Conserving the remaining wildest forests is a top priority for biodiversity conservation because these forests provide unique habitat for plants and animals. Using information on the location of roads, human settlements, energy infrastructure, and land-use change, an international team developed a detailed map of the human influence on the forests of Argentina.
Wild forests – forests where human influence levels are low or null – provide important habitat for plants and animal, and therefore are a top priority for conservation. Yet forests around the world are being lost and degraded at high rates, and with this the remaining wildest forests. This is the case for Argentina, in southern South America, which supports diverse forest ecosystems but also high rates of forest loss (Figure 1).
With an international team of US (Silvis Lab) and Argentinian researchers (National Scientific and Technical Research Council, and National Parks Administration), and with funding from NASA, I mapped the human footprint in Argentina’s forested areas to help conservation planning at regional and country levels.
The human footprint is a mapping approach that combines data on roads, human settlements, power lines, and other anthropogenic threats, into a single index. The assumption is that forests that are far away from these human features are likely to have low or null human influence, and thus represent potential wild forests (Figure 2). However, until now, such information was unavailable for conservation planners in Argentina, or was too coarse to be useful.
Our human footprint map shows that a substantial portion (43%) of Argentina’s forests remain wild, which suggests there are unique opportunities for conservation. However, we found that the level of human influence varied across the county, and Atlantic and Chaco forests, both in northern Argentina, have the highest levels of human influence (Figure 3).
Our study revealed that Argentina’s wildest forests are under threat. In Argentina, land use in forested areas is regulated by law, which dictates which areas can be deforested, which areas should be protected, and which can be used for activities thought to be sustainable (like silvopasture). Unfortunately, we found that most (78%) of the wild forests are in places where allowed activities can threaten the ecological integrity of these forests, diminishing their biodiversity conservation value.
Our study provides new datasets for forest conservation planning in Argentina, and highlights the urgent need to strengthen protection of the remaining wildest forests. The human footprint map developed in this study can be used for a variety of purposes related to forest conservation, such as refining the types of activities allowed in forest areas, planning for new protected areas (national parks or provincial reserves), identification of ecological corridors, and promotion of payments for private owners to maintain the intactness of wild areas, among others.
Story by Martinuzzi, Sebastian