A project undertaken at the Australian Tropical Forest Institute, James Cook University, and supervised by Steve Turton and Elizabeth Pryde
The main objective of this project was to establish the sustainable potential of a 40 year-old native timber plantation operation at Open Bay, East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea. There were two reasons for doing this. Firstly, the operation area and surrounding lowland wilderness are under threat from provincial plans to convert them to contiguous exotic Oil Palm plantations – an outcome strongly opposed by local landowners and the timber company. Proving conservation value of the native timber plantation and increasing its fiscal value via FSC certification may assist in staving off this threat. The second reason is that theoretically, planting of a native timber species should confer a level of pre-conversion habitat conservation, given that the species has co-evolved with a number of the local fauna and flora. This potential remains largely unmeasured because, prior to this project, there have been no attempts to study the impacts of native timber plantations in Papua New Guinea.
To determine conservation potential of the Open Bay operation, the first step was to provide baseline data on the effects of establishment of the Eucalyptus deglupta plantations on vegetation composition and structure at both the local and landscape scale. The extent of these changes and the ongoing harvesting regime were expected to negatively impact the local fauna. Whether or not this impact was sustainable was tested by comparing the community structure and relative abundance of 44 species of forest-dependent birds at a variety of habitat types present in the operation’s landscape. While this only involves an investigation into one taxon it is deemed appropriate given the logistical limitations, the scale of the project and the fact that the avifauna are the most well-studied, conspicuous and diverse vertebrates on New Britain island. The support provided to bird species by various structural and compositional aspects of the existing habitats is under examination, as are the effects of the spatial arrangement of different age-classes of plantation blocks and remnant forest. It is hoped that the results will allow us to draft management guidelines for a sustainable plantation operation. These guidelines will then be communicated to local landowner communities and the logging company in residence at Open Bay. We hope to facilitate a discourse with these parties to determine the type of management style which can incorporate both the science and the values of the stakeholders. Only with such agreement will the operation have a chance of being truly sustainable in the long term.