April 13, 2011

2011-- International Year of Forests

The ongoing destruction of many of earth’s natural resources is fast becoming an urgent matter to people not only in North America but in scores of countries worldwide. Not the least of these resources is forests—vital to sustaining life on this planet. Responding to the growing concern, the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests. The U.N.’s goal is to raise awareness of the situation and of sustainable ways to manage, conserve, and develop all types of forests.

Few people understand better the important role forests play in maintaining a healthy environment than does Richard Guldin, director of Quantitative Sciences for the United States Forest Service, Research and Development. Guldin, also an associate head elder of the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, recently talked with Adventist Review features editor Sandra Blackmer about ways the U.S. Forest Service is helping people throughout the country and internationally to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the connections between forests and people.
BLACKMER: As director of Quantitative Sciences, Richard, what are your main responsibilities for the U.S. Forest Service?
GULDIN: I have three main tasks. First, I’m responsible for inventory and monitoring work. Since the 1930s we’ve been taking measurements of the health and productivity of all the forests in the United States. Today the U.S. has 797 million acres of forest land—including both private and public land. Second, my staff puts together national reports on the status, conditions, and trends of those forests, as well as state-level reports. These reports are used widely by state foresters to help plan programs to reach out to private landowners. They’re also used by state economic development officials and a large number of forest consultants, university researchers, and interest groups.
So these reports help project what the forest is going to look like 10 years, 20 years, 50 years from now?
Right. My staff makes projections about future forest conditions so that the impacts of today’s forest policies are more apparent.
And your third responsibility?
International cooperation in science matters with other forestry agencies and universities around the world. We share what we’ve learned through research to help others, and we in turn learn from them to help improve the situation here.
How large is your program?
I have about 380 employees scattered throughout the United States. State forestry organizations provide another 200 people to make this a federal-state partnership. Four hundred of those people are in the forests literally every day of the year.

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CARING FOR THE FORESTS: Richard Guldin, director of Quantitative Sciences for the United States Forest Service, says only 10 percent of North Americans are attuned to the ecosystem services forests provide.

How long have you been doing this?

