Fighting to return forests to nature

by Winifred Bird

Just about everyone agrees that the postwar expansion of plantation forestry and the fragmentation of natural old-growth forests by roads, dams and tourist facilities play a central role in Japan’s current bear problem. The Japan Bear and Forest Association (JBFA) is one national organization directly addressing those issues.

“Animals can’t live in many of Japan’s forests,” says the group’s founder, Mariko Moriyama, a resident of Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture. JBFA’s goal is to conserve and restore diverse broadleaf forests where large animals, including bears, can thrive.

To that end, via the JBFA-affiliated nonprofit Okuyama Hozen Trust (Remote Mountain Conservation Trust), the group has bought and is preserving 1,266 hectares of natural forest at nine locations in Japan. Land trusts, a popular method for conserving natural areas in North America and many European countries, remain rare in Japan (one well-known exception is the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust, established by monthly JT nature columnist C. W. Nicol in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture).

JBFA has drawn criticism for some of its activities, such as collecting acorns after the 2004 typhoons and leaving them in piles in the forest for bears to eat. Yet the 23,500-member group has played a significant role in publicizing the plight of Japan’s black bears. Indeed, 370,000 copies of Moriyama’s short book, “Kuma to Mori to Hito” (“Bears, Forests, and People”; Dairoku, 2007), have been printed, and she is one of Japan’s most impassioned defenders of wilderness.

This July, Moriyama, 61, visited a craggy, remote forest at the headwaters of the Miyagawa River in Odai-cho, Mie Prefecture, where bears are endangered. She hopes that the 676-hectare property will soon become the trust’s tenth purchase.

“This place is a jewel,” she said at a meeting with the landowners and mayor. “Although bears are pretty much doomed in Mie, we want to preserve a little of this rich forest. It’s what supports humans too — it’s our water source. This is for the bears, but also for our survival in the 21st century.”

Okuyama Hozen Trust is currently collecting donations to purchase the Odai-cho property in Mie Prefecture. Anyone interested in learning more about the trust’s work, or in contributing to this purchase, is asked to visit jbfa@nifty.com or call (0798) 22-4190.