Intact Forests

Our vision: End all intact forest loss by 2030. Preserving our planet’s last unbroken swaths of intact forest is one of the most powerful and cost-effective solutions we have to combat the global challenge of climate change.

Nature-based solutions can provide up to 30% percent of the action needed by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below 2°C—a critical complement to other climate solutions that focus on electricity and heat production, transportation, and industry. Intact forests also play a crucial role in protecting biodiversity, water supply, and indigenous livelihoods.

The most intact forests—those large, unbroken swaths of primary forests that are free of significant anthropogenic damage—represent less than a quarter of Earth’s remaining forest cover, and are disappearing at twice the rate of forests overall.

There are currently no global targets, strategies, or dedicated finance that provide incentives to preserve intact forests.

WCS seeks to lead the way toward ending all loss of intact forest by 2030. We aim to build consensus around the value of intact forests and scale up intact forest conservation globally—assisting national governments in securing new protection for the most intact 10 million square kilometers of intact forest that remain.

WCS and Intact Forest Cover

We are tackling this challenge from a strong foundation: WCS works in nine of the 10 countries with the greatest geographic coverage of intact forests, and we have close relationships with national governments and other partners.

626 percent

True climate impacts of intact forest loss, compared to standard estimates

2 years

The 74 billion tons of CO2 stored in these landscapes equals nearly two years of global emissions from all sectors.

WCS

IUCN Motion on Ecological Integrity

As CBD Parties negotiate a new ‘post-2020 global biodiversity framework,’ WCS is producing cutting-edge, policy-relevant science and practical recommendations around the critical need to include goals and targets focused on ecosystems and their integrity. WCS worked with our partners to initiate and co-sponsor the recently adopted IUCN motion 041, Ecological integrity in the post-2020 global biodiversity framework. Now a majority of CBD Party governments and the global scientific community have agreed to prioritize ecosystem integrity, and particularly high integrity or highly intact ecosystems, in the post-2020 goals and targets.

Forests For Life

As the planet continues to warm and wildlife species vanish at an unprecedented rate, five leading environmental organizations have formed the Forests for Life Partnership, with the goal of targeting the world’s greatest undervalued and unprotected solution to the climate and extinction crises—forests.

5 Great Forests

An alliance that includes countries, NGOs, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities has announced a commitment to protect the 5 Great Forests of Mesoamerica—the last remaining intact forests from Mexico to Colombia critical for wildlife, carbon sequestration, clean water, and food security to five million people.

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Videos

What role can nature-based solutions play in combating climate change? What is WCS’s strategy to conserve intact forests? We spoke with Caleb McClennen, WCS Vice President, Global Conservation.

Intact forests hold 11 years' worth of human-related emissions. If we protect them, says Joe Walston, Senior Vice President, Global Conservation Program, they can be part of the solution to reversing climate change.

In the Media

New Framework Identifies Climate Change “Refugia” in Boreal Forest

By Canadian Geography

For the wildlife, finding places where climate change is slowed or less severe could be critical to survival.

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Time to Pay Attention to Canada's Peatlands

By Meg Southee
A huge part of Canada's northern geography, peatlands are critical to regulating our climate — and more.

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Development in the Ring of Fire

By Justina Ray and Cheryl Chetkiewicz

Plans to build roads to the Ring of Fire in the far north of Ontario are being pursued in a way that ignores the big picture.

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Greta and the 5 Great Forests

By Jeremy Radachowsky and Chris Jordan
The five forests hold nearly 50 percent of the region’s forest carbon stocks and provide important ecosystem services to 5 million people

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The Thinning of Earth's Forest Cover

By Tom Evans
The ever-smaller number of forests that remain truly intact and free from degradation are a precious resource

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The Sink and the Safeguard

By Lauren Oakes
Benefits of protecting and restoring intact forests for people and planet.

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Securing a Bounty

By Tom Evans and Rod Taylor
The world cannot afford to sacrifice the integrity of its largest intact forest blocks.

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Carbon Bomb

In October 2019, a study in Science Advances, co-authored by WCS, said that the climate impact from the loss of intact tropical forests had been grossly underreported. In fact, the researchers said, carbon impacts are six times higher than previously thought due to the loss of these forests between 2000 and 2013. Further, they warn, the climate change mitigation benefits from them will soon dwindle if their rate of loss continues to accelerate.

Video

Co-author James Watson, of WCS and the University of Queensland, explains the paper's significance.

