A call for clear objectives and measurable targets – The Applied Ecologist


Lenka Kuglerová, John S. Richardson, Timo Muotka, Darshanaa Chellaiah and Jussi Jyväsjärvi talk to us about their latest perspective article which suggests that locally developed and adjusted targets for riparian buffers must move away from vague objectives. A switch towards quantifiable goals that specify what is supposed to be achieved and protected will help to implement, monitor and evaluate targets.

Small streams in a forestry context

When picturing forest streams, people often think of pristine waters trickling and meandering through lush and diverse vegetation, and a variety of habitats rich in biodiversity. Streams and rivers are vital sources of life and water. However, the reality in regions with large and active forestry sectors, such as British Columbia (Canada), Finland and Sweden, is in stark contrast as forest catchments are heavily impacted by forest management.

Small stream in British Columbia that does not require treed buffer because it is non-fish bearing. As such, the conditions in the photograph are not against the rules, yet absence of a treed buffer provides very little ecological functions © J.S. Richardson

Small streams, intricately connected to their riparian areas, are the most affected by forestry. Forestry activities nearby can significantly impact aquatic ecosystems by influencing micro-climatic conditions, most commonly increasing temperature, sediment transport and solute concentrations, which consequently reduces biodiversity.

To mitigate these effects, riparian buffers are commonly employed as protective zones of retained forest along streams with the intent to reduce the impact of forestry operations by:

  • regulating energy exchanges
  • preventing sediment transport
  • maintaining water quality
  • supporting diverse aquatic and riparian ecosystems.
An example of a wide and functional riparian buffer along a stream in Finland © J. Jyväsjärvi

Despite their widespread application, our research highlights a critical gap in national policies and guidelines for water management in British Columbia, Finland and Sweden: the lack of clear objectives and measurable targets for riparian buffers, resulting in insufficient protection for streams.

Limitations with current objectives

The countries we work with have a positive global image in sustainable forestry practices, with guidelines and policies prioritising environmental conservation while balancing economic interests. When we reviewed existing policies aimed for the protection of streams from forestry operations, such as logging and soil preparation, we identified significant gaps in the specificity of the goals.

Most policies rely on vague goals such as ‘to protect’ or ‘minimize impact’ but it is not clear how these goals are implemented, regulated and monitored. One cannot measure effectiveness of different protective actions without clear and measurable targets. A good example comes from the Swedish riparian buffer recommendations that state that a well-executed riparian buffer ‘should provide deadwood’ to streams and their riparian areas. Deadwood in streams provides vital habitat complexity, diversifies flow of water and particulate matter, and contributes to increased biodiversity.

© Kuglerová et al, 2023

While the intention with the formulation in the Swedish regulations is clearly centered on important ecological functions, without specifics guidance on the adequate amount of deadwood, practitioners are left to make an uninformed judgment. In many cases, this will lead to outcomes that are not ecologically satisfactory as confirmed by our earlier research that showed that buffers are poorly executed in all three study regions (see Kuglerová et al. 2020).

Ways forward

A shift toward ecosystem-related goals

To address these challenges, we propose a fundamental shift towards establishing specific, ecosystem-related goals to ensure effective riparian management. We advocate for ongoing collaborative dialogs involving researchers, practitioners, regulators and land owners in order to develop specific, measurable and adaptable targets for riparian buffers.

Objectives for stream and riparian protection © Kuglerová et al, 2023

Emphasizing the need for adaptive, site-specific management, these targets should include measurable goals that can be monitored both before and after forestry operations to identify that outcomes of our protective actions are met. Examples of such targets could include:

  • specific requirements for microclimate (temperature and humidity)
  • large wood volumes
  • riparian forest composition
  • level of shading.

All these parameters can be directly manipulated during operations, which also facilitate practical implementation.

Monitoring outcomes

We also stress that we need better monitoring of the efficacy of the buffer management. The traditional practice of leaving a buffer without specifications of other outcomes is inadequate as the presence of buffers does not measure outcome, it only measures output. Our suggested strategies for buffer management must be accompanied with consequent monitoring, enabling strategies to be adapted based on their effectiveness or updated and aligned with scientific and practical advances.

Read the full article “Protecting our streams by defining measurable targets for riparian management in a forestry context” in Journal of Applied Ecology

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