lumber from the Maine woods ... pine, spruce, cedar, - first, second,
third, and fourth qualities, so lately all of one quality, to wave over
the bear, and moose, and caribou..."
In this lecture period, we wish to learn:
It is impossible to overstate the importance of humankind's clearing of the forests. The transformation of forested lands by human actions represents one of the great forces in global environmental change and one of the great drivers of biodiversity loss. The impact of people has been and continues to be profound. Forests are cleared, degraded and fragmented by timber harvest, conversion to agriculture, road-building, human-caused fire, and in myriad other ways. The effort to use and subdue the forest has been a constant theme in the transformation of the earth, in many societies, in many lands, and at most times. Deforestation has important implications for life on this planet.
Just think, originally, almost half of the United States, three-quarters of Canada, almost all of Europe, the plains of the Levant, and much of the rest of the world were forested. The forests have been mostly removed for fuel, building materials and to clear land for farming. The clearing of the forests has been one of the most historic and prodigious feats of humanity.
About one half of the forests that covered the Earth are gone. Each year, another 16 million hectares disappear. The World Resources Institute estimates that only about 22% of the world's (old growth) original forest cover remains "intact" - most of this is in three large areas: the Canadian and Alaskan boreal forest, the boreal forest of Russia, and the tropical forest of the northwestern Amazon Basin and the Guyana Shield (Guyana, Suriname, Venezuela, Columbia, etc.)
Today, forests cover more than one quarter of the world's total land area, excluding polar regions. Slightly more than 50% of the forests are found in the tropics and the rest are temperate and boreal (coniferous northern forest) zones.
Seven countries (Russia, Brazil, Canada, the United States, China, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) account for more than 60% of the total.
For millennia, humankind has influenced the forests, although much of the impact has been relatively minor. Today, the impact is enormous. Deforestation is expanding and accelerating into the remaining areas of undisturbed forest, and the quality of the remaining forests is declining. Today we examine global patterns in deforestation, assess the human and ecological costs of forest loss, and discuss some of the steps that can help to rectify this alarming situation.
Until quite recently, most of the deforestation occurred in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. By the beginning of this century, these regions had been mostly converted from the original cover. Now, deforestation in these regions has stabilized and regrowth is occurring (though second growth forests have quite different character, see below). In the last few decades, the vast majority of deforestation has occurred in the tropics - and the pace still accelerates. The removal of tropical forests in Latin America is proceeding at a pace of about 2% per year. In Africa, the pace is about 0.8% per year and in Asia it is 2% per year.
The USA has already experienced its wave of deforestation, with the exception of small areas in the west and Alaska. Our old growth forests were mostly harvested by 1920, particularly in the East. Pacific Northwest forests and UP Michigan forests were heavily cut after 1920 until quite recently, and harvest of old growth continues today in Southeast Alaska. Interestingly, deforestation rates at their peak in the Midwest were ~2% annually, about the rates now seen in Amazonia. At that rate, how much of existing forest will remain in 70 years? Just one-fourth. However, much forest re-growth has occurred in the eastern USA during the 20th Century, although these second-growth forests differ in structure and composition from their predecessors.
Since 1600, 90% of the virgin forests that once covered much of the lower 48 states have been cleared away. Most of the remaining old-growth forests in the lower 48 states and Alaska are on public lands. In the Pacific Northwest about 80% of this forestland is slated for logging.
2. Importance of Forests
Forests provide important products for human use and consumption, and they provide valuable ecosystem services. Let's look at each in turn.
