Forests are one of our planet’s most important biomes. They’re wildly diverse, both within each forest and from forest to forest—there are three main types: temperate, tropical, and boreal. Temperate forests exist in eastern North America and across Europe and Asia. This type is characterized by its experiencing all four seasons. Tropical forests are found on all continents that line up with the equator; they’re generally quite warm and are the most biologically diverse of the three, playing host to an untold variety of flora and fauna. Boreal forests are found in the far north (think Scandanavia, Canada, Siberia). They tend to be very cold and populated by trees like spruce and pine and animals like moose and bears. Together, all these forests cover about 30% of Earth’s land.
Within each of these three main types exist more specific types, such as coastal mangrove forests within the tropics. Looking at all forest ecosystems as a whole, they host some 80% of the world’s land-based biodiversity. To say nothing of the myriad different trees, shrubs, flowers, ferns, fungi, and so on, the shelter and verticality inherent in these environments allow so many different types of animal life to thrive. The ground, the trees themselves, the canopy—birds, primates, cats, rodents, insects and so many more call these places home.
It’s not only wildlife living in the woods. Some 1.6 billion people live in or near forests, benefitting from the natural bounty of plant and animal life as well as the natural beauty and air quality. Trees both produce oxygen and cool the air around them. They’re natural air filters. When we talk about global warming, we often talk about carbon dioxide (CO2), perhaps the most commonly known greenhouse gas. CO2 is produced in many ways and is a natural part of life on Earth, but in the wake of industrialization, emissions of the gas have skyrocketed. Trees filter it out of the atmosphere. All this to say: trees are crucial to life on our planet. Forests are often referred to as the lungs of the Earth.
Once upon a time, 48% of the planet was blanketed by forest. We’ve lost nearly half that. It’s not that we lost it, actually—we’ve slashed it, processed it, burned it. The most force behind our diminishing forests is the timber industry; we use wood to construct buildings, furniture, and other products. Perhaps less obvious, but with a greater impact, is the destruction of forest for agricultural purposes.
Before it was an e-commerce behemoth, “Amazon” referred to the world’s largest rainforest and river system. That massive forest has diminished in size by at least 17% in the last 50 years, largely for agricultural reasons. Farmers slash the forest to clear land for plantations where they produce palm oil, tea, coffee, and other products. Often, these farmers don’t engage in sustainable practices like crop rotation (to maintain soil health), and so they soon need to slash yet more forest for access to fresh land. This isn’t necessarily because they’re against sustainable agriculture; the market simply demands large-scale production at speed.
Cattle ranching is another major cause of deforestation. Just as with crop farming, the soil soon grows stale and farmers must destroy another swath of forest. This, in particular, creates a devastating one-two punch against our climate. Besides the loss of forest, cattle (along with other livestock, like sheep) produce vast quantities of methane, a major pollutant gas.
Along with the timber and agriculture industries, the mining and oil industries are the final two major causes of deforestation. Precious metals and minerals can be found around the world beneath land covered by forests; to access those profitable treasures, mining companies must clearcut and destroy the plant and animal life above. The mining process often uses harmful chemicals that find their way into the surrounding area’s soil and water, ruining otherwise healthy land and devastating waterways that plants, animals, and humans depend on alike.
All the industrial forest threats listed above also bring collateral damage in the form of roads. Some 430,000 miles of road runs through United States national forest land; 95% of recently built forest roads were used exclusively for logging purposes, as opposed to general or recreational use. These forest scars cut through wildlife habitats and often cause soil erosion that degrades local water quality.
Forests are absolutely crucial to a livable future on this planet. We must preserve the forests we have and plant new trees, build new forests, where ancient trees once stood. There is hope. Philanthropists like Doug and Kris Tompkins have made great efforts to protect wild and forested areas around the world from the threat of industry. In the United States, there are multiple campaigns aimed at planting new trees. In South America, where the Amazon spans eight countries, there is a strong need for an international policy unification to stem and reverse deforestation.
If you’re passionate about our planet and about reversing deforestation in particular, now is the time to get involved. There’s an old saying that “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.” Fitting, no? Connect with other similarly interested people on ShareYourself. Can’t find a project that’s personally relevant to you? Use our project management tools to create a new one. Get other people involved. Set goals. Plant trees. We can rebuild our forests—together.