The State of the Earth’s Forests

Muir WoodsMy aunt Margie, at the age of 99, used to marvel at all the trees that had grown in Michigan over her lifetime. Today, Michigan from above seems like a mass of oaks, maples, beeches, hemlock, white pines, and such. Manistee National Forest near my home is about half a million acres, much to the delight of two-trackers and Jeep drivers, and it’s hard to know where it starts and ends – there are just so many trees. But during my aunt’s childhood in the early 20th century, as she told it, trees were few and far between. The whole state was open, rolling farmland with few scrubby hardwoods.

Here’s why. In the late 1800s, the whole of Michigan was clearcut by lumber barons in a frenzied, unregulated dash for wood over the course of a couple decades. Tens of millions of acres were wiped out and sent down the river for mill processing. Now, 120 years later, Michigan has recovered and is a seemingly endless forest again due to natural growth on land unsuited for farming and the expansion of protected state and national forest land.

I bring this up for two reasons – first, to underscore the need for public/private partnerships to work toward sustainable forestry. And second, when thinking about the state of international forests, it’s important for developed nations like the U.S. not to be too smug about our current successes. We’ve been through the trajectory from deforestation to recovery that many developing nations currently face.

With that in mind, how are our international forests doing?

Adrian Whiteman, Head of Economics and Statistics at the Food and Agriculture Organization Forestry Department says, “As an overly simple metric of total forests, we’re still seeing millions of square kilometers of deforestation each year. But that rate is slowing, and there are some very encouraging things going on…we’re  headed in the right direction.” We are indeed still losing 13 million hectares of forest each year. Though that’s down from 16 million hectares of forest per year in the 1990s.

Broadly speaking, the global forestry situation looks like this:  Economically developed regions have stable or growing forests, and economically developing regions have shrinking forests. Africa and South America are the major deforestation areas in the world today.

A lot of the deforestation is from the usual suspects:

  • Changing woodland to other uses like agriculture: In poorer regions, this sort of transition is done in a chaotic way. With few or inconsistent property frameworks in place, woodland is cleared and planted with low yield farms, then abandoned. This isn’t a problem when it’s happening with a small population and the deforested land has time to restore itself in the cycle. But with growing populations, the soil just doesn’t get a chance to replenish itself. Fortunately nations are making a transition to better management. Says Whiteman, “We’re seeing a transition from chaotic landscapes to intensively managed landscapes.”Clearly defined legal structures for land ownership tend to lead to more organized stewardship while reducing overlap of use. Meanwhile, improved crop yields can also reduce the amount of cleared forest needed for food production. As crop yield improvements continue, deforestation can be reduced.
  • Wood production: 1.2 billion hectares of the world’s forests are managed primarily for the production of wood. That’s 30 percent of the world’s 4 billion hectares of forest. And yes, it accounts for some of the deforestation. But, as it turns out, according to Whiteman, as a nation becomes prosperous and its demand for wood rises, its forest cover tends to increase overall. The concept of organized forestry management comes into play, nations start creating tree plantations so they have all the desirable trees in one place, and they can afford the workforce and technology to make conservation a priority.
  • Insects, pests and disease: Warmer winter temperatures are leading to an increase in tree-destroying insects. In Canada, the mountain pine beetle devastated 11 million hectares of woodland since the 1990s.
  • Extreme weather:  Similar to insects and pests, extreme weather events are a natural part of forests. However, climate change is increasing extreme weather events. Australian droughts and fires are a major part of deforestation in Australia.
  • Forest fires: At least one percent of global forests are severely impacted by forest fires. It’s a big number. And yet it’s believed to be  “severely” underreported, as described in the Global Forest Resources Assessment of 2010. Many nations don’t report forest fire information.

Forests are shrinking about 20 percent slower than they were in the 1990s. From 1990 to 2000, all regions but Europe saw a combined total of 16 million hectares of deforestation per year. From 2000 to 2010, the picture looked a little better with a net loss of 13 million hectares per year. Losses were offset in part by a huge jump in new planted forests in China.

The one exception to all of the above is Australia, which has suffered deforestation due to drought and fires over the past decade.

To put some of this into perspective, 31 percent of our planet’s land area is covered in forests. Half of them are located in five nations, most of which are developed with fairly stable forests: The United States, Canada, the Russian Federation, China, and Brazil. Of these, Brazil is the big one facing significant deforestation. China, as it turns out, is on a “afforestation” kick  (afforestation being  the forestry term for the opposite of “deforestation”). From 1990 to 2000, China saw significant deforestation. So, from 2000 to 2010, China went gangbusters planting millions of acres of new trees. These efforts led China to be the largest afforestation region in the world over the past decade.

As China’s economy improves, so to do its efforts at sustainable forestry. This link between prosperity and forest health is a global trend.

Dr. Erik Nordman, professor of Natural Resource Economics and Policy at Grand Valley State University says, “Deforestation is happening in places where the people are most reliant on the non-market services that forest ecosystems provide. People in these areas are also more vulnerable to stresses and rely on forest ecosystem services during challenging times.”

This notion of economics and healthy forestry is a consistent theme. According to Dr. Nordman, there’s a well-known economic principle playing itself out before our eyes, here. It’s called the “Environmental Kuznets Curve.” Put simply, it works like this: as an impoverished population slowly grows its economy, it starts using more resources and causing more environmental damage. And then, they get to a point at the top of the curve where they start going the other way again. They get prosperous enough that they are able to afford the management and technologies to conserve resources and reduce environmental impact.

So part of what we hope we’re seeing worldwide is something of a global transition. Many poorer nations are slowly becoming more prosperous and able to put forth the frameworks, workforce, and technologies to better manage forests for multiple uses. The uses come in many forms: wood production, food production, erosion and water control, preservation of biodiversity, social and recreational use.

The important thing is for nations to focus on actually using forests as permanent and invaluable resources. As nations do that, they protect and promote those resources more. This is where businesses and governments can and do work together toward a globally healthy, sustainable goal. In that goal, the world is moving in the right direction. We have more work to do. But we’re on the right path.

[Image credit: Anoop Joy, Flickr]

Eric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys.As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food.Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.