Since 1996—in this particular job. However, I entered the Forest Service right out of graduate school in 1978.
In what ways is your work important not just to the nation but to individual cities and people?
Different people place different values on forests. In the United States 53 percent of the nation’s drinking water supplies originate as rainfall on forests, and New York City, for example, doesn’t have a drinking water treatment facility. Instead, several decades ago the city decided to invest in forest land management in the Catskill Mountains. So fostering forest management in the Catskills allows the water that comes into the New York City water supply reservoirs to be so clean that it needs only chlorination and a bit of fluoridation before piping it out to customers. The city has saved more than $1 billion in water treatment plant construction costs and millions of dollars annually for water treatment by investing in forests. Our data on forest health in the Catskills is vital to New York City and its residents.
What benefits in addition to clean water do we derive from forests?
Forests soak up a lot of rainfall and prevent soil erosion into streams. They provide quality habitat for wildlife and fish and are home to a lot of natural pollinators. Where would this globe be without pollinating insects to pollinate all the fruits and other plants? Forests also are a source of firewood and fuel, and they help clean the air. One of the big issues discussed in today’s environmental literature is carbon sequestration. Can trees help to take the carbon emitted by cars and factories out of the atmosphere? Yes, certainly. The forests of the U.S. annually absorb about 11percent of all the carbon emissions of all the cars and factories in this country. There’s a whole host of ecosystem services that forests provide that the public generally doesn’t think about.
In what ways has the condition of U.S. forests changed throughout the centuries?
From the time Europeans first began settling in the United States until the 1880s, this country lost about a third of its forests as a result of land clearing for agriculture and development. We have an inventory from 1815 of forests in Connecticut that shows that state was only 10 to 15 percent forest. Connecticut today is 60 percent forest.
The Industrial Revolution in the United States—the 1820s to 1880s—was driven by steam, and wood was the primary fuel for railroad transportation and factories. At the same time, wood was the primary home heating and cooking fuel. Every town had a woodlot. In the 1880s transportation, industrial, and domestic fuel shifted largely from wood to coal. As a result, since the late 1880s the area of forestland in the U.S. has varied less than 5 percent. We’ve had nearly constant forest acreage for 125 years.
So had we continued relying on wood for fuel, cooking, and transportation, we could be in a very challenging situation today regarding forests and trees?
We’d be in a different place—yes. Fifty million people were recorded in the 1880 U.S. census, compared to more than 300 million today. But there’s more to it than that. Although the total forest area has been stable, where forests exist has changed. Marginal croplands have gotten worn out and reverted to forests, and losses to development around major cities have been roughly offset by gains in farmland reversions and tree planting in rural areas. The net result is that we’re meeting the needs of six times as many people as in 1880 with the same forest area.
What is the Forest Service doing to raise awareness of the importance of forests?
We’re trying to reach children as well as adults. It’s through children that the greatest impact on the future of forests will be made. There’s a book by Richard Louv titled Last Child in the Woods that sums up our situation well. Louv makes the case that today’s children are not being allowed to play outside, to be in the forest—and that’s creating problems. He cites a 2002 British study in which children recognized and could name fictional characters, but couldn’t name such things as “otters,” “beetles,” or “oak trees.” So the Forest Service has developed a program we call “Kids in the Woods,” because the next generation absolutely has to be connected to forests and understand what they do for us.
Too many parents today are insulating their children from the outdoors and nature. Indoor play and electronic “nannies” have replaced outdoor play and experiencing nature. Pathfinder clubs and after-school nature clubs can help offset this trend.
Some people might ask, with the overwhelming humanitarian problems we’re dealing with worldwide—hunger, poverty, terrorism—why should people care about a few trees?
There’s a link between poverty and trees. When you look at the places in the world that don’t have reliable supplies of clean water and are not tending the forests that they have, you see poverty. Many of the grains that are essential to eradicating hunger are not as digestible when they’re eaten uncooked. And so in many of the poverty-stricken parts of the world the lack of adequate supplies of firewood means that children and adults don’t get all the nutrients out of the food that they do consume. In some world regions gathering firewood is still considered “women’s work.” When I see women having to walk 15 or 20 miles for wood with their little children tagging along and bringing home only what they can carry on their backs or their heads, people can’t convince me that better management of community forests for firewood is not a critical issue to human health, poverty eradication, and hunger.
I’ve heard Christians—including some Adventists—say, “It’s all going to burn up anyway; someday soon Jesus is going to come and remake the earth into a perfect planet, so why stress about earth care?” How would you respond?
I too believe Jesus is coming soon, but when He does, I want Him to say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have cared for My creation until I returned.”
It’s easy for people to make the connection between tending a vegetable garden or grainfield and their personal welfare, because the harvest comes quickly. But forests take 40 to 60 years to grow, and in some cases 150 years or more to reach maturity. Sustainable forest management is about carefully balancing what you take from the forest today and what you leave to produce benefits for future generations.
Do you see North Americans as being concerned about these issues?
Maybe 10 percent of the people in North America are attuned to some of these issues. Large portions of the American population, particularly children, are ignorant of many of these things. There are kids today who think milk comes from the grocery store rather than from cows. To help counteract this, the U.S. Forest Service has created a kids’ newspaper we call the Natural Inquirer —kind of like the KidsView newsletter by the Adventist Review. It’s a tabloid-size publication that comes out about four times a year and targets middle school science students and teachers. We produce thousands of copies of each issue and send them to schools free of charge. Both English and Spanish versions are available online. I believe that teaching children about the natural world—including forests—is a critical part of their education.
The U.N. General Assembly has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests. What does it hope to accomplish by this?
Each year the United Nations highlights some aspect of the environment. In 2011 they’re trying to draw attention to sustainable management of forests and all the services forests provide.
What events and programs are being planned to help accomplish this goal?
In the United States the Forest Service is working with some of its partners to focus on five things: (1) to expand the use of science-based management to restore and sustain forest landscapes; (2) to better protect and enhance water resources; (3) to help landscapes become more resilient to climate change; (4) to create jobs and volunteer opportunities related to conservation and outdoor education; and (5) to reconnect Americans, especially children, with nature through outdoor recreation and conservation education programs.
There are 650 ranger districts on national forests across the United States that will be sponsoring activities in 2011 that focus on getting kids and their parents out into the forests, activities such as nature hikes and helping to clean up the environment.
It would seem that children would be enthusiastic about being outdoors, if given the opportunity.
They need to be introduced to it, and it takes an adult to do this. Their peers can introduce them to electronic games, but it takes an adult who cares about nature to introduce them to the outdoors.
What can the average person do to help raise awareness of the importance of forest conservation?
The simple answer is to plant trees, and groups such as the Arbor Day Foundation are ready to help. Beyond that, become environmentally literate—understand environmental issues in both their current and their future contexts and how they affect forests. Get involved with a Pathfinder club, with an after-school nature club, or in the local community. County, state, regional, and national organizations also exist that represent a great diversity of interests. Support those that are aligned with your interests and perspectives.
What about recycling?
That’s another good issue. A decade and a half ago Europe was already recycling about 40 percent of their paper. I’d attend international meetings where folk would laugh at the United States because we didn’t have effective paper recycling programs. But in the last 15 years our paper recycling has expanded dramatically. Today we’re recycling more than 40 percent of our wastepaper.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Two things. One is that many don’t understand who owns America’s forests. About 60 percent of U.S. forests are owned by more than 11 million private forestland owners, typically in small 10- to 50-acre tracts. Another 18 percent are in private corporate ownership by forest products firms and investors. So it’s one thing for people to support and enjoy public forests, but when we consider all the ecosystem services that forests provide, it’s important to keep the private landowners in mind and support their efforts to manage their forests sustainably, too.
Second, it’s important to see clearly the linkage between population growth and development patterns and forests. The same trends evident in the U.S. exist around the world—growing population and sprawling cities, and stable or declining forest area. So the broader question to be solved is one of sustainable development, managing existing forests, and creating new ones to meet the needs of a growing population. Seeing forests and all the services they provide in this context of sustainable development is vital to the future well-being of everyone on our planet—until the Second Advent.
Read more about the U.S. Forest Service and the U.N. designating 2011 as the Year of Forests.