strategy for storm and snow damage management.

A comprehensive feasibility assessment of this issue would easily help in finding more credible answers. To begin with, we can think of hiring an international consultancy with expertise in forestry and lumbering. They can advise us in all aspects of this issue – right from commercial exploitation to environmental conservation.

Challenges in endeavours like these are inevitable, but striking the right balance of ergonomic, social, economic and ecological demands simultaneously is possible. Even if we fetch Rs 1 lakh crore from this extraction and spend that money on building productive assets like power projects in our state that will be a big, big deal.

The author is Editor-in-chief of Ziraat Times

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