In the Media

In the Fight Against Climate Change, Not All Forests are Equal

By The New York Times
Programs would do well to preserve forests where deforestation and degradation haven’t begun.

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Climate impact from loss of tropical forests 600% higher than thought

By The Independent
“I had a hunch it was bad but I didn’t expect it to be this dramatic."

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Climate emissions from tropical forest damage 'underestimated by a factor of six'

By The Guardian
Scientists say policymakers must better account for climate impacts of damage to forests, and benefits of conserving them.

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Carbon emissions from tropical forest loss underestimated, scientists say

By Reuters
"Once you open up a forest, there are several forms of damage that lead to that dwindling of carbon stocks."

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Press Release

“Our results revealed that continued destruction of intact tropical forests is a ticking time bomb for carbon emissions," said co-author Sean Maxwell, of WCS and the University of Queensland. "There is an urgent need to safeguard these landscapes because they play an indispensable role in stabilizing the climate.”

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Story Map

Northern Peatlands in Canada: An Enormous Carbon Storehouse

Through maps, photos and infographics, WCS Canada demonstrates why we need to understand and protect one of the world's largest carbon sinks.

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Why Save Intact Forests?

Intact forests are irreplaceable, holding immense and unique value for both the climate and the biosphere.

They are indispensable both as natural storehouses for carbon and as a carbon sink, but global climate commitments have so far failed to recognize the important contribution of intact forests:

  • Intact forests are estimated to absorb a quarter of total global carbon pollution annually.
  • Intact forests store significantly more carbon than degraded forests: all told, the carbon stocks of intact forests hold around ten years’ worth of human-caused emissions.
  • Conversely, they emit a substantial percentage of this carbon when they are cut down or degraded.
  • Nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by unsustainable land use and the overall forest sector, which includes the damage or destruction of both intact and degraded forests.

In addition to their role in the carbon cycle, forests writ large—both intact and degraded—provide other critical benefits. They are biodiversity strongholds for two-thirds of all land-based plants and animals—and there may also be a link between biodiversity and climate, as it seems that mammal-rich forests are more effective at storing carbon. Forests also provide vital water supplies and erosion control. And they support the livelihoods of 1.6 billion people, including Indigenous Peoples.

We Are Losing These Forests

Intact forests are in rapid decline: from 2000 to 2016, we lost about 9% of the planet’s intact forests, or 0.6% per year. Industrial logging, agricultural expansion, and infrastructure development are all driving the destruction of intact forests at twice the rate of deforestation overall. If the destruction continues at this pace, half of what currently remains will be gone by 2100. Other climate threats lie in the intact boreal forests in Canada and Russia, where over half the planet’s forest permafrost lies. Disturbance from fires, clear-cutting, and oil and gas exploration expose permafrost to warmer air, and it thaws, releasing methane that accelerates climate change in a dangerous feedback loop.

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Our Strategy

Reversing the current trajectory of decline and unlocking the carbon value of intact forests on a global scale is a critical piece of the climate change puzzle.

To end all loss of intact forest by 2030, WCS, along with our strong network of partners, will:

  • Strengthen the scientific case for the critical role of intact forests in helping the international community meet its global climate, conservation, and sustainable development targets.
  • Build, promote, and win consensus for global policy commitments for valuing and conserving intact forests, using the scientific case as an entry point. These commitments will drive and shape both new government actions to protect intact forests and new flows of global climate funding for intact forest preservation.
  • Scale up direct action for intact forest conservation at the national level. WCS will develop and manage model intact forest conservation programs using best practices we have proven out over decades around the world—and we will multiply our impact by assisting national governments in securing new protections for the world’s remaining 10 million square kilometers of intact forest.

Five Great Intact Forests Worldwide

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On Our Strategies

Strengthen the scientific case for intact forests

Current forest metrics do a poor job of quantifying the greenhouse gas emissions associated with loss of intactness. As a result, policy targets and funding commitments do not prioritize the conservation of intact forests and focus solely on deforestation. As part of our larger effort to strengthen the scientific consensus and policy commitment around intact forest protection, WCS is developing the first-ever metric of forest intactness designed to incorporate the multiple values of carbon, forest integrity, biodiversity, ecological processes, and risk scenarios into a single composite index.

This index of intactness will strengthen the case that intact forests are important for carbon storage and sequestration; will be an essential tool in cases ranging from land use planning to intergovernmental investments; and will fill a key gap in our ability to link interventions to measurable gains or losses in the varied values of forests.

