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Tree-planting campaigns fall short of successful reforestation

Global tree-planting campaigns are popular for their perceived benefits against climate change and for wildlife habitats.

However, successful reforestation requires more than just planting trees; it demands ecological understanding, long-term planning, and follow-up. 

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz are educating organizations and the public about best practices for effective reforestation.

Focus of the study

“As global tree-growing efforts have escalated in the past decade, copious failures and unintended consequences have prompted many reforestation best practices guidelines. The extent to which organizations have integrated these ecological and socioeconomic recommendations, however, remains uncertain,” wrote the study authors. 

“We reviewed websites of 99 intermediary organizations that promote and fund tree-growing projects to determine how well they report following best practices.”

Need for improvement and accountability 

Study co-author Karen Holl is a restoration ecologist and professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. 

“One of the common problems is that organizations will just say, ‘We’re going to put this many trees in the ground,’ but the important question is, ‘What comes afterward?’ There are many documented failures from tree-planting campaigns, so we would hope to see organizations improving their practices and taking on more accountability, including through publicly reporting data,” said Professor Holl.

Comprehensive review

UCSC postdoctoral researcher Spencer Schubert led a study analyzing web content from nearly 100 tree-planting organizations worldwide. The team rated each organization based on their public information’s adherence to best practices. 

“We reviewed websites as well as annual reports and other linked documents to really get a broad view of the information that organizations reveal to the public,” Schubert explained.

Best practices guidelines 

The study utilized 10 guidelines from Holl’s prior work, focusing on community engagement, addressing deforestation causes, avoiding harms, and long-term project management. 

The findings showed improvements in recognizing community involvement, with 91% of organizations acknowledging its importance. However, detailed data and clarity about long-term project management are lacking.

“Overall, there are still many gaps in the details and data that we’re seeing,” Schubert said, pointing to uncertainties in long-term benefits. The study urges organizations to move beyond generalities and specify implementation of best practices, including data collection and longer-term commitments.

Meaningful reforestation outcomes 

“Things are moving in the right direction with some of these organizations,” Holl added, while expressing her hope for continued focus on improving practices to achieve meaningful reforestation outcomes. 

This approach aims to maximize the positive impacts of tree-planting initiatives and prevent potential negative consequences.

Higher standards

“We advocate the importance of addressing common pitfalls that have led to previous reforestation failures and the need to follow best practices guidelines to achieve desired goals, particularly as many inexperienced organizations continue to join the reforestation movement,” wrote the researchers.

“Holding the various actors in reforestation movements to a higher standard will require moving beyond narrow focus on tree planting statistics toward increasing collective consciousness among practitioners and funders about practices and standards that are most likely to lead to long-term success.”

The study is published in the journal Conservation Letters.


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