Natural Forest Management
SFM for soil and water conservation
Clean stream running through a forest. ©FAO/Julia KellyThe protective role of forests includes soil and water conservation, which is particularly critical in mountain and coastal forests (including mangroves).
An estimated 399 million ha of forest is designated primarily for the protection of soil and water, an increase of 119 million ha since 1990. The rate of increase in the area of forest allocated for this purpose has grown over the entire period but especially in the last ten years (FRA, 2020).
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Forests help regulate the water cycle, sustain water supply and maintain water quality. Forested watersheds supply approximately 75 percent of accessible freshwater and provide water to 90 percent of the world’s 100 largest cities. Resilient forest landscapes are an integral part of the water supply solution.
All forests and woodlands, including production forests, play protective roles, to varying degrees, and these roles can often be increased by changes to the management regime. It is not only a matter of maintaining forest cover but also ensuring that the forest is of sufficient quality (for example, it has sufficient biomass, biodiversity and health) that it can fulfil soil and water conservation functions.
This might mean that forest owners must forego a certain amount of income or incur higher forest management costs (for example, by avoiding harvesting on critical sites for soil conservation or by introducing less-damaging but more expensive harvesting practices). Nevertheless, the value of forest environmental services to human welfare, health and economies is increasingly being recognized and taken into account in the sustainable management of forests, the restoration of degraded forests and the rehabilitation of areas that have lost forest cover. In some cases, payment schemes exist or could be implemented to help compensate forest owners and managers for providing such services.