Good News on Forests—They're Coming Back!

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I apologize for getting to this topic so late, but last November researchers published a fascinating paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found that forests are expanding in many countries. The researchers report that forests began to spread once average per capita GDP has reached a certain income threshold. From the paper:

Among 50 nations with extensive forests reported in the Food and Agriculture Organization's comprehensive Global Forest Resources Assessment 2005, no nation where annual per capita gross domestic product exceeded $4,600 had a negative rate of growing stock change…

Recent assessments suggest that forest transitions of the kind experienced in Europe and the U.S. during recent centuries are now spreading to some other parts of the world. Deforestation does continue in about half of the 50 nations with most forest. However, 36% of the 50 increased forest area and 44% increased biomass. Without depopulation or impoverishment, increasing numbers of countries are now experiencing transitions in forest area and density.

The study supports the notion that economic growth is the key to maintaining and restoring environmental quality. The researchers stress that we should not be complacent about this positive trend, but it is, nevertheless, good environmental news.

Whole paper here.

Disclosure: I use a lot of paper in my job and I still read scads of dead-tree media. I do not own any stocks in paper or lumber companies, even though they are responsible for planting more trees than Peace Prize Nobelist Wangari Maathai.

NEXT: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Overlooks Some Interesting Data, Says Climatologist

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  1. Ron, You have raised the obligatory journalist’s disclosure notice to an amusing and high art form. Bravo!

  2. Wouldn’t $4600/year be pretty close to the point where the economy moves from agricultural to industrial? “The study supports the notion that economic growth is the key to maintaining and restoring environmental quality.” You could say that heat is the key to turning ice into water, but all that matters is getting the temperature above 32 degrees Farenheit. More heat on top of that doesn’t make the water more watery.

    “Economic growth” is a vague term. A society rich enough to finally afford steel blades is going to cut down more forest, not less. Meanwhile, our own re-forestation pattern in unlikely to speed up if we increase our per capita income by 10%.

  3. I met my wife in a paper mill, and like I keep telling her, she was the prettiest thing in the whole building.

  4. I don’t think that there are many societies that can’t afford “steel blades.” However, as an economy grows and industrializes it continually sucks people away from labor intensive agriculture and subsistence farming, which is probably where the benefit of economic growth comes from. Once people stop needing forest land for farms, it is either unused or the trees are viewed as a resource in and of themselves and are at least replanted if cut down.

  5. She probably smelled better too.

  6. No they’re not. You’re all Easter Islanders. The lot of you.

  7. The big point here is that deforestation is the greatest single factor in increasing greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, representing a quarter of those increases.

    If greater wealth decreases deforestation, then measures to address global warming should not in any way impede the growth of wealth.

  8. Some environmentalists I talked to recently laid it out like this:

    “Yes, there are a lot of new forests, but the new forests suck: they’re in the wrong places, they contain trees that produce less oxygen than the old ones, and they aren’t dense enough.”

    I don’t sit around obsessing about the state of the earth, but it does seem that they’re onto something. Protecting old-growth forests, especially in the tropics, is a bigger deal than square acreage. Rainforests kick ass, inasmuch as our present, pleasant climate is the result of them.

  9. As far as their environmental value goes:

    Old growth forests : monoculture stands planted by paper companies :: a capitalist economy : the Soviet economy

    Yes, the Soviets sure could bring a lot of investment to bear on maximizing any one output. Fat lot of good that did them.

  10. The new “crisis” is non-native plants. Because of course, here in Florida (where I live) a Norfolk Island Pine (not realy a pine) will not produce oxygen or provide shade because it is not a native plant. Well excuuuse me, a Norfolk Island Pine is not native – but it is quite beautiful.

  11. I don’t sit around obsessing about the state of the earth, but it does seem that they’re onto something. Protecting old-growth forests, especially in the tropics, is a bigger deal than square acreage. Rainforests kick ass, inasmuch as our present, pleasant climate is the result of them.

    No, they’re not on to something. They’re just pissed off that someone made money off the forest and it was still able to grow back for someone else to use.

    And the idea that rain forests are our “green lungs” is bull. Yeah, there’s alot of carbon in them, but phosynthetic plankton in the oceans take up far more CO2 and produce more oxygen than the tropical forests do.

    I find it funny that environmentalists wax rhapsodic about “restoring” forests in places like Redwood National Park, but then claim that old-growth forests can never be restored.

