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OSU forest study asks: How protected is protected?

OSU forest study asks: How protected is protected?

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How much protection does “protected area” status provide for forest lands and reserves? And what is the impact of that protection on deforestation rates?

A team of Oregon State University researchers set out to find the answers to those questions.

Their results, published in February's “Nature Ecology & Evolution,” show that efforts to meet international targets for the planets woodlands are falling behind. A “protected area” designation reduces the rate of deforestation but does not prevent it, the researchers found.

“Protected areas are a key tool in the conservation of global biodiversity and carbon stores,” reads the abstract for the report in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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The researchers reviewed 18,000 terrestrial protected areas covering 2 million square miles across 63 countries. The study is believed to be the first comprehensive look at how effective protected areas are at limiting forest loss.

The research team found protected areas’ deforestation rate is 41% lower than that of unprotected areas. They also found that earlier estimates suggesting 15.7% of the Earth’s forest were protected from deforestation were much too optimistic.

“It’s clearly not enough just to call a forest area ‘protected’ and assume that it really is,” said study leader Christopher Wolf, a postdoctoral researcher in the Oregon State University College of Forestry. “When you look at conservation effectiveness, you can’t simply rely on the amount of officially protected land as a metric. Nearly one-third of all protected areas are actually under intense human pressure.”


The findings are also timely given President Joe Biden’s recent executive order on climate change, which calls for protecting 30% of the United States’ land and waters, up from the current 12%, and developing “a plan for promoting the protection of the Amazon rainforest and other critical ecosystems that serve as global carbon sinks.”

“Evidence indicates that we’re in the middle of a mass extinction event the likes of which the planet has seen only five times before,” said Wolf. “Formally protected areas have been proposed as a primary tool for reducing deforestation and therefore stemming species extinctions and slowing reductions in carbon storage.”

Protected area deforestation rates were highest in Africa, Europe and South America and lowest in Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and nearby island chains).

Among the 63 nations studied, 34 have at least 17% of their forest area protected, which means they are in line with the target percentage established by the international Convention on Biological Diversity, which was drafted in 1992 and signed in 1993.

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New Zealand ranked No. 1 in the percentage of area protected when effectiveness was factored in, and China ranked last. South Africa’s protected areas were the most effective, with deforestation rates eight times lower than those of control sites. Sierra Leone, Malaysia and Cambodia were the three nations losing their forest cover the fastest.

“Protected area effectiveness is limited by varying levels of monitoring and enforcement and the money available for them,” Wolf said. “Unfortunately, our research shows that protected areas rarely if ever do more than slow down deforestation. And in general, the larger the protected area, the higher the rate of forest loss.”

U.S. and Oregon

Closer to home the researchers found deforestation rates to be slightly higher in Oregon than in the United States as a whole but that the percentage of forested land protected was higher here than in the rest of the U.S.

They also found that in a database as large as the one they worked with there are anomalies. As reference points the Gazette-Times asked why well-known mid-valley forested areas such as Oregon State’s McDonald-Dunn Research Forest and Silver Falls State Park were not listed as “protected areas” in the study.

“Our analysis was at the global scale and not ideally tailored for state level,” said co-author Matt Betts, director of the Forest Biodiversity Research Network in OSU’s Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society.

The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) “can lag behind national or state level protected area databases and may have somewhat different criteria for inclusion,” said Wolf, who added that “my best guess is that Silver Falls and McDonald-Dunn have been categorized in the U.S. as potentially allowing natural resource extraction and there many have been a slight mismatch with the WDPA inclusion criteria for sustainable use of natural resources which led to these type of protected areas being omitted.”

Well-known Linn County and Benton County sites such as the Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Washington wilderness areas, the William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, Bald Hill and Marys Peak are on the list, as well as lesser-known ones such as Kingston Prairie and Chahalpam near Stayton,

Taking a tour

The Gazette-Times visited the Finley refuge as well as the Trout Creek area of the Willamette National Forest's Menagerie Wilderness while reporting on this story. The two sites are strikingly different, with Finley offering young oak forests, oak savannas, ash swales, Douglas fir forests and mixed deciduous forests, all within the confines of the Woodpecker Loop Trail.

Other sections of Finley, which is about 10 miles south of Corvallis at a base elevation of 256 feet, are virtual lakes at this time of the year. Wide swaths of the refuge also include prairies.

We struck into the Menagerie Wilderness at the 1,600 foot level — the area tops out at 3,900 feet. The forest is a classic Oregon/Northwest mix of second-growth Douglas fir, western hemlock and western red cedar. The vegetation on the trees, ground and around the creeks is all but dripping moisture. The Trout Creek trailhead is approximately 20 miles east of the Sweet Home Ranger Station.

We saw no signs of timber cutting in either spot. In fact, in the Menagerie Wilderness, most of the vistas you took in revealed nothing manmade whatsoever.

The OSU researchers cautioned, however, that just as protection doesn’t mean an area is safe in perpetuity, the same goes for deforested regions.

“It is important not to think of ‘deforestation’ in this context as permanent,” OSU's Betts said. “The loss in U.S. protected areas is unlikely to be deforestation for agriculture, mining, etc. (unlike in some developing countries where there are illegal incursions into protected areas). My guess (again, these are broad scale data so we can’t know for sure) is that these are ‘losses’ due to insect infestations (e.g., bark beetle), fire etc., and that the forest will regenerate — albeit in some cases slowly.

“Still, it is of note that the forested land protected area percentages are so low in both Oregon and the U.S. This is a far cry from the 30% target. Of course it is generally less of an economic tradeoff to set aside rock and ice, than it is valuable timber.”

Contact reporter James Day at or 541-812-6116. Follow at or


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