What are forest reserves reserved for?

The Malaysian government has a rather confusing set of terms when referring to forests. Chances are, you've probably come across some of them while reading the papers, browsing the Internet or when out hiking your favourite trails. The various names can even be misleading and it's not unusual even for reporters to get confused, leading to incorrect references in the media and adding to the overall misunderstanding. So if you're baffled about the difference between a state park, state land and a forest reserve, read on!

Forest Reserve

Perhaps the most misleading of the terms is the general reference to forest reserves. Each state government, via their respective forestry departments, has the power to gazette sections of forests as 'forest reserves' or in the Malay language, hutan simpan kekal. But wait! Just because a forest is called a forest reserve does not mean it is safe from commercial activity. In fact, it could very well be 'reserved' for it!

There are actually two types of forest reserve - protected forest and production forest.

A protected forest is a forest that cannot be used for urban development, agriculture or any kind of activity that would require the plants in the forest to be removed. Protected forests can be further narrowed down to specific types of forest based on their primary function, for example, recreational forest, education forest, etc.

One of the Klang Valley's most beloved forests. Gasing Hill is an example of a protected forest that's also an educational forest. It even says so on the sign! (image credit: Kaki Jalans)

A production forest on the other hand, is marked for logging activities. We won't go into details on how logging licenses work right now, but suffice to say, if a forest reserve is designated as a production forest, you can bet logging is or will soon be conducted over there.

Th Gerik, Amanjaya, Banding and Temengor forest reserves are all production forests. So the only 'protected' part is the dark blue area which happens to be the Royal Belum State Park

State governments have the power to change a protected forest to a production forest and vice versa. However, due to weak law enforcement in some locations, it's not surprising that even these protected forests can be exploited illegally, such as this recent case in Penang.

Maps usually do not identify whether a forest reserve is either a protected forest or a production forest but the law does require you to apply for a permit to enter a production forest whereas a protected forest that is meant for public recreation does not. There are plenty of protected forest reserves in Malaysia that the public can visit without much hassle. Here's a list.

Has Malaysia stayed true to its commitment to creating more forest reserves? The Malaysian Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment seems to think so but conservation blog Mongabay disagrees.

While the state governments aren't likely to convert whole protected forests into production forests, they are not unwilling to de-gazette small sections of protected forests for urban development.

This is happening all over Malaysia but most especially in the Klang Valley which is undergoing a rapid development boom.

State Park

A state park is a strictly protected section of forest where most commercial activity is prohibited. State parks are meant to be safe sanctuaries for wildlife and as such, visitor numbers are regulated and a permit is required to enter. State parks such as the Royal Belum State Park and Taman Negara ('National Park') are very popular with Malaysian and international tourists. As the name suggests, State Parks are designated by the various state governments.

Royal Belum State Park, Perak