Court ruling on tree felling worries officials

FOREST officials in Himachal Pradesh are apprehensive about the environmental costs of a recent court judgement allowing a private forest owner to fell trees to make way for apple orchards. The forest department, fearing a deluge of applications for orchards, has challenged the September 30 Himachal Pradesh high court decision in the Supreme Court.

Under the state forest law and the Forest Conservation Act, clear-felling -- the removal of all trees from an area -- is not allowed. But selected trees on private land can be felled once in ten years. Following the judgement, the department, in a bid to prevent clear-felling in private forests, allowed six commercially important tree species to be cut. Poplar, eucalyptus, willow, albizzia, rubinia and mulberry were exempted from the ban on clear-felling so private owners could sell timber for apple crates that are now supplied from Punjab and Haryana.

Said V P Mohan, principal chief conservator of forests, "I have to give an incentive to the people to keep their forests intact." The case has brought to light the problem of sustainably protecting the 144,089 ha of private forests that cover 3.9 per cent of the state area. Mangat Ram went to court after a dispute with the forest department over the assertion that the plot of land he had purchased was privately owned. An inspection report had cast doubt over the legitimacy of the claim and suggested the demarcation be verified.

Mangat Ram contended the demarcation had been changed because the original site was unapproachable and difficult to cultivate. When he was denied permission to clear-fell trees, Mangat Ram asked for his plot to be exchanged for a piece of government land, which was also disallowed.

The high court said the state government had "granted permission for clear-felling from time to time to enable people to raise apple orchards" and had "deviated from the ten-year felling programme." But forest officials say legal sanction for clear-felling will have grave ecological implications.