Build, promote, and win consensus for global commitments for intact forests

We are targeting both climate and biodiversity global policy regimes with the goal of embedding commitments to intact forests in each, for example:

  • For the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement, we will advocate for specific policy options on how developed and REDD+ countries can best incentivize the mitigation and financing of intact forests.
  • For the Convention on Biological Diversity 2030 post-Aichi targets, we will advocate for a global target for the long-term retention of biodiversity and functional, natural ecosystems that addresses ecological intactness.

Scale up direct action to preserve intact forests

As we forge ahead on the global science and policy fronts, WCS will simultaneously pilot interventions on the ground to catalyze the conservation of intact forests from the bottom up.

Direct action for intact forest conservation requires investment in three core site-based strategies:

  • Protected Areas: securing formal designation, management, and connectivity of protected areas across large forested landscapes.
  • Indigenous Lands: securing land and tenure rights and building capacity for effective Indigenous-led management.
  • Engaging Industry: working with extractive sectors and governments to reduce unsustainable land conversion, logging, infrastructure development, and other drivers of intact forest loss.

To implement these strategies, we will use five key pathways:

  • Community Engagement: Building stakeholder support for expanded intact forest conservation is the foundation for long-term sustainability—through communications, outreach, and the design of participatory management and governance processes.
  • Capacity Building: Support continued growth of the capacity of countries to enforce existing forest protection laws, protected areas, and other conservation measures.
  • Policy: Establish protective regulatory frameworks that halt key drivers of change in intact forest landscapes.
  • Finance: Establish both public and private sustainable finance mechanisms to ensure the long-term security of intact forest landscapes. As global funds are increasingly unlocked, help position countries to take advantage of current and future sustainable finance mechanisms.
  • Monitoring: Provide ongoing scientific monitoring of intact forest landscapes to inform adaptive and improved management.

Why WCS?

WCS’s mission is to conserve more than half of all animal and plant species and the world’s largest wild places. Our strategy is to focus on the planet’s most important, ecologically intact places with the greatest biodiversity and resilience to climate change. We do not parachute in and out of key conservation sites; we stay as long as it takes to get the job done and build capacity to have a lasting impact.

With a global staff of over 3,700, WCS has more boots on the ground than any other conservation organization—and runs programs spanning more than three million biologically critical square miles in nearly 60 countries. WCS is a trusted advisor to key decision makers—at all levels of government and in major global forums—because of the integrity of our staff, the authority of our scientific research and field work, and our large and influential network of local, indigenous, and NGO partners.

As the world’s premier wildlife conservation organization, WCS has a long track record of achieving innovative, impactful results at scale. We build on a unique foundation: our reach is global; we discover through best-in-class science; we protect through work on the ground with local and Indigenous People; we inspire through our world-class zoos, aquarium, and education programs; and we leverage our resources through partnerships and powerful policy influence.

Lessons Learned from a Century of Successful Land Conservation

WCS has led the way in protecting the planet’s most critical natural strongholds for over a century, helping to create more than 300 national parks, reserves, and other forms of protected areas on land and at sea. We assist countries, communities, and Indigenous groups in establishing, expanding, and managing protected areas in a variety of ways, depending on specific capacity needs and socio-economic conditions. In the over 600 protected and conserved areas where WCS currently works, our approach ranges from supporting management through technical assistance to direct ownership and management of land.

The following examples illustrate two WCS approaches to intact forest conservation:

  • WCS is leading the charge to protect forest resources across five landscapes in the Western Amazon and Andes. WCS support to Bolivian national parks and to the Tacana Indigenous People resulted in a 94 percent reduction in deforestation between 2005 and 2014. In Bolivia’s Greater Madidi Landscape, WCS’s scientific guidance, training, and technical assistance helped secure legal tenure over this extensive indigenous land, shaping the management of 1,503 square miles of wild lands. Within this indigenous land, we have supported more than 20 enterprises in managing and marketing natural forest resources.
  • In Congo-Brazzaville, WCS has full management responsibility for the protection of 1,600 square miles of lowland rainforest in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, part of a public-private partnership with the national government. This framework has enabled WCS to professionalize park operations, directly manage ranger teams, and implement the conservation strategy—reducing pressures on the forests as well as maintaining healthy populations of elephants, gorillas, and other wildlife that rely on them.

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