    Ron Bailey-esque Disclosure: My family owns about 200 acres of prime timberland in north-central Idaho. Thanks to proper management techniques, it has been harvested twice in the last 50 years and still has plenty of trees and bears, elk, deer, hawks, coyotes, wood rats, etc. In fact, I used the proceeds from the last timber sale to pay for grad school. There’s sap on my hands!

  12. Are these some sort of tree zombies?

  13. joe: Highly Productive tree plantations = Natural Forest Left Standing.

    See Roger Sedjo who estimates that all of the world’s industrial wood could be harvested from just 10% of the world’s currently forested acreage. That would mean that monoculture plantations you ignorantly denigrate could spare 90% of the world’s natural forests.

  14. PIRS,

    The species in a given ecosystem evolved together. When you replace one species with something from another ecosystem, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to fill the same niche, and provide the same resources that the other species alongside it have come to rely on.

    For example, Norwegian maples are crowding out native sugar maples in the northeast (their leaves sprout sooner and fall later, so the Norwegians starve the natives by bogarting the sunlight). Norwegian maples also have characteristics that make life much more difficult for the plants that grow in their drip line – shallow roots which bogart water, they drop lots of stuff, etc. – than sugar maples.

    The herbs that grow on forest floors in Norway have evolved to thrive in these conditions, while the low plants that evolved in the northeast did not.

  15. Someone should write a song about trees.

  16. Easy there, big fella! I guess I’ve gotten under your bonnet one too many times.

    The title you put on this thread is “Good News on Forests — They’re Coming Back!”

    No, “they’re” not coming back, if “they” refers to forests with high levels of biotic activity and “coming back” refers to the stands planted by timber and forest companies, which have lower levels of biotic activity, and which typically do not have the characteristics necessary to replace the role of native vegetation in an ecosystem. You need only look at the decrease in animal species when the hardwood forests of Nepal were cut by the British and replaces with pines.

    You, Mr. Bailey, wrote a post with the implication that new forests were the ecological equivalents of the old. Don’t get bitchy at me because you want to walk that claim back.

  17. joe: Again you’re way behind the times on the science of the general effects of exotic species. Why not click on some of the links in the column I reference to scientific reports? You might learn something, and who knows, maybe even change your mind.

  18. Joe, I have no problem with specific areas being set aside to preserve this “native ecosystem” in which trained forest rangers can hunt down the evil Norfolk Island Pine but here in Florida there are people who go apoplectic if a home owner or business plants anything but native Florida plants.

  19. Joe,

    The key to the future lies in the highly productive use of small areas of land for things like tree farms and large animal feeding operations. These things combined with free trade and growth can put an end to the scurge of subsistance level farming and save forests and echosystems all over the world while also providing a better way of life to millions of poor.

  20. “And the idea that rain forests are our “green lungs” is bull. ”

    in terms of oxygen I will agree with you. There is however some intersting research recently conducted, via an isotope sensing satellite, which strongly suggests that tropical rainforests are important for dispersing water vapor in the atmosphere. New stuff!
    http://www.physorg.com/news89473076.html

    “joe: Highly Productive tree plantations = Natural Forest Left Standing. ”
    Okay I understand that a few highly productive tree plantations ‘should’ result in more natural forests. BUT… that assumption is dependent on a couple things. Such as:

    Does a particularly high demand species work well in a plantation setting? IIRC Teak trees do not respond well to deliberate monoculture cultivation. Genetic engineering might help.

    Are the local politicial and institutional systems conducive to high efficiency? Compare the forest health of the Domincan Republic with that in Haiti. Huge difference.

  21. I always look at the links you provide, Ron.

    I just don’t take your word for it when you try to hype idiosynchratic outliers as if they represent mainstream opinion.

    I’m going to have to go with what I learned from my professors in grad school over whichever single paper Reason Magazine Science Correspondant decides makes his point best.

    Or, in short, tell it to the zebra mussels, the acidic soil of Nepal, and the amphibians in Austrialia.

  22. Zebra Mussles HELPED the ecology of the Great Lakes of North America.

  23. joe: I guess science hasn’t progressed all that much since you were in graduate school.
    More of my reporting on zebra mussels and other exotics here.

  24. I’m drunk and commenting on blogs. FUCK YEAH

  25. Nope, the understanding of the biological effects of invasive species has not changed very much in the past six years.

    Some, but there has certainly not been any great revolution that has led scientists (as opposed to Senior Science Correspondents) to declare that invasive species harmlessly replace native ones.

  26. Why are we taking the idea that the new forests are all paper mill monoculture low biota junk? When was that fact entered into evidence?

