Evaluating the Environmental Quality of Forest Remnants Using Landscape Metrics

Evaluating the Environmental Quality of Forest Remnants Using Landscape Metrics

1. Introduction

Remnant forests, i.e., intact forest patches that have persisted through the landscape change process, play a key role in sustainable development, being strategic natural hotspots in anthropic landscapes [1]. In particular, remnant forests are hotspots for maintaining both the ecological functionality and biological conservation of human-dominated landscapes [2]. Such areas preserve several of the ecosystem services delivered by autochthonous landscapes, which disappeared after deforestation and conversion to other land cover types (such as cropland) [1]. Remnant forests provide various ecosystem-regulating services, e.g., water quality [3] and air quality regulation [4], soil retention [5], global and local climate regulation [6,7], provisioning, e.g., timber [8], food production [9] and cultural services [10]. When located in urban areas, forests support or enable multiple co-benefits for city residents and visitors through the ecosystem services they provide, as well as by supporting biodiversity.
These services include reducing potentially harmful exposure (by easing air and noise pollution, reducing urban heat islands, and mitigating the likelihood of floods) and expanding cultural services (spaces for relaxation and opportunities for social interaction and physical activity) [11,12], which in turn enhance wellbeing and health [13]. The above-mentioned benefits contribute to several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (e.g., SDGs 3, 11, and 13) by supporting human wellbeing in terms of risk prevention and mitigation, the green economy, and intangible values.
However, deforestation associated with expanding urbanization, the conversion of forested areas to other land cover types (such as cropland), and the increasing fragmentation of the remaining forest relicts are leading to extraordinary losses in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem services [14,15].
According to Peters et al. [16], approximately one-third of the remaining tropical forests is in poor structural condition or faces human pressure as a result of timber exploitation, the expansion of the farming sector, and climate change. As an example, in the state of São Paulo/Brazil, the Atlantic rainforest decreased between 1854 and 2000 from 80% to 3% [17]. In the municipality of Campinas, in São Paulo State, degradation and fragmentation of forests result from the expansion of urban areas and agricultural activities, mainly for sugarcane cultivation and pastureland [18]. For these remnants to be functional and provide the benefits mentioned above, long-term planning and management are required.
Some authors point out that not only is the composition of the forest remnants important, but its spatial location is, too [19,20]; thus, the first step towards the proper management of remaining forest consists of surveying and mapping these areas. From there, their planning and management can be carried out at regional, municipal, and local (neighbourhood) levels to establish a multifunctional network of inter-connected areas of vegetation that influence the restructuring of the rural–urban landscape mosaic [21,22].
Moreover, since landscape metrics enable the analysis of the relationship between spatial patterns and ecological processes [23,24,25,26,27], the quantification of landscape structure using this method can provide scientific soundness and technical reliability scientific support for assessing the quantity and environmental quality of remnants [28]. As an example, fragment size and shape are used as proxies for high-quality habitats, as well as fragment core area presence, according to typical edge effect distances [29].
In fact, the landscape metrics work as an effective tool for the spatial analysis of landscapes, especially when associated with concepts of sustainable landscape planning, contributing not only to the characterization of the spatial features of a landscape but also to comprehending its ecological functions [30,31,32,33,34,35]. Furthermore, various authors [36,37] point out that using geoprocessing techniques associated with environmental management criteria helps to implement appropriate environmental planning, thereby enabling wider discussion about forest remnants and identifying priority areas for implementing the most appropriate management and recovery strategies.

This study aims to assess the environmental quality of forest remnants in the river basins of Campinas municipality/SP, Brazil, using a set of structural landscape metrics. To achieve this aim, for each remnant, total and nuclear, the edge index, distance from nearest neighbour, proximity to watercourses, water spring, land use/land cover in the surrounding area, and potential soil erodibility were determined. The environmental quality was assessed by applying an analytic hierarchy process (AHP) to enable the weighting for the relative importance of each criterion to be calculated. We also intended to ascertain whether the current conditions of land use and occupation in the river basins, as well as other factors associated with anthropogenic pressures or natural conditions, have an impact on the current state of these remnants. The final goal was to produce maps that show the environmental quality of each remnant, which can serve as an important tool and support for the management of natural vegetation endorsed by public authorities.

4. Conclusions

Forests supply crucial ecosystem services vital to sustainable development and human wellbeing and play a chief role in achieving the several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations 2030 Agenda. Remnant forests are natural areas of exceptional ecological value, particularly when located in intensively exploited landscapes, such as the area under study. In this study, a total of 2319 forest remnants were characterized using a set of structural landscape metrics, and their environmental quality was assessed by applying an analytical hierarchy process. Among the indicators analysed, the presence of water springs and the circularity index were the factors that most determined environmental quality. The results show that only a hundred of the remaining areas have high or very high environmental quality. The vast majority have a medium or low environmental quality, which is related to their small size, their elongated shape, and their proximity to highly anthropized areas that exert strong pressure on the remnants.

Evaluating the environmental quality of forest remnants at the hydrographic basin and municipal scale, especially based on spatial analyses, seems to be an effective tool for municipal authorities as it provides useful guidelines to inform urban planning and municipal environmental management. The use of landscape metrics proved to be effective to assess the environmental quality of remnants, and this approach can therefore be recommended as an instrument for the primary evaluation of natural vegetation remnants in different geospatial areas and phytophysiognomic environments.

Although using an Environmental Quality Index proved to be effective for this study, it might be necessary to adjust the selected indicators and the coefficients associated with each indicator considered if it is applied to other regions whose characteristics are significantly different, such as other biomes. The AHP offers a fitting solution for modelling complex problems with its hierarchical structure; however, because of its subjective nature, in future research, the AHP should be combined with some objective methods (such as the entropy weight method) to comprehensively consider the decision of coefficient.

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