Into the woods
April 5 marks the 70th anniversary of our national Arbor Day. Over the last seven decades, Korea’s afforestation projects have had unprecedented success, turning countless bare mountains from the 1950-1953 Korean War into thick woods. An exemplary project on a huge plot of desert-like land around Yeongil Bay in Pohang on the east coast still attracts government officials from abroad to see how Korea did it.
However, we should change the paradigm of our forest policy. Experts say the time has come for the government to focus on raising the economic efficacy of our forests rather than simply planting trees indiscriminately. The Korea Forestry Promotion Institution has found that 62 percent of forests in Gangwon Province were overpopulated with trees as a result of sticking to forest preservation without thinning overly dense areas. Without thinning and logging on a regular basis, a forest’s efficacy plunges.
Another problem is the rapid ageing of our forests. According to the Korea Forest Service, the amount of forests with trees younger than 30 years decreased by 65 percent from 1995 to 2010, while forests with trees older than 30 years increased fivefold over the same period. Old wood lacks the ability to absorb carbon dioxide and store water resources. The authorities must cut down old trees for commercial purposes and plant new ones in their place after taking environment and economic feasibility into account.
At the same time, forest authorities must exert effort to prevent wild fires. Over the last five years, more than 300 forest fires occurred annually, particularly in April, the driest month of the year. A wild fire in Yangyang, Gangwon, took place in April ten years ago, turning venerable forest into ash.
The authorities also need to find effective ways to control pine wilt, a disease that kills pine trees, the most common on our mountains. Last year alone, 1.6 million pine trees withered to death due to the disease. Some local governments even removed pine trees from their planting list, but such a passive approach cannot protect our forests. The government, legislature and local administration must join hands to devise solutions.
Korea achieved industrialization at the fastest speed in the world and succeeded in afforestation at the same time. Our experience can serve as a model for successful planting of trees in Mongolia, North Korea and other parts of Asia. Despite frozen ties, we must help the North recover its forests. That will help the habitat of the Korean Peninsula.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 4, Page 26