Tropical deforestation contributes as much as 90% of the current net release of biotic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This change may represent as much as 20% - 30% of the total carbon flux due to humans - i.e., rivaling the carbon release due to fossil fuel burning. Deforestation thus is an important potential source of carbon. But what if we allow forests to regenerate? As they grow, forests will store or sequester carbon, and so carbon sequestration has become part of the global warming debate. What is the current balance sheet – are the world’s forests a source or a sink for atmospheric CO2? This is uncertain for three main reasons. We are not sure how much forest is being burnt, vs the amount of regrowth. We don’t know enough about the fate of deforested land, ie, how much is reverting to secondary forest. We don’t know how forest disturbance is affecting soil and forest floor carbon stores. Still, there is good evidence that the regrowth of previously-deforested areas in Europe and North America during the 20th century has sequestered considerable amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The world’s tropical forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. A recent estimate is that about 100,000 km2 are deforested each year, and another 100,000 km2 are degraded. Estimates are constantly improving, based on satellite imagery, and deforestation rates change in response to social and economic conditions, as well as quality and accessibility of remaining forest. NASA's Landsat (satellite) cannot see below the forest canopy, and so cannot detect below-canopy clearing, whereas radar remote sensing can detect, eg, a coffee plantation beneath overstory trees.
Only in the Congo Basin and some of the more isolated areas of the Amazon Basin does the forest remain largely intact.
4. Brazil's Amazonian Forests
Biological Diversity of the Amazon
Deforestation has many causes. Population pressures, profits, and internal social and political forces can all push up the rate of forest loss. Access to markets, requiring roads and capital, is an additional powerful force, recently expanded due to the suite of changes referred to as globalization. Poor countries with expanding populations, inequitable distribution of wealth and power, and possibly corrupt governments are especially vulnerable.
6. Forest Management and Recovery
Forest management may have many goals. Under rotation harvest, the goal typically is to maximize annual harvest while ensuring that the area harvested is consistent with forest regrowth rates and total area under management. This might result in a second harvest of the same forest plot after some 60-100 years. The length of time between successive harvests of a forest is called the rotation length.
Forests on federal and state lands are usually managed according to multiple use doctrine. This means that in addition to forest harvest, the land is available for recreation and maintains a healthy forest ecosystem. Managing to protect biodiversity and to restore pre-settlement conditions are relatively recent goals. In many parts of the world forests may be used by indigenous people for subsistence hunting, forest harvest, and as a place to live. These people add yet more considerations, and more stakeholders, to the challenge of forest management.
Forest restoration may seek to restore the system to a near-natural or completely natural state, or to restore many aspects of the structure and function of an undisturbed forest. The latter is usually referred to as rehabilitation, to emphasize that the desired endpoint is not necessarily that of pre-settlement conditions.
Forest management in the USA often involves the controversial role of fire, and whether to attempt to direct the course of forest succession. Most forests in the lower 48 states are relatively young second-growth, and may have developed under an unnatural degree of fire suppression. In the upper Midwest, for example, aspen covers much of what was once white pine. Roughly 80 years old, these aspen forests are at the age when they are likely to die. It is uncertain what type of forest will replace them. Within oak-maple hardwood forests, the overstory is dominated by oaks, whereas the seedlings are dominated by maple. To maintain oak forests, some combination of fire and thinning is needed to favor recruitment by oaks.
Fire plays a major role in many forest types, including some that are highly fire adapted. The jackpine of Michigan, for example, releases its seeds only after fire heats its cones. Fire suppression has been US Forest Service policy since some devastating fires of the 1950s brought calls for fire management. Since then, fuelwood on the forest floor has accumulated and people attracted by scenic settings have increasingly built houses in wooded areas. As a consequence, calls for fire suppression are even stronger, and the human costs of fire are even greater than before.
Forests often will recover on their own, but perhaps not in the direction or as quickly as we might prefer. The old growth spruce-hemlock forests of Southeast Alaska appear to recover toward their original state, but it is hard to say how long this will take. After all, extensive clear-cuts first took place only some 50 years ago, so there are no forests that have fully recovered. Best estimates from comparisons of plots of different ages, some caused by long-ago natural disturbances, suggests 200-400 years. It often is said that tropical forests will never recover from deforestation, especially if the land is burned and the top soil is disturbed. This may be true in some instances, but examination of lands abandoned 50, 100, or more years ago suggests that we should be more optimistic. An ambitious plan to restore a dry forest (one that sheds its leaves in the dry season) in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, serves as a good example. Using fire and grazing to control invasive plants, and working with a detailed knowledge of forest ecology, workers there hope to return this area to its original forested state. In other regions of the tropics, native seedlings are grown in nurseries and planted in forest openings to help speed recovery.
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