On its surface, the plan seems like an environmentalist’s dream come true: Take wreckage from the March 11, 2011, Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in the Tohoku region of Honshu and pile it along the washed-out coastline; cover the crumbled concrete and broken wood with soil; then top it all with trees.

Communities in Tohoku have been creating “disaster-prevention” forests similar to these (minus the raised banks) since at least the 17th century, but few withstood 2011’s huge tsunami. By restoring them, coastal settlements get natural protection from wind and sand — while waste becomes the literal foundation of a safe and “green” recovery.”

That’s the basic outline of Midori no Kizuna (Green Connections), a Forestry Agency project getting under way on Pacific beaches from Aomori Prefecture in the north to Chiba Prefecture bordering Tokyo.

Meanwhile, a similar private-sector plan to plant a “great forest wall” in the region is also rolling into action. Both have all-star support: former Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda plugged Green Connections on national television in April 2012; while the Great Forest Wall Project is being led by Morihiro Hosokawa, another former prime minister, and world-renowned ecologist Akira Miyawaki. The latter has worked in countries including Malaysia and Brazil planting a diverse mix of local tree species to quickly recreate and restore indigenous forests. The initiative has already raked in ¥270 million of donations.

So why is Yoshihiko Hirabuki, a plant ecologist in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture — Tohoku’s biggest city — spending his summer scuttling between the local Forestry Agency office and construction sites along the city’s shoreline, trying to slow the restoration of coastal forests?

As he tells it, it’s because the undertaking is an environmental wolf in sheep’s clothing.

“There’s something wrong with a forest-creation project that destroys the living things — flowers, insects, birds and grasses — that managed to survive the massive tsunami,” he says. “In this era of respect for the importance of ecosystem services and biodiversity, I can’t help thinking Japan is making an irreversible mistake.”

He’s not alone in that opinion. The Nature Conservation Society of Japan (NACS-J) — one of the country’s most respected environmental organizations — and the academic Society of Vegetation Science have both submitted petitions to the government expressing concern that tree-planting projects could damage the unique coastal ecosystems that are already recovering.

The central problem is this: Native plant communities could end up buried under a strip of rubble covered with dirt trucked in from nearby mountains and planted with “man-made” forests — unless environmental-impact assessments are conducted, conservation zones are set aside, and great care is taken during construction.

Those are some of the protective measures Hirabuki and a group of about 30 other conservationists have been pushing for the Forestry Agency to take in Sendai.

Earlier this year, the agency’s Sendai branch office agreed to set up a committee to consider the project’s environmental impacts and come up with a strategy for preserving biodiversity. But Hirabuki says it amounts to too little, too late.

Yoichi Umeki, the Forestry Agency official in charge of coastal forest restoration in the Sendai area, has declined to provide any details about the committee or about conservation measures the agency may be considering or has taken so far. Meetings of the committee and all its activities are also closed to the public.

How can that be? “There are certain important species in the area. It’s possible that if we made the information public they would be threatened,” Umeki says.

However, an even bigger risk may come from the construction of earth banks, coastal roads and wider-than-ever sea walls.

“You have this very long, very thin strip of important natural environment. If it were wider we might be able to save half of it, but because it’s so narrow it’s difficult to protect,” says NACS-J director Ryuichi Yokoyama. “By turning everything into forest, you risk lowering the mosaic of biodiversity created by different plants growing in subtly different types of soil.”

Makoto Nikkawa, secretary general of the Great Forest Wall Project, insists that his organization’s work, at least, will not reduce biodiversity.

“We’re planning to create patches of forest, not a solid strip, which would not be possible anyway because you have ports and river mouths. We are carrying out surveys and will leave ecologically valuable places as-is. Where local opinion is divided, we won’t go forward,” he says.

Over the next 15 years, the donation-funded foundation aims to plant 90 million seedlings on earth-and-rubble banks running from Iwate Prefecture to Fukushima Prefecture. The seedlings will be a mix of 20 or more broadleaf evergreen species native to the region, which the project’s vice-president, the ecologist Miyawaki, says are much more tsunami-resistant than introduced species such as pines. These trees will block wind and ideally act as a huge filter in the event of a tsunami, preventing people, cars and other debris being swept out to sea.

The width of the “forest wall” will vary according to location. Where beaches are narrow and isolated in Iwate Prefecture and northern Miyagi Prefecture, protective forests could be just 30 meters wide. Further south, where the Sendai Plain meets Sendai Bay to form one of the region’s longest strips of flat coast, they may reach 300 meters inland.

But the 40-km beach stretching from Sendai down to the southern border of Miyagi Prefecture is home to many important native species, including Japanese marsh warblers, bees, bush peas, rugosa roses, Japanese field mint and tiger beetles found only on strands. The beach has been designated by Miyagi Prefecture as a Natural Environment Conservation Zone and by the Environment Ministry as the site of one of Japan’s 500 Important Wetlands as well as several designated Special Plant Communities.

Hirabuki, who is a professor at Tohoku Gakuin University in Sendai, has tracked plant communities in the area since the 2011 disaster. He found that native species bounced back surprisingly well from the widespread damage they suffered during the tsunami. Scientists studying marine life, coastal insects and birds report the same.

Forestry Agency official Umeki says his office is aware of those studies, but insists that conserving plants and animals can’t take precedence over restoring people’s livelihoods.

“The coastal forests were created by the local people. We are required by law to manage them, and we have a responsibility to restore them to their pre-tsunami state. Only if that happens will people be able to get their lives back,” he says.

The forests were planted during the Edo Period (1603-1867) to block salt, wind and sand as farming and fishing settlements crept ever closer to the ocean. The trees may also have absorbed some of the force of past tsunamis. In Sendai, the tree of choice was the black pine, which is probably not native to the area but can survive poor, sandy soil and salt spray. The tsunami wiped out 300 hectares of these forests in Sendai and about 140 km of them from Aomori to Chiba prefectures. As the massive trees were washed inland they added to the destruction.

Now that they are gone, Sendai farmer Yoshimitsu Itabashi says cold winds sweep across his fields located about 500 meters inland. Post-disaster rezoning means he can no longer live by the sea, but he can farm there.

Now that public-works projects have restored agricultural infrastructure, Itabashi plans to stay for the long term. He says he wants the government to restore the coastal forests.

But the Forestry Agency is doing more than simply restoring what existed before. Groundwater levels were high to start with, and are even higher now due to land subsidence in the earthquake. As a result, roots spread out just below the soil surface and trees topple easily in a tsunami.

To solve the problem, the Forestry Agency decided to build banks about 3 meters high to promote deep root growth. If all goes according to plan, these earthworks of an unprecedented height by traditional standards will be completed by 2016 and the planting by 2021. Hirabuki estimates that about a third of the earth banks planned for Sendai have been built so far.

The Great Forest Wall Project is proceeding more slowly: Volunteers have planted just under 1 km of mixed broadleaf forest so far in Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Last year, volunteers also collected 110,000 acorns in the Tohoku region, which are being raised in pots for planting next year.

For now, Hirabuki is focused on convincing the Forestry Agency to create an untouched nature park in the last patch of Sendai’s coastline where plans for forest restoration are still up in the air.

Those plans will likely be decided in September. Until then, Hirabuki will continue to reluctantly trade his old life as a scientist for his new one as an embattled activist.

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