Forgotten Lessons: Why Forest Protection is the Newest Old Solution to Our Environmental Crisis

By William McAuliff

We rarely think about how young our American forests are. Immersing ourselves in the quiet noise of a forest often feels like walking through something that always has and always will be right where it is now. But over the past two hundred years, our forests have changed dramatically. This transformation was not caused by climatic shifts or melting glaciers but by decisions made in the offices of industrialists and politicians.

For most of the history of European America, the only utility of a forest was the price set on its destruction. This narrow vision of forests led to a single outcome — extreme devastation with less than 5% of the original old growth forests remaining today. However, just as it is within the power of people to destroy their environment, it is also in their power to conserve it. From the resolution to protect natural resources against unregulated economic enterprise originated an ethics of conservation in America. In the late 1890s, new forestry laws began to prevent widespread clear-cutting, erosion, and fires. But time has passed, and we have learned to take our natural world for granted in new ways. Once again, we find ourselves at a time when the future of our forests is in question.

In this century, the rapid exploitation of these immensely valuable natural resources has taken a shamelessly wasteful form. Unlike the first mass deforestation events in the US, the modern threats conceal themselves in the form of the simple, unassuming, wood pellet.

To many people, wood pellets are handy recycled material made from the scraps and sawdust of America’s many lumber-related industries meant for use in private homes. In reality, these wood pellets are made by grinding up whole trees into small, compressed cylinders which are then shipped across the Atlantic to be incinerated in Europe’s coal-fired power plants. While wood pellets may have originated as a byproduct, European demand exists on an industrial scale that has quickly outstripped the supply of waste material. So, corporations have gone straight to the source – chopping down trees while justifying it with a promise that new forest growth will negate their activities’ carbon footprint. Despite being called ‘green’ and ‘renewable’ by the industry, this fuel is worse to burn than coal. The process emits more carbon at the smokestack and releases particulate pollution which impacts our communities’ health while degrading our irreplaceable, natural forests. Even with this knowledge, European policy makers continue to promote the burning of our forests to meet their “clean energy” targets.

In the face of climate change, the reality is that forests are put to best use just by being left alone. Forests provide natural flood control, stabilize fresh water supplies, regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and cool the air at a time when extreme flooding, droughts, and heat waves are only getting worse. Throughout the US, industrial logging releases vast amounts of carbon thus exacerbating global climate change and makes us more vulnerable to the local impacts of a changing climate. While we scramble to innovate our way out of our many environmental predicaments, it is clear one of the easiest steps to take is to protect forests so they can continue to perform a job they have had millions of years to perfect. The continued devastation of worsening storms like Hurricane Florence should be a wake up call that we cannot waste anymore time before taking action.

Destructive logging and the industries which depend on it situate themselves in rural communities and communities of color which bear the worst burdens of climate change and already house harmful pollution sources like industrial agriculture. The people in these communities are then forced to take on the burden of environmental degradation and health complications while receiving little to no compensation. Logging industries place these areas at higher risk for extreme flooding and place the people at higher risk for respiratory problems from the dust and pollutants their processes produce.

We need to stop ignoring these wasteful, devastating effects in favor of profit and start listening to the voices of those most heavily impacted by logging industries. By scaling up forest protection, we can mitigate impacts of climate in our communities and ensure that millions of people have clean air and water.

Today’s ecological challenges demand rapid adaptation. Business as usual is destroying landscapes, threatening species and exposing communities to the worst impacts of climate change. Industrial logging benefits too few people at too high a cost. Practical changes can be made right now to help protect us and our forests. As the world’s largest producer and consumer of wood products, the United States has the unique ability to make drastic changes which will have ripple effects around the globe and set an example for other countries confronting mass deforestation events. We should be able to walk through our woods, not just with a sense of wonder for nature’s complexities but also with pride that they still stand because people chose to look beyond themselves and towards a more sustainable future for their communities and the world. While we all know that trees may grow and die, it can no longer be business-as-usual to sit back and watch as whole forests cease to exist. The health of our forests cannot afford to depend on fiscal years and election cycles. We must choose to truly conserve what matters and reject the exploitation of our biodiversity, our communities and our forests.

For these reasons, and many more, the Rachel Carson Council is proud to join the Stand4Forests coalition with Dogwood Alliance and over 100 other organizations. Stand with us and sign the pledge to demand forest protection today.