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‘Forest bank’ proposed to save Japan’s ailing artificial forests

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Vast tracts of artificial forests left unattended or abandoned across Japan could be redeveloped under plans to set up a “forest bank.”

The system envisaged by the Forestry Agency, cities, towns and villages would mean leasing long-neglected forests of Japanese cedar, Japanese cypress and other varieties to forest operators eager to maintain larger swathes of land.

The move is aimed at promoting both large-scale forestry and preserving the environment.

Legislation is expected to be submitted to the ordinary Diet session early next year to enable the forest bank system to be introduced in fiscal 2018, starting next April.

While obliging forest owners to plant and grow trees, the system will also urge operators to put their forests into the hands of municipalities if they cannot take care of the properties by themselves.

Cities, towns and villages will commission wood production and other companies that want to expand their business to manage and thin out leased forests. The government will provide assistance for them to develop woodland paths and introduce forestry machinery.

As private operators rarely care to manage forests with steep slopes or those far from woodland paths, municipalities will lease those areas for free to monitor them on their own.

While annual costs of around 50 billion yen ($446 million) are estimated to get the system up and running, a plan has been proposed to cover the expenses with a forest environment tax now being mulled by the government and the ruling coalition.

Similar tax mechanisms are already in place in 37 prefectures and Yokohama city, causing some politicians to hesitate about creating a “double taxation” system.

The government and ruling coalition are expected to continue to promote intraparty discussions ahead of the taxation reform planned for late this year.

Forests account for 25 million hectares, or two-thirds of Japan's total area. Forty percent of the forests, or 10 million hectares, are man-made.

Many trees in those artificial forests were planted after the end of World War II to meet growing demand for houses, and they are now ready for felling.

Many of those forests are owned by individuals or small businesses. Falling timber prices and shrinking populations have resulted in more forested areas not being managed properly.

The Forestry Agency conducted a questionnaire survey targeting cities, wards, towns and villages nationwide between April and May to ascertain whether the forests are appropriately looked after.

Eighty percent of the municipalities said their forests “are not sufficiently managed.”

When forests in mountain areas are neglected, typhoons and torrential rains bring a greater risk of landslides and other disasters.

If looked after properly, forests help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and conserve water sources.

Cutting Japanese cedar trees and planting tree species that release smaller amounts of pollen offer the best relief for countless pollen allergy sufferers across the country, experts say.

“Many forests have been taken over by younger owners in mountainous areas, hence the need for a mechanism for those who want to lease their forests,” said Hideo Sakai, professor emeritus of forest engineering at the University of Tokyo. “(The forest bank) will provide a new option for those people.”

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