Forests play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy and naturally-functioning environment. They provide oxygen, transport moisture to the atmosphere, protect soils and guard their nutrients, and harbor untold biological diversity. But the clearing of timber has had a transformative effect that may prove to be the undoing of our environment until or unless we adopt better strategies for sustainability.
Christians and all citizens concerned about the stewardship of Creation should take note of the problems inherent with the depletion of forested areas throughout the world. Many environmental activists have focused on the destruction of rainforest lands in places like Brazil’s Amazon River region, Indonesia and elsewhere, but what about the United States?
According to the National Atlas of the United States approximately a billion acres of the nation’s land area was forested in the 17th century when European colonization began. Today that number is estimated at about 750,000,000, or a loss of about a quarter of our forest coverage. While the good news is that the amount of forested land has remained relatively constant beginning with the early 20th century conservation movement—due to such factors as conversions of former crop lands and pastures outstripping development, and better fire suppression techniques—there are qualitative concerns about forest stocks. Urbanization of our population is expected to continue with likely encroachments on previously wooded lands resulting. The increased closure of smaller farms may help crop lands revert to forests in one area, but likely will degrade the wooded areas—as well as overall ecosystems—where increased industrial style farming takes place.
The U.S. is both the world’s leading consumer of wood products and the world’s leading producer of materials using both soft and hard lumber. With demands both domestically and from growing economies in such places as China and India for wood, there is an added concern that the fragmentation or destruction of unique old-growth forests supporting specific types of habitats and diversity will be accelerated even if the lumber lost is replaced by other trees. Illegal logging is also an ongoing problem as the U.S. Forest Service estimates that about 10% of domestic harvesting is done without permit or permission (including on land owned by the Federal Government) and about 3% of the lumber industry’s harvest is stolen each year at a loss of approximately $350,000,000.
Some of the nation’s largest environmental groups have criticized how the U.S. Forest Service (FS) has administered the conservation of forested areas. It has been suggested that the FS has been too favorable to lumber industry lobbying and private citizen appeals for additional and short-sighted types of logging practices. Save America’s Forests (SAF) charges that the FS retreated from its organizational philosophy against clear-cutting in its early years to a pro-clearing practice after the Second World War. This has resulted in destruction of virgin and diverse timber areas, and where trees were replaced at all they became a homogenized population that negatively affected the traditional landscape and local wildlife habitats. SAF also is critical of what it sees as a short-sighted policy favoring gain of timber sales for economic gain while undercutting judicious conservation of unique ecosystems, a policy which harms sustainability and public enjoyment of national lands.
Why are SAF and other organizations worried about practices like clear-cutting and opposed to re-plantings? Clear-cutting usually means that all or most trees in a given parcel are cut down immediately. This action eliminates whatever diversity of plant and animal life the timber hosted. Another key loss is the clean air and/or water the parcel produced which can in turn raise carbon levels. Done on a large-scale—as has been the case throughout the world beginning last century—it has a hugely negative effect on the Earth’s climate and environment. Although the FS and/or private lumber companies may replace the felled timber with new seedlings, many re-plantings don’t succeed as the young trees often aren’t sheltered from annual climate changes as they might be naturally from diverse timber stocks and older trees which have been cleared away in the process.
Having a homogenized population of trees can also mean a loss of habitat for other plant and animal life which may not thrive in a new ecosystem. Natural forests are by their very nature less susceptible to fires and drought but new tree populations may increase the risk. SAF has campaigned for a smarter and more sustainable approach to harvesting trees by such strategies as the avoidance of “ancient” forests and areas near water, and by using a small-batch approach as opposed to more wide-scale cutting.
SAF has also sponsored “The Act to Save America’s Forests” in more than one Congressional session. The proposed bill would stop further clear-cutting, require the FS to actively protect and restore biological diversity of remaining natural forest areas on national lands, replace the administration of Giant Sequoia National Monument by the FS with that of the National Park Service (NPS), and require the NPS to study the possibility of creating new national parks. The most recent incarnation of the proposed law, H.R. 7090 in the 110th Congress, died in committee.
Proposed legislation, development of political capital, and working out differences with the FS directly all present possibilities for gaining momentum toward a reform of national forest policy. But there are other possible actions that can be taken by both individuals and governments to protect out forests.
Individuals can make intentional choices about how they live and what they buy can have a positive effect on how well stewardship of the environment works. Basic steps like participating in recycling efforts and taking on a paperless approach to documents should be workable. Also, supporting organizations, businesses, and elected officials who promote sustainability of forests, and withholding support from those that do not, are attainable efforts.
Nearly every observer agrees that deforestation is responsible for the rise in carbon levels dispersed into the atmosphere. Working with governments in other countries and non-governmental organizations, the U.S. can help assist efforts to re-grow forests. Evidence suggests that regenerating forests can capture and sequester the carbon that is now escaping.
In the developing world, assistance is needed establishing best-practices for forest management and sustainability. An obvious goal should be to rotate harvests and verify that regrowth plans outstrip the rates of timber cutting. Developing a plan that takes into account all reasonable uses of forested areas that is fair for all parties, but is enforced, is key for successful overall regeneration and protection of these irreplaceable resources of Creation.
Reports by the Union of Concerned Scientists and a paper by Ross W. Gorte and Pervaze A. Sheikh in the Congressional Research Service Reports and Issue Briefs discuss the United Nations’ REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) initiative. REDD sets up a system of reducing deforestation by partnering with developing countries so that their forests will be more valuable left standing than they would by being cut down. Assessing and establishing a financial value for the carbon stored in forest stocks is followed by the developed world paying the developing countries carbon offsets for the preservation of these acreages. Deriving a financial benefit from not slashing forests can usher in more focus being placed on local stewardship and smart-use policies and practices instead. Voluntary funding of the REDD system can come from donor nations, individuals, and environmental groups.
Market trading of carbon emissions has been discussed in the media and Congress in the United States. Although the system has met with some opposition, the government could set up an annual auction in which companies would be required to purchase allowances for their estimated greenhouse gas emissions for that period. To bring down overall emissions these allowances would likely be ratcheted down per year. Another possibility might be for companies that have found greater efficiencies to re-sell their allowances to other companies for credits as long as the overall allowances were consistently reduced. The proceeds from this market could comprise the U.S. portion of the international REDD initiative.
Preserving forested acres through assistance now will be less expensive than the remediation costs from future pollution by green-house gas emissions from inefficient wood-burning and other non-replenishable sources. It will also serve the faith-based goals of securing the common good and enhancing our care of Creation.
—Kirk G. Morrison