    Here in the northeast forests aren’t coming back because of paper companies planting them. They’re coming back because in the absence of human activity forests just grow. People think of Vermont as a heavily forested region, but 75 years ago it wasn’t. The farmers all left and the forests all grew back.

  27. P.I.R.s.,

    The zebra mussels may have restored the clarity of the water after it was degraded from human activity – which is clearly a good thing – but that most certainly was not the extent of their impact on the ecosystem, or on our economy.

    Also, little pristine patches of natural ecosystem don’t adquately provide native migratory species of birds, for example, or creatures with larger ranges, with the landscape they need to survive.

  28. And the idea that rain forests are our “green lungs” is bull. Yeah, there’s alot of carbon in them, but phosynthetic plankton in the oceans take up far more CO2 and produce more oxygen than the tropical forests do.
    ==================================

    So just because plankton converts more CO2 than the rainforests do, it’s not ok to get rid of a crucial component in a system we don’t fully understand?

  29. kindly omit “not” from your reading of my post

  30. Fluffy,

    It’s the same thing here in Maine. Farmland that isn’t farmed quickly turns to forest. Maine is more heavily forested now that it was 100 years ago. Trees grow like weeds here.

  31. Fluffy,

    “Why are we taking the idea that the new forests are all paper mill monoculture low biota junk? When was that fact entered into evidence?”

    We’re not talking about “all” anything, but the issue of the value of paper mill monoculture being the equivalent of natural vegetation entered the discussion in Mr. Bailey’s joke disclosure.

  32. Why no-one’s mentioned industrial hemp yet is entirely beyond me.

  33. I don’t disagree with the point about the reforestation mainly being the reversion of farmland, and that those forests generally have much higher biotic value than stands planted for harvest by paper and timber companies.

    Although one pronounced shift is that the new forests in southern New England have a much higher % of evergreen species than the forests which were originally cut.

  34. Joe, has any species gone extinct because the Zebra Mussle now lives in the Great Lakes of North America?

  35. Matt, hemp is another “invasive species” it is Native to Central Asia and the plant nativists would say it belongs nowhere else.

  36. “Joe, has any species gone extinct because the Zebra Mussle now lives in the Great Lakes of North America?”

    I don’t know. I know it’s been hell on the shipping. We sustainable development-types take the effect of environmental conditions on the economy very seriously.

    “Matt, hemp is another “invasive species” it is Native to Central Asia and the plant nativists would say it belongs nowhere else.”

    No, not really. They’d say that it should not be allowed to crowd out and replace native species, not that it shouldn’t be farmed.

  37. So just because plankton converts more CO2 than the rainforests do, it’s not ok to get rid of a crucial component in a system we don’t fully understand?

    No, and I’m not saying that it’s okay to convert all our rainforests into parking lots. But I am saying that when some of the pristine, old-growth rainforests are cut down and converted into tree plantations it’s not going to be the end of the world.

    Indeed, from the information Ron has provided allowing some of Amazonia to be used as tree farms will probably help save the rest from being cut down.

  38. Fluffy,

    You’re on to something. My understanding is that the eastern forest is coming back (and that the population of beavers in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region now exceeds mid-1600 estimates) in no small part to exurban sprawl, replacing 200-300 years of clear-cut farm use with “alpine meadows” consisting of a patch of grassy lawn flanked by clumps of trees. Suburban and exurban people seem to like large-ish trees.

  39. Joe, somehow shippers manage to deal with Zebra Mussles in places where they are native. Maybe shippers in the Great Lakes need to “adapt.”

    “No, not really. They’d say that it [hemp]should not be allowed to crowd out and replace native species, not that it shouldn’t be farmed.”

    But JOE, he reason that plant-nativists in Florida are up in arms about people brining in “exotic” species is the fear that they can spread. Hemp, as most people know, can and does grow like a weed in many places.

  40. “joe: Again you’re way behind the times on the science”

    A guy who lied for hire for years for CEI can type this with, presumably, a straight face. Huh. I guess I’m not exactly “Shocked”, per se.

  41. “We’re not talking about “all” anything, but the issue of the value of paper mill monoculture being the equivalent of natural vegetation entered the discussion in Mr. Bailey’s joke disclosure.”

    Let’s just think about this statement for a moment.

  42. “A guy who lied for hire for years for CEI”

    ????????????????????????????????????????????

  43. Why does joe hate clean lakes?

  44. And evergreens?

  45. Indeed, from the information Ron has provided allowing some of Amazonia to be used as tree farms will probably help save the rest from being cut down.
    ====================================
    The way I hear it, many species in the rainforest depend upon forest density to survive.

