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Editorial: Greenery Day a reminder of the need to conserve forest resources

The Forestry Agency, the Nature Conservation Society of Japan and a local residents' group are cooperating in restoring biodiversity at the Akaya-no-mori forest in the Gunma Prefecture town of Minakami, near where the head of the Tone River is situated, and in ensuring sustainability of the regional community.

    As part of the project, efforts are being made to transform 2,000 hectares of a 3,000-hectare manmade forest there into a natural forest because the former area is not suitable for timber production.

    In 2015 and 2017, cedar trees planted in an approximately 3-hectare section of the forest were logged to convert the area into a feeding ground for golden eagles inhabiting the forest. The golden eagle is designated as an endangered species. Organizers of the project chose to wait for the area to return to a natural state rather than replanting trees.

    Just as the project aimed, hares and other animals that golden eagles feed on have begun to appear in the area. The saplings of broad-leaf trees that are typically seen in the region are already growing in the area.

    Project organizers also plan to gradually transform other manmade groves unsuitable for timber production into a natural state on a step-by-step basis by logging planted trees and making it easier for broad-leaf trees to grow.

    Artificial groves created for timber production need to be regularly managed by thinning trees and taking other measures.

    At the same time, if natural forests are restored, it leads to restoration of the local ecosystem and naturally serves to control floods and protect watershed. Therefore, the project can be viewed as a good example of forestry management.

    Forests cover some 25 million hectares, or roughly two-thirds of Japan's total land area. However, concerns have been raised that numerous forests, mainly privately-owned manmade forests created since the mid-1950s as part of the government's forest expansion policy, are deteriorating.

    The government planted massive numbers of needle-leave trees such as cedars and cypresses to be used as construction materials. However, the demand for domestically produced timber has declined largely because of the liberalization of timber imports. As a result, there are many manmade forests that have not been sufficiently maintained even though they are ready for logging. Under such circumstances, these forests cannot sufficiently function as public utilities.

    To deal with the situation, the government is seeking the enactment of a bill on the management of forests during the ongoing Diet session.

    The bill clearly states that forest owners have duties to grow their forests, log trees and plant trees again. The right to manage forests that their owners are not managing in an appropriate manner could be transferred to the municipalities where they are situated after going through certain procedures.

    According to the Forestry Agency, there are over an estimated 4 million hectares of privately-owned manmade forests for which the rights to manage need to be established.

    Under the proposed bill, the municipal governments concerned would commission forestry business operators that are enthusiastic and have the ability to manage these forests that can be used in the timber industry. Other forests that are unsuitable for the industry would be placed under the control of the municipal governments concerned and be transformed into a natural state in the future.

    Revenue from the forestry environmental tax, which will be introduced in fiscal 2024, would be used to cover the costs of forests managed by municipal governments.

    Considering forests' public utility functions, the policy of placing privately owned forests that are not suitable for providing timber under the control of municipal governments is understandable. However, there are numerous challenges to be addressed.

    There are quite a few local bodies enthusiastic about dealing with forestry issues. According to a survey conducted by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, municipal governments with only one employee or none specializing in forestry account for two-thirds of all such local bodies across the country. Municipal governments would commission forestry cooperatives or other specialized organizations to manage forests. However the number of those engaged in such work is less than 50,000 across the country, and is still decreasing.

    The forestry environmental tax will be collected by adding 1,000 yen to the residential tax per person. The total revenue from this tax will be about 62 billion yen annually. National debate needs to be held on its use other than for forestry management. Since many prefectural governments levy their own taxes for forestry management, the division of roles between these local and national taxes should be clarified.

    Just as a river that starts from a forest flows into the sea, it is necessary for local bodies along rivers to join hands in effectively using revenue from the new tax and work on the restoration of forests.

    Through such interactions, local bodies will deepen their understanding of the importance of forests and could make up for a shortage of personnel at local bodies in mountainous areas.

    Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, an oyster farmer in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture, and others are continuing to plant trees, including Japanese beeches, in the upper reaches of a river that flows into Kesennuma Bay. It is believed that nutrients in forest soil that contain iron are brought by rivers into the sea, naturally cultivating fishing grounds.

    This year marks the 30th anniversary of the project. The aquaculture industry in Kesennuma was hit hard by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. However, the industry has been revived thanks largely to forests, say project organizers.

    Forests in Japan that have various public utility functions are common assets for the public. To conserve such abundant forest resources, it is essential to conserve and utilize forests without placing too much emphasis on lumbering.

    Greenery Day on May 4, a national holiday, is a good opportunity to reconfirm the need to implement a long-term forestry policy that looks ahead to the next 50 years or even 100 years.

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