HARBIN, April 1 (Xinhua) -- Chinese forestry authorities on Tuesday shut down commercial logging in two major forests in the northeastern-most part of the country in a bid to help restore the ecosystem.
The move ended more than half a century of timber logging in the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains.
As China's largest forest area, the two could help control climate change and conserve water and soil. They also nurture a tenth of China's arable land and are sources of major rivers including the Nenjiang River and Heilongjiang River.
In the 1950s, China started large-scale logging in virgin forests to meet the demands of economic development.
"At that time, the country needed timber for its development and we believed in the notion that the more trees you chopped down, the more contributions you made to the nation," said An Changlu, who became a forest worker in the 1970s.
In order to meet timber logging quotas, the workers fell trees in campaigns as if they were waging wars and even lit fires at night so that they could load timber into trucks in the darkness, An remembered.
Over the past more than half a century, the two forestry companies there churned out over 600 million cubic meters of timber, according to official statistics.
Due to the long period of excessive logging, the forests started to shrink in the early 1980s and many blamed the shrinkage for ensuing droughts and floods.
Veteran timber worker Wang Yude said trucks used to be filled by little more than 10 timber logs, but more recently 100 logs have been needed to fully load a truck.
"There are no longer any big trees. The winds in the Greater Hinggan Mountains are becoming stronger and the woods can no longer retain water," said Liu Zhanjun, a worker with Qianshao Forestry Station.
"In the past, it rained for days before water levels in rivers could rise. Now the river water levels can rise substantially following just one rainstorm," said Liu.
Data has pointed to the two forests retreating more than 100 km northward, wetlands shrinking by half, soil eroding and more frequent occurrences of floods, droughts and forest fires.
The crisis prompted the Chinese government to take action. It drew lessons from the severe flooding in 1998 and started to invest some 100 billion yuan in protecting existing forests and returning cultivated land to forest or pasture, before eventually deciding to ban logging.
An earlier forestry development plan for the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains warned that if excessive logging were not stopped, the two forests could cease to exist except in name.
Wang Aiwen, the Communist Party chief of Yichun, home to the Lesser Hinggan Mountains, said lessons from the nature resulted into the roll-out of actions to reverse the trend rather than face bigger risks.
Many forestry workers acknowledge the need for logging to stop.
"If the logging is not stopped now, what will be left for the future generations?" said one local timber worker. "The air is so polluted in many other regions nationwide. Better protection of the forests could bring more clean air," said another.
However, nature's gain could be the loss of the local people. After the complete ban on commercial logging, tens of thousands of local forestry workers will now have to switch to new positions as forestry rangers or could be laid off.
The sudden loss of huge revenues from timber sales also made them worried about their livelihood and many were left baffled over what they could do if they stopped chopping down trees.
Xiao Dejun, head of Dawusu forestry station in the Greater Hinggan Mountains, said a third of their forestry workers are on low incomes, rely on subsistence allowances and cannot even afford coal for home heating.
"They burn wood for heating and what can they do in the future after the complete logging ban?" Xiao asked.
That is why the central government has earmarked 2.35 billion yuan (378.6 million U.S. dollars) each year up to 2020 to aid the life of local workers.
The localities are also considering developing other forestry industries or tourism to absorb laid-off workers and earn revenue.
A blueprint for the ecological protection of the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains unveiled in 2010 set a target of growing the forests by 1.7 million hectares to hike forest coverage rates by 4 percent in the next decade.
And the State Forestry Administration said the experimental program in the the Greater and Lesser Hinggan Mountains could expand to other major forests in the future.