Deforestation is the rapid and almost total eradication of huge tracts of trees, both hardwoods and evergreens.
Hardwood trees, which can be found in temperate regions in the northern, eastern and bottom-land regions of the United States, are a group of more than 50 environmentally and economically significant broad-leaved deciduous trees.
They include basswood for superb honey; black walnut, oak, maple and black cherry for making furniture; and American chestnut, walnut and almond for nuts. The heaviest forests, by a two-thirds majority, are found along the upper Atlantic Coast states and as far inland as the western slopes of the Appalachian chain.
Evergreens, which comprise most species of trees generally thought of as pines, shed only their inner layer of leaves, and only once a season, using the tips of branches to achieve growth both outward and upward. The cue is in the word “evergreen”, which highlights those trees which remain green in all seasons. That is, while all pines are evergreens, not all evergreens are pine. A notable exception would be the West Coast’s massive and beautiful Dawn Redwood. Another example would be a holly tree, which fruits but does not produce cones.
In the last 50 years, traditional trees like the American Elm, mountain pine and sugar maple have seen their range reduced by fully 70,000 square miles – an area as big as the state of Washington – since the beginning of this, the 21st century. For the mountain pine, the death knell has already sounded thanks to shrinking glaciers and consequent shrinking water supplies, as well as warmer, shorter winters which encourage the mountain pine beetle to overwinter.
More recently, the Mexican elm, native to the southern hemisphere countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua (and escaped cultivation into parts of Southern California, Texas and New Mexico), has suffered, but not at the hands of a bug. This threat comes from humans, who covet the long (70-meter or 229-foot) tree trunks for building. In fact, the Mexican elm faces a double threat, the second at the hands of prospective coffee growers, who are eradicating all traces of the tree on their coffee plantations and making a double profit – from superior hardwood lumber and coffee beans.
Not all deforestation is aimed at making individuals or corporations wealthy.
Some deforestation takes place to create additional housing, and some to provide fields for agriculture. In fact, agriculture is the major driver of deforestation as poor nations cultivate more land to provide food for burgeoning populations. The problem with that is, most forest lands in the southern hemisphere remain moist thanks to extensive tree cover. Once that cover is removed, these rather poor soils dry out and form deserts. This type of deforestation is a major contributor to climate change, and the new configuration – which fails to shield the former forest floor during the day, thus leading to excess heating at night, generate temperatures that can be quite disruptive of the life cycles of both plants and animals.
Nor are all logging operations legal. Those who operate outside the realm of local, regional and even national laws also use excess or imperfect lumber to build roads to gain access to even more forests, precipitating a negative feedback loop that leaves all species homeless, at least temporarily. And for slow-moving species, whether animal or vegetable, this alteration means certain extinction.
In fact, according to National Geographic , if the current rate of deforestation isn’t curbed, the world’s rainforests could disappear completely by 2113.
The Morton Arboretum,which operates a regional tree initiative, points out some of the many values of trees:
- They grow lovelier and add more to property values with each passing year
- They clean the air, producing oxygen and removing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and other pollutants
- They provide passive cooling through the shade of their canopies, and this improves with each passing year, adding one percent to a home’s sale price per year
- They catch rainfall, decreasing the amount of runoff and stormwater
Confirming these statistics, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that a 20-year-old tree planted on public property reduces energy use by $96 per year; in someone’s yard this savings jumps to $102, and all for a cost of roughly $30 for a 6-foot tree and another $40 for pruning, fertilizer and fall cleanup. Suspend that ignominious habit of raking and bagging leaves (which serve to protect lawns from winter’s cold temperatures) and costs drop even more, especially if you pay someone to rake in the fall.
What could be done to conserve forests?
Those responsible for tree conservation could draft laws disallowing cutting down trees, but that would mean a slowdown in – or a complete halt to – construction, furniture-making and crafts, which would also negatively impact the quality of life and the viability of a nation’s economic engine.
Better, say experts, to draft a meticulously managed plan aimed at conserving forest resources by forbidding slash-and-burn and instituting replanting rules at a ratio of 1-to-1, or even 2-to-1. This reforestation of species-specific trees, in temperate areas with sufficient rainfall (where trees grow rapidly), could provide new habitat for those species which are unable to migrate fast enough to keep up with shrinking forests.
Habitat conservation for animals
One example of these slow-movers is the Mountain Pika, which Nature Magazine calls “The Alpine poster child for climate change.”
The pika, small, furry and brown, is a beautiful little creature and perfectly adapted to its rock-scree and pinion pine range. Unfortunately, the pika is also resistant to change – a situation made critical by the fact that global warming has driven it as high up the mountainside as it can reasonably live, and in order to move into other ranges it would have to come down that same mountainside, which it can’t do because it can’t survive heat.
That is, while other creatures in this subarctic range hibernate during winter, and have natural thermostats to balance rapid temperature fluctuations (5 degrees F at night but up to 85 degrees during the day) during summer, the pika does not, and its thick fur coat is actually a built-in death trap on a hot day.
For the clever, whistling pika, which can usually be seen bouncing around with flowers in its mouth destined for its “haypile” cache and/or nest, finding a fairly stable mountain ecology with the necessary trees – many of which have been killed by the Mountain Pine Borer – may be a lost cause, says research associate Chris Ray of the University of Colorado-Boulder.
For Ray, who has made the pika her raison d’être, these adorable but anxious little creatures, who sometimes play dead for real when merely touched by human hands, have been rejected for inclusion on both the Threatened and the Endangered Species Acts by the federal government. California is still thinking about it.
Meanwhile, climate change stalks the pika, as it does hundreds of other species, outracing our ability to clean up our mistakes before we denude the planet of everything that makes it worth living on.