The maple, pine or oak tree that you regularly take for granted deserves another look. Trees are the Earth’s lungs and air purifiers. They supply housing for countless creatures, provide shade, increase real estate value and are correlated with significant health and emotional benefits. And, as we humans continue to spew out more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, a tree’s job has never been more important.
Trees absorb CO2 and give off O2, a process that’s been taking place for millions of years. Sequestration rates range, on a per tree basis, an “estimated average of approximately one ton of carbon dioxide over [a tree's] lifetime.” Logically then, one would think we should be planting trees at an astronomical rate to act as carbon sinks in an effort to mitigate climate change. So why are we still clear-cutting in the Amazon and destroying forestland for palm oil production? Perhaps it’s because, even though we generally recognize the value of trees, they’re still worth more cut down than standing. Wouldn’t we leave them alone if the opposite were true?
UN-REDD, a global United Nations program, addresses deforestation and establishes a financial value for forests left intact. This effort is critical as “deforestation and forest degradation … account for nearly 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.” Countries like Bolivia, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia are participating in UN-REDD but there are still many obstacles to overcome, related mainly to corruption and cultural differences. Interestingly, UN-REDD is popular within the international forestry community, but is not well known in the United States, except in California.
Challenges facing trees aren’t limited to human-based activity, however. In Colorado, the Mountain Pine Beetle has devastated regional forests leaving vast amounts of mountain ranges barren while exacerbating the risk of forest fire. A 2011 aerial survey showed “that 4.6 million acres in Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota have been affected since the first signs of the [beetle] outbreak in 1996.” That number is up from 4.3 million acres in 2010 and there is concern the western mountain landscape will look drastically different in just a few more years.
Unfortunately, tree plight and disease is predicted to increase given climate change and shifting ecosystems. The Mountain Pine Beetle, for example, historically died off each year during winter months, yet milder winters provide the beetle ample time to not only survive, but reproduce at double the rate. The forest simply cannot withstand the duration of attack.
In addition to deforestation and natural predators, trees are also in high material demand. Trees compose everything from paper to floorboards and we’ve come to rely on tree products for so many of our everyday purchases. Old growth, in particular, is prized for being some of the strongest and most desirable wood in the world. In fact, the famous California Redwood was all but extinct until conservation efforts stepped in to save the tree.
It’s only recently that the benefits of trees beyond the basic market value structure have begun to be quantified. Trees have long provided poetic beauty and inspiration, but research demonstrates that trees do so much more. One interesting study showed that decomposing trees leach acids into the ocean, helping to fertilize plankton, a food chain building block. Trees also filter water and are “capable of cleaning up the most toxic wastes, including explosives, solvents and organic wastes.” Trees and plants in the Amazon are shown to hold medicinal value as well.
The benefits of trees are vast and it’s no wonder more and more groups are pushing for increased urban forests, tree education and national park preservation. Ecotourism is another approach to stopping massive scale deforestation, but it’s still an uphill battle. The further away we get from trees, the further away we get from a core part of ourselves; maybe it’s time to take a closer look at what we’re missing.
Photo Credit: Malene Thyssen