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The need to preserve forests is critical now

Occasional Observer

Most of the planet’s land mass was once covered with forest — now less than a third is.

After the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation is the second leading cause of climate change, accounting for roughly 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Typically, when forests are destroyed, valuable timber is harvested and hauled away and the remaining vegetation burned to make way for crops such as soy or grasses for livestock grazing. Vegetable farming, grazing, mining, drilling and logging account for more than half of all deforestation, with conversion of forest to agricultural uses the largest contributor to forest loss. 

The overall effect of this process is devastating in more ways than we normally consider.

From the 1600s to the 1800s, half the forests in the eastern portion of North America, including northwest Connecticut, were cut down. Much has grown back during the past century as both farming and timber cutting have moved west to more favorable locations. But deforestation still continues at a rapid rate as urban, and now suburban, development proceeds and the population grows over most of the country.

Nearly a quarter of the Amazon rain forest has been destroyed in the past 50 years and the pace has quickened under the administration of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. In 2019, more than 80,000 forest fires burned in the Amazon, the vast majority lit by humans, in order to convert the land to farming and mining activities. 

In Southeast Asia, with government approval, destroyed forests are often replanted with enormous groves of palm trees for the $90 billion palm oil market. 

In Australia deforestation has greatly increased under the current government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The colossal spate of fires covering much of southeast Australia during 2019 was exacerbated by extreme drought, and triggered by thousands of lightning strikes. True, but the cause goes deeper. According to the Wilderness Society, over the past 200 years, Australia has destroyed nearly half of its forest cover, and is considered the only global deforestation “hot spot” in the developed world, with land clearing rates in the southeast part of the country on a par with those of Brazil. 

Why is deforestation such a grievous problem? Throughout the world, more than 15 billion trees a year are cut down. Deforestation and forest degradation cause major disruption of the water cycles resulting in changes in precipitation and river flow, flooding and drought. Increased topsoil erosion results in loss of fertile soil and extensive water pollution. Cleared land is more subject to extremely high winds, another factor in the out-of-control burning of the 2019 Australian fires. At a certain point, air pollution from forest fire smoke becomes an international health menace. Forest loss, annually, accounts for nearly 10% of global carbon emissions. And most important, cutting down forests results in significant global warming.

Eighty percent of land-based species can be found in forests, especially tropical forests, including most of the world’s plant species, only a fraction of which we know much about. After forests are degraded or destroyed many animals, including communities of native peoples who lived and worked in the forests, cannot subsist on the land that remains.

Forest destruction is a major factor in the spread of disease throughout the world. In the United States, Lyme disease has spread widely since its first appearance in 1975 in Connecticut. The destruction and fragmentation of forested areas caused carriers of the infected Lyme ticks, mostly mice, to move closer to human habitats. Several diseases new to the Western Hemisphere such as SARS, MERS, Ebola and Bird Flu have arisen from new inter-species interaction as a result of animals being driven from their forested homelands. 

Deforestation causes habitat loss, which triggers animal migration, which brings about more contact of wild forest animals with other animals, including humans. Covid-19 appears to be the result of people becoming infected from either bats or another animal (possibly forest dwelling civets, the instrument of disease transfer from SARS to humans). Ebola outbreaks have often occurred in areas where forests have been disturbed and wild animals, especially monkeys, have come more frequently into contact with humans. 

When a forest is destroyed it cannot simply be re-made with plantations of palm trees or other artificial monocultures. Real forests are very diverse communities of plant materials and animals. To satisfactorily re-create one takes the expertise and artistry of a master landscape architect and many decades of growth, with Mother Nature playing a controlling role. It’s a daunting task; still, we should attempt it most everywhere and hope for the best in order to have a chance for a habitable world in the future.

 

Lakeville architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon writes frequently on environmental issues.

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