Keeping forests

Maintaining forests has a wide range of benefits to society and the environment. Human preferences and market choices can have unintended consequences to our forest resource.

Forests are a critical resource for many reasons. World history and current consumption clearly illustrate the importance of forests to a nation’s survival. However, many citizens take forests for granted and rarely spend much time wondering what is happening to them today or how they might fare into the future.

It is extremely economically important to keep forests as forests. For example, cork forests in the Alentejo region of southern Portugal dominate large parts of the landscape. These forests have long supplied much of the world’s cork.

For centuries, wine bottlers have used cork stoppers. The cork allows the wine to breathe and does not affect the flavor of the wine (except in rare cases). Over the past few years, bottlers have begun to use non-cork stoppers. This, of course, threatens the cork industry. What does that mean? Well, without an adequate market, much of the cork forest would be converted to other uses. An entire ecosystem would diminish considerably.

Without adequate wood product markets, forests are much more vulnerable to conversion to other uses.

Coupled with this pending situation is the situation in Newark, New Jersey. In the rolling mountains west of the New York megalopolis, thousands of forested acres were parceled into small estates by the wealthy upper middle class. This was once forest that provided timber, hunting, wildlife habitat and many other societal benefits.

Now, this newly-residential forest still provides a measure of forest benefits, as it remains fairly forested. However, what once was a rich resource of public benefits has been substantially diminished. The American trend for sprawling development and urban splatter comes at a cost. It is long-term land use conversion. Some call it deforestation.

This concept was punctuated when Michigan hosted a Swedish energy and forestry team. While chatting with one forester, he questioned if it was customary in the USA to convert productive farm and forest land into housing. I responded that, yes, it was common. In Sweden, and throughout most of Europe, residential expansion occurs largely on land less useful for food and forest.

Conversion of forests to other uses has potential negative effects not reflected in the price of land. One of the major causes of global climate change has been linked to loss of forest.
Currently, most of the world’s deforestation is occurring in Brazil and Indonesia. The USA has actually increased its area of forest over the decades, but that trend has slowed. By 2050, the US forest may go from a net carbon sink to a net carbon emitter. This will largely be due to land use changes and lack of management.

Research from the UW-Madison Silvis Lab has tracked forest changes due to human development in the Lake States with a particular focus on timber products. Much of the research results are stunning. While land use change is far from complete deforestation, the trends falsely appear as subtle and they are permanent. The actual effects are dramatic and disturbing to those who value economic, environmental and socio-cultural benefits of forests.

Much of the broad public benefit derived from large forest expanses has been exchanged with a diminished condition that largely benefits only the owners of small parcels. The rolling mountains west of New York City were a striking visual example, more so than the graphical presentation of research results.

Michigan, the Lake States and the United States have an abundance of forests today. We have some of the most sustainable management anywhere in the world. However, there are ongoing trends that threaten that abundance. And management occurs only where forests and markets exist.

The rampant historic logging of the nation’s forests did not constitute a land use change. The forests returned, through management and with time, and in an abruptly different condition in some cases, but they returned. According to Michigan State University Extension, current development trends offer a far more serious threat to our future. 

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