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Copyright © 2009 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.
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The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Lee, P. G. 2009. Caution against using intact forest-landscapes data at regional scales. Ecology and Society 14(1): r1. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/resp1/

Response to Potapov et al. 2008. “Mapping the World’s Intact Forest Landscapes by Remote Sensing.

Caution Against Using Intact Forest-Landscapes Data at Regional Scales

Peter G. Lee 1

1Global Forest Watch Canada

Key words: forest degradation; global forest assessment; intactness; landsat, remote sensing; wilderness

Potapov et al. (2008) provide a useful data set that applies to understanding intactness at a global scale, and roughly, how intactness differs from one continent or country to another. However, we caution against using these data for applied conservation analyses at scales finer than the earth as a whole, particularly in geographies with socioecological realities that differ markedly from those in Russia (the home region of Potapov and most of his co-authors). This caution stems from what may be an irresolvable scale-related issue in using global data for country-specific analyses. A suite of assumptions that are judicious for one geography can introduce large errors in other parts of the world with different socioecological forces determining where intact landscapes remain.

For example, Potapov et al. (2008) apply a decision rule regarding areas burned by stand-replacing fires during the previous 30–70 years that classes these burns as “not intact” if the fires occurred near the vicinity of human settlements and infrastructure, regardless of the ignition source. The authors likely applied this rule because of the extensive use in Russia of intentionally set fires for mining, prospecting, and oil and gas exploration. The application of this rule is problematic in the Canadian context, where 85% of the total area burned in recent decades resulted from lightning ignition (Stocks et al. 2002).

Although much of this area burned occurred in the remote northern areas of Canada, a nontrivial component also occured near human settlements and infrastructure. In part because of this rule, Potapov et al. classified as “not intact” over 400 000 km2 (an area roughly the size of 40% of the province of Ontario) that Global Forest Watch Canada’s country-specific mapping of intact landscapes classed as “intact.” The Canadian mapping was based on the notion that fire is an integral agent of change in Canada’s boreal and other forest landscapes.

Global Forest Watch Canada has many years of experience characterizing where intact forests in Canada remain, using satellite image-based methods similar to those used by Potapov et al. (2008), but with ground-truthed decision rules congruent with Canada’s socioecological reality. We invite interested readers and conservation practitioners to freely download these data and their supporting documentation from http://www.globalforestwatch.ca/. Until the conservation community can agree on a set of criteria that can adequately map intactness in a way that captures regional variation in the forces that drive transformative human activities, mapping this attribute so that it applies at both global and regional scales will unfortunately remain problematic.


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Potapov, P., A. Yaroshenko, S. Turubanova, M. Dubinin, L. Laestadius, C. Thies, D. Aksenov, A. Egorov, Y. Yesipova, I. Glushkov, M. Karpachevskiy, A. Kostikova, A. Manisha, E. Tsybikova, and I. Zhuravleva. 2008. Mapping the world’s intact forest landscapes by remote sensing. Ecology and Society 13(2): 51. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol13/iss2/art51/

Stocks, B. J., J. A. Mason, J. B. Todd, E. M. Bosch, B. M. Wotton, B. D. Amiro, M. D. Flannigan, K. G. Hirsch, K. A. Logan, D. L. Martell, and W. R. Skinner. 2002. Large forest fires in Canada, 1959–1997. Journal of Geophysical Research 108: 8149.

Address of Correspondent:
Peter G. Lee
Global Forest Watch Canada
10337 146 Street
Edmonton, Alberta
Canada T5N 3A3

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