If a man is not to live by bread alone, what is better worth doing well than the planting of trees?
-- Frederick Law Olmstead, founder of American landscape architecture & co-designer of New York's Central Park.
Trees and forests, their decline, recovery, and the many benefits they offer to human beings and the environment, are gaining attention these days. This is due not just to concerns with the loss of biodiversity or carbon sequestration in the Amazon, or floods and erosion in China, but also a growing appreciation of the paramount role arboreal resources play in the protection and preservation of land, air, and water.
Even the preeminent bird-guide author and illustrator, David Allen Sibley, has moved into the tree business with a new contribution, The Sibley Guide to Trees (2009).
"Perhaps no other group of organisms has been as profoundly affected by humans as trees," writes Sibley. "Only a few thousand acres of virgin old-growth forest remain in the eastern United States, the rest has been cut, and most of the eastern forest has been cut down many times. What the average person thinks of as 'mature forest' is usually fifty- to seventy-year-old new growth, covering land that was open pasture or farmland less than a hundred years ago."
Still, this is much better than abandoned, rocky, infertile farm land in New England or cut-over, burned-over landscapes in the Upper Great Lakes states as was common decades ago. Even in their reduced state, recovering forests bring with them a generous increment of environmental improvement in terms of air and water quality, not to mention habitat. The regeneration of forests in the eastern United States is a magnificent thing to behold.
Another Earth Day has arrived, and your writer will attempt, counter-intuitively, to look for the proverbial silver lining through the clouds of environmental doom that engulf so much commentary on such matters.
I first offered TAS readers these sunnier reflections on conservation and the environment for Earth Day 2006 and have done so ever since. Fortunately, good things continue to happen that are deserving of more attention than they normally get.
In last year's column, I recognized the towering accomplishments of the late Nobelist Norman Borlaug in bringing about the "Green Revolution" in world agriculture. While his work on high-yield, high-input agriculture is not without its environmental critics, Gregg Easterbrook has pointed out that it not only fed a growing population but also protected countless hectares (equal to 2.471 acres) of forest that would have to be cut down in order to expand production in the absence of such techniques.
The state of the world's forests is perilous indeed, but there are signs of improvement. The Economist, a magazine that blends a free-market outlook with a lively interest in all things environmental, has been following this issue closely. In February it reported that the Food & Agriculture Organization, a UN body, estimates that the world's forests covered 4.03 billion hectares in 2010.
"Although the world as a whole continues to lose forests, the annual rate of deforestation in the past decade has fallen to 5.2m hectares, compared to 8.3m hectares between 1990 and 2000," stated the Economist. "Some large countries, including China and India, increased their forest cover between 2000 and 2010." China's increased at an average annual rate of 1.6 percent, India's by 0.5 percent. Then there is Nigeria which "has been chopping its forests down at a rate of 3.7% a year." Only one-tenth of its land remained forested.
In September of last year, the Economist also noted that Brazil, which razed 2.8m hectares (10,700 square miles) of the Amazon in 2004, only leveled 750,000 hectares in 2009. The magazine has attributed this decline in the rate of deforestation to Brazil becoming "the first tropical agricultural giant and the first to challenge the dominance of the 'big five' food exporters" (America, Canada, Australia, Argentina and the European Union).
Nevertheless, the outlook for the Amazon is "grave." Eighteen percent of the rainforest has been cleared. It will be necessary for Brazil and other nations, with the support of the international community, to change their policies. "The cost of failure would simply be too great," argues the Economist.
The magazine also ran another item that highlighted the functional benefits of trees and forests to a key artery of international trade-the Panama Canal, through which passes 5 percent of world commerce. In December the canal closed for the first time since the U.S. invasion in 1989. Evidently, heavy rains had resulted in massive, disruptive mudslides in and around Panama.
Generally, a steady supply of water from the surrounding hills is crucial to the canal's operation. "Too much water and the canal stops as gates are opened to allow the flood water to subside. Too little water, though, and there is not enough to operate the locks and allow ships to travel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans."
If the canal's watershed is well-forested, "this evens out the water supply throughout the year," observed the Economist. "Cut the trees down, and there the variability in the water supply rises. And the canal needs reliability, not variability."
Given this challenge, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the Panama Canal Authority and the HSBC Climate Partnership are working on a 20-year study to understand what they call "water-storage services" provided by the surrounding forests. One hundred forty thousand tree seedlings have been planted.
In 2002 China committed to the mother of all reforestation projects. It embarked on a $2.4 billion, 10-year program to plant 170,000 square miles of trees -- an area roughly the size of California. While addressing soil erosion, flooding, pollution and habitat concerns (e.g., the panda), the plan will also create barriers to shield Beijing and other cities from sandstorms. Trees will be planted on 10,500 miles of farmland. This is the largest such project in history, claimed the New Scientist.
China aims to use private financing to start commercial tree farms and 82 million acres of tree plantations.
If the Chinese actually achieve these goals, it will be a stunning accomplishment. Now, if they would just allow freedom of speech and jettison the mandatory one-child policy, things would be just great.
BACK IN THE UNITED STATES, there are exciting developments in reforestation and forest protection generally. Last year Washington, D.C., which actually has pretty good tree cover at 35 percent of the city, committed to expanding its tree canopy to 40 percent by 2035. The District will need to add more than 2,000 acres of canopy or 216,000 trees. A local nonprofit organization, Casey Trees, has planted more than 7,000 trees since 2003, mostly a disease-resistant, American version of Dutch Elm.
In New York 120 volunteers planted 20,000 trees just last year. The ultimate goal is to plant one million trees over the next decade.
Happily, the phenomenon of sudden aspen decline, SAD, appears to have stabilized with many stands of trees "holding their ground against any new onset," as reported by Kirk Johnson of the New York Times. Individual trees are still dying but this current reprieve is very welcome news.
Aspen are one of the things that make the Rocky Mountains special. Unfortunately, severe drought and heat set off a decline early in the last decade. Given climate variability in the West, keep your fingers crossed on this one.
And let's hear it for the recovery of the venerable American chestnut tree, which appears to be ready for a big come-back. More than a century ago 4 billion of these wonderful trees, which had sweeping and majestic canopies, were destroyed by a foreign blight.
"By interbreeding the American with its Chinese cousin, tree lovers have created an American chestnut with some resistance to Asian blight and have developed a virus that can be injected into affected trees to combat the fungus," reports the Washington Post's Julie Eilperin. Twenty-five thousand of these new chestnuts have been planted under guidance of trained scientists and devotees. It will take 75 to 100 years to know whether or not the tree can be established in its natural range, but we are playing for the long haul here.
The chestnut is hardy, thriving on rocky and acidic soil. It will be a great means of reclaiming land decimated by strip mining throughout Appalachia, again, part of its original range.
Trees and forests are incredible multi-purpose tools which, among other things, generate two-thirds of America's clean water supply as reported by the National Research Council of the National Academies in a 2008 study entitled, Hydrologic Effects of a Changing Forest Landscape.
In light of the foregoing, and the continued need for forest and paper products, is it any wonder that, over the past ten years, private timberland investments returned 7.1 percent annualized, compared with a 0.4 percent annualized loss for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, according to Elizabeth Ody in Kiplinger's Personal Finance ("Money Does Grow on Trees After All," December 2010)?
Lest I conclude this year's Earth Day column on too mercenary a note, let me recall the words of my former boss, then Governor John Ashcroft of Missouri, for whom I worked as his director of natural resources 20 years ago: "Planting a tree is an unconditional gift to future generations."
If Earth Day is not your cut of wood, consider celebrating Arbor Day on April 29. Plant a tree. After all, it is better to give than to receive.