    And when I say “forest density”, I’m not talking about Joe on a nature hike.

  46. My best friend Brian SUCKS@ He is condensending and treats me like a child, even though I am smarter and more better put-tother than him forever! There is no reason he sjould talk down to me like he does. I love him, but whaterver

  47. And who cares if the girl I am intrested in is more intrezted in him than me? I am so much better than him thjan he is. I am a liberterian! History will prove us to be right, and that is a lot better than being lonely and no one wanting to talk to you due to the fact that you have a personality that drives people aways.

  48. Good story in the Christian Science Monitor about this subject in regards to the forests in Massachusetts.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0214/p13s02-sten.html

  49. Forests increasing? I thought Ronald Reagan killed off all the forests in the Northern Hemisphere in the 1980’s with acid rain.

  50. “P.I.R.s.,

    The zebra mussels may have restored the clarity of the water after it was degraded from human activity – which is clearly a good thing – but that most certainly was not the extent of their impact on the ecosystem, or on our economy.

    Also, little pristine patches of natural ecosystem don’t adquately provide native migratory species of birds, for example, or creatures with larger ranges, with the landscape they need to survive.”

    Um, migratory birds have this nifty adaptation called flying that lets them travel from one patch of hospitible environment to another. That’s how they cross oceans. Many birds seek specific resting spots. Large migratory mammals tend to follow a set path. So yeah, we can’t randomly cut down forests without affecting the birds or large mammals, but we just have the record where these animals go and preserve the small fraction of land they need.

  51. Whenever I hear “They’re coming back” I think of Lew Zealand, the Boomerang Fish thrower on the Muppet Show

    Kermit:I don’t care about boomerang fish acts.
    Lew Zealand: Oh, you will. They’re coming back!

  52. It still takes 400 years to grow a 400-year-old Western Red Cedar, and that tree is going to have to grow in a forest of 600-year-old cedars if it’s to have the slow growth that makes 80 or 100 rings to the inch. We’re a long way from “saving the forest”. We will not have it back for centuries, if ever.

    We are doing better, though, which is a small good.

  53. “It still takes 400 years to grow a 400-year-old Western Red Cedar, and that tree is going to have to grow in a forest of 600-year-old cedars if it’s to have the slow growth that makes 80 or 100 rings to the inch. We’re a long way from “saving the forest”. We will not have it back for centuries, if ever.”

    So somehow a 200 year old western red cedar was able to seed and ultimately reproduce. Hmm, I wonder how that is …..

    Who is to say an “old growth forest” is somehow superior? Is it just that it looks more exotic to our human eyes?

  54. The North American forests still haven’t returned to the composition they had before the glacers 15,000 years ago, because different tree species disperse at different rates. The question should be, can the new forest perform all the functions and support all the species of an old growth forest. It is can, I’m OK with it being different.

  55. Well, just from experience on that whole forest thing . . .

    Back when I was a youngster flying for the Tennesse Army National Guard, I flew ove vast tracts upon tracts of land that had been re-planted with trees. Some to become true forests again, some to be harvested.

    Amazingly, at the same time while in college in Tennessee, there were ‘environmentally concious’ students who cited many of the areas in “full green” as being barren! None were “Ag students”, all were in the Arts and Sciences. Their ‘evidence’ was maps or just descriptions of areas that had been harvested and/or clear-cut in the past.

    Of course, my telling them that there were 20′ or taller trees on the “barren” areas I was greeted the same way joe greets everybody here.

    Quite an interesting experience.

  56. The difference (as well as the look of the forest and those living in it) in the lumber is appearant to those who use trees for things other than woodpulp (or in the case of WRC, shingles.) WRC starts reproducing at about 10 years, typically lives to 500-1000 years, the record is >3000 years. Modern lumber is not, for many uses, as good as it used to be. Engineering data tables are being adjusted to show this.

  57. “The difference (as well as the look of the forest and those living in it) in the lumber is apparent to those who use trees for things other than wood pulp (or in the case of WRC, shingles.) WRC starts reproducing at about 10 years, typically lives to 500-1000 years, the record is >3000 years. Modern lumber is not, for many uses, as good as it used to be. Engineering data tables are being adjusted to show this.”

    With advances in biotechnology, this could be taken care of as well. Other forms of technology also could help. An increasing number of buildings and homes are being built out of steel. Steel buildings can superficially look like wood constructed buildings and you do not have to worry as much about termites (this saves the environment from nasty pesticides.) Some technology not yet invented might be even better.

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