A forest is more a concept than a thing. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes a forest as “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract.” Through most of human time, a forest was regarded with trepidation. Forests were filled with real dangers such as wolves and bears, and with imagined dangers such as hobgoblins and witches.
With enlightenment forests became benign. Trees are the most obvious component of a forest. In 1923, Joyce Kilmer wrote in the first verse of “Trees”, “I think that I shall never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” The first Arbor Day Holiday was in 1872 in Nebraska by American pioneers who missed the trees of their homelands. Today we think of forests as ecological units composed of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, fungi, and animals, to name just a few components.
In much of the world, forests have been destroyed. Wood was used for fuel and building materials and other parts of the ecology were used for food. Destroyed forests were not regrown but replaced by agricultural and husbandry uses. In the United States, we are lucky to still have great forests.
As population shifted from rural to urban areas, forests have taken on a reverence. With growth of environmental concerns in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many cities enacted tree protection ordinances. Trees were recognized for providing shading, reducing urban temperatures, and increasing aesthetic values. Trees were also recognized for their value of increasing oxygen levels. Today, trees are also being recognized for their ability to extract and sequester carbon dioxide.
The ecological gold-standard for forests is “old growth,” (forests not having been cut in hundreds of years). Old growth forests are stable environments that led to the evolution of many unique species of flora and fauna. For the last 50 years, conservationists have urged preservation of old growth forests and many threatened species that are bound by the special ecology of such forests. Large tracts of forestland are being placed in legal protection using land trusts. Unfortunately, old growth forests are not efficient at removal of carbon dioxide.
We must now modify our forestry ethics. The threat posed by climate change is more dramatic and widespread than the destruction of specific forest habitats. Only now are we understanding the massive destruction which we are wrecking upon the environment. Climate change is a major part of this increasing destruction. For millions of years, atmospheric carbon was sequestered from the biosphere in deposits of coal, petroleum and natural gas. We have been consuming these deposits and excreting them into the atmosphere at accelerating rates.
It is doubtful that we will have the self-control or the ability to avoid much of the destruction that looms in our future. However, there is an action which we could implement that would lessen the destruction. We can remove great amounts of atmospheric carbon by changing the use we make of forest products. Instead of building stick homes, which are often blown away by storms or burned in fires, we could build them of metal, stone and other minerals. All that is required is that we recognize carbon sequestration as a more valuable use than lumber, paper, press/fiber board, or sustainable fuel. For thousands of years, we have had the technology to convert wood into charcoal. Charcoal, which is very similar to coal, can be safely deposited outside of the biosphere in the myriad abandoned mines that exist over our nation and the world. Forest management should be maximized for growth of biomass.
Do we have the fortitude to confront the wolf at our door?