Social and Environmental Factors in Starting New Forests: Lessons from ATP’s 25 Years of Experience

Lessons from #ForestSummit19

The Sose and Allen Memorial Forest in Stepanavan was planted with a mix of tree species including ash (pictured here), oak, maple, pine and wild apple.

Armenia’s goal to double its forest cover by 2050 as part of its commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change has captured the attention of the public and of professionals in the field. It was discussed at “Forest Summit: Global Action and Armenia,” organized by Armenia Tree Project (ATP) and American University of Armenia’s Acopian Center for the Environment in October 2019.

The reforestation goal presents many challenges and opportunities for Armenia, including creation of new nurseries, expansion of habitat for plants and animals, and joining the fight against global climate change because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One concern expressed by experts at the Forest Summit is the availability of land. At least 250,000 hectares of new forest is needed to achieve Armenia’s long-term goal.

Given Armenia’s diversity of microclimates and potential limitations on available land, creative approaches to reforestation and afforestation must be implemented. ATP has 25 years of experience successfully planting in all regions of Armenia and will continue to provide leadership in Armenia’s sustainable development. Experts from Lebanon, Kenya and Israel who participated in the Summit offered interesting examples of creative solutions employed in their countries.

The terms reforestation and afforestation are sometimes used interchangeably, and it’s worth pausing for a moment to define them. Reforestation refers to planting trees on land that was previously forest, whereas afforestation refers to planting trees on patches of land which were not previously covered in forest.

Experts Warn Armenia to Avoid Monoculture Plantations

Forester Omri Bonneh shared several insights during the Summit from the experiences of KKL-Jewish National Fund. For example, from 1920 to 1970 afforestation in Israel was characterized by dense coniferous plantations. A massive dieback of the planted pine trees during the 1970’s and 1990’s caused by an invasive pest triggered a change in forestry policy. “We realized ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’ by planting monocultures of this one tree was not a sensible approach to develop a sustainable forest,” explained Dr. Bonneh. “We changed our forestry policy in 1990. The new policy had the goal to create mixed, multilayer forests that more closely resemble natural forests.”

This is instructive for Armenia, which has many Soviet-era monoculture plantations. He urged Armenia to avoid Israel’s past mistakes with monoculture plantings and find the right way to create mixed forests that are healthier than monoculture plantations. The concern about monoculture plantings was repeated throughout the Summit by international and local experts.

Dr. Bonneh also shared examples from the deserts of southern Israel where there is a low rainfall similar to Yerevan. JNF has restored landscapes in these areas that were destroyed by overgrazing and soil erosion. Planting trees in dry riverbeds and training farmers to harvest water have been successful.

Keynote speaker Dr. Anthony Davis reminded summit attendees that now is the time to define what the future forests will look like. With thoughtful planning about which trees to plant and where to plant them, Armenia’s reforestation efforts will renew, regenerate, and sustain rural economies and natural ecosystems.

Sose and Allen Forest: An Example of ATP’s Afforestation Efforts

ATP has 25 years of experience in Armenia, with more than 1,000 hectares of new forests planted at over 30 sites. One example is the Sose and Allen Memorial Forest established in 2014 in Stepanavan. “The ATP team is always scouting for locations in northern Armenia to plant new forests,” explained Forestry Manager Navasard Dadyan. “When we got to Stepanavan and applied to the municipality about land, they offered this 17 hectare location for a new forest.”

The reason ATP’s forests are planted in northern Armenia is because the Mirak Family Reforestation Nursery is located in the Lori region, and seedlings do best if planted in a similar environment to where they originated.

The Sose and Allen Forest was planted as a living memorial for the young couple, Sose Thomassian and Allen Yekikian, who died in an automobile accident in 2013. Their friends and family crowdfunded to support this project with ATP, and many of their friends were present at the first plantings in 2014.

The site is a prominent hillside in Stepanavan where there is an ancient cross-stone that is often visited by local people, so it has a high recreation value. The local community only has one public park, and this area will allow people to enjoy the shade of these new trees. The location is grassland so it has been used for livestock grazing. Luckily the area was only partially impacted by erosion which is common in hilly areas with low tree cover, so the soil is suitable for a new forest.

“The Sose and Allen Memorial Forest improves the ecology of the area overall,” noted Mr. Dadyan. “Eventually, the public will be able to collect mushrooms that grow in the forest, and spend hot summer days there in the shade. It’s also worth noting that the local community is aware of the effects of climate change, and recognized the importance of forests as a solution to the problem.”

In order to identify and establish new forest areas, ATP’s experts meet with the local community and leadership to get their agreement on the use of a site. Consensus and cooperation is essential in order to ensure the sustainability of the planting over time. In the case of Stepanavan, ATP met with the community to communicate their plans, and the feedback was positive. This is also important because many sites require protection and long-term monitoring and maintenance. In order to protect the Sose and Allen Forest from damage and livestock grazing, the area was fenced off before any plantings began. ATP’s experts examined the soil to determine which species of trees would survive and thrive in the new forest.

Mr. Dadyan recalled the first year of establishing the site: “Two bus-loads of volunteers from Lori joined the planting. Another big bus came from Yerevan, including friends and family of Sose and Allen. We also created temporary jobs by hiring 50-60 people to help plant the trees.”

From 2014 to 2019, 73,589 trees were planted at the site including the following species: oak, ash, maple, pine, and wild apple. The survival rate is 60 percent, which is higher than the international average for a forestry planting.

As Armenia plans to double its forest cover by 2050, a site selection process such as that used in the example of ATP’s Sose and Allen Forest will be applied all over the country by every organization involved in the reforestation effort. ATP’s experts will share their knowledge and recommendations based on its 25 years of experience. Careful site selection, enlisting support from the community, and providing ongoing care for the seedlings will result in healthy new forests and a more sustainable ecological future for Armenia.

Jason Sohigian

Jason Sohigian

Jason Sohigian is the former deputy director of Armenia Tree Project. He has a master’s in Sustainability and Environmental Management from Harvard. His undergraduate degree is from the Environment, Technology, and Society Program at Clark University with a concentration in Physics. From 1999 to 2004, Jason was editor of the Armenian Weekly.

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