One of Bhutan's significant natural resources in the late twentieth century was its rich forests and natural vegetation. Bhutan's location in the eastern Himalayas, with its subtropical plains and alpine terrain, gives it more rainfall than its neighbors to the west, a factor greatly facilitating forest growth. The forests contain numerous deciduous and evergreen species, ranging from tropical hardwoods to predominantly oak and pine forests.
The small population and the general absence of overdevelopment in Bhutan contributed to forest preservation. Because of the terrain, the more accessible forests had been overcut whereas remote forests remained largely in their natural state. A progressive government-sponsored forestry conservation policy strove to balance revenue needs with ecological considerations, water management, and soil preservation. Success in managing its forest resources had long been critical to the local environment and economy and also affected downstream floodplains in India and Bangladesh.
The Department of Forestry was established in 1952 to oversee conservation and exploitation of the country's significant forestry resources. After an initial decade of development, forestryresource exploitation increased with the start of the First Development Plan in 1961. Uncontrolled felling of trees in the 1970s by private companies in logging areas and by rural populations along roads and in main valleys stripped hillsides and caused serious erosion. Tsheri cultivation, forest fires, and overgrazing also contributed to the degradation of the forestry resource.
In 1971 the Forestry School was established at Kalikhola in southern Bhutan. It was moved to Taba in the northern Thimphu Valley in 1977. The school provided basic instruction in forestry and forest management and trained foresters and Forest Guards.
In 1981 some 3.3 million hectares, or between 70 and 74 percent of the land, were forested, but in 1991 foreign estimates indicated a shrinking forest of only 60 to 64 percent of the land. Even more conservative estimates indicated that closer to 50 percent of Bhutan's territory still was forested in the late 1980s, and about 15 percent of GDP was produced through the nation's important forest industry.
According to UN statistics, in the decade between 1978 and 1987 Bhutan harvested an average of nearly 3.2 million cubic meters of roundwood and produced 5,000 cubic meters of sawn wood per year. Of this total, nearly 80 percent was for commercial use (paper pulp, veneers, plywood, particle board, and firewood), and the remainder was for housing construction and public works.
Before hydroelectric power and other modern energy sources were available, wood was the almost exclusive source of fuel for heating, cooking, and lighting. The provision of electricity, as well as better regulation of fuelwood collectors and more aggressive reforestation projects, was seen in the 1980s as a key factor in forest conservation. Because affordable electricity was not available throughout the country, the government established fuelwood plantations near villages to accommodate daily needs and to promote forest conservation.
Recognizing the potential value of its forestry resource, Bhutan became increasingly conscientious about forestry management in the 1970s. Starting in 1977, the World Wildlife Fund began supporting Bhutan's forest management through organizing forest ranger training programs, supplying funds for forest boundary demarcation, building guard posts, and constructing a patrol road for what was later to be designated the Royal Manas National Park. Bhutan rejected World Bank aid to build a major dam on the Manas Chhu in 1986 that would have flooded this major conservation area on the southern Bhutan-India border. By 1989 Bhutan had developed nine other forest and wildlife preserves, also mostly along the southern border with India.
In the face of increasing denuded hillsides, private logging was banned, and strict standards for public-sector logging operations were established in 1979. Farmers were warned against burning off forests to clear land for tsheri cultivation, and Forest Guards were trained in increasing numbers to help preserve the valuable resources. Surveying, demarcation, conservation, and management plans for harvesting forest products were part of the Fifth Development Plan's focus on forestry preservation. Wildlife sanctuaries also were developed. One of the immediate results of forestry sector regulation, however, was a sharp decrease in revenues since the late 1970s. In 1991 the government, with assistance from UNDP and the World Wildlife Fund, established a trust fund for environmental conservation. Initially in the amount of US$20 million, the UNDP-administered fund was aimed at producing up to US$1 million per year for training in forestry and ecology, surveying forests, reviewing and implementing management plans for protected areas, and supporting government environmental offices, public awareness programs, and integrated conservation and development programs.
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