2017 has been a record breaking year for natural disasters that have devastated communities across the Southern US and Puerto Rico. The season began with Hurricane Harvey that devastated Houston and hit close to home. We had record breaking storm after storm all the way through to Hurricane Maria and Nate which battered Puerto Rico and Mississippi. Our hearts are with the people who have been most directly impacted and we sincerely hope all that can and should be done is in order to ensure each and every one of them is respected and taken care of.
Today is the UN sponsored International Day of Disaster Reduction (IDDR). Nations and communities around the world are highlighting ways to better prepare for and prevent the most calamitous and disastrous impacts of natural disasters.
The theme for this year is “Home Safe Home: Reducing Exposure, Reducing Displacement.”
As we have seen this hurricane season, long-term degradation and neglect of natural systems have taken a major toll on our coastal communities.
For our part, we would like to forward what we consider to be our best defense against these disasters – forests.
Standing forests protect against flooding.
Excess water drains better where there are healthy, intact, large areas of mature forests. When we keep forests standing along our riverbanks, there’s less erosion and less flooding inland. And as the flooding recedes, trees help to clean our drinking water.
Meanwhile, the rate and scale of logging in US forests for wood, paper and fuel are among the highest in the world.
For example, in the past three years the forests of the coastal South have become the largest source of wood pellet exports to Europe, where they are burned in power stations to generate electricity as a “climate friendly” alternative to coal. Logging, past and present, has significantly degraded US forests’ disaster-reducing capabilities, and a new path must forward must be created in order to restore US forests for these benefits.
On the IDDR last year, local politicians from across the region called on the European Union to stop subsidizing the destruction of Southern forests. Our favorite quote came from James Holmes, Chatham County, GA Commissioner:
“Forests are one of our best defenses against natural disasters. Whether it’s flooding, landslides, storm surges, droughts, or hurricanes, forests play a vital role in the protection of lives and livelihoods. No matter what type of storm threatens our local communities, allowing natural forests to remain intact is a cost-effective investment and helps save the lives of our citizens.”
We could not more wholeheartedly agree! That is why we joined with landowners, community groups, conservation organizations, and more to launch the Wetland Forest Initiative earlier this year. This ambitious conservation initiative, focused on conserving, restoring and improving wetland forests, which span 35 million acres across 14 Southern states, represents a unified effort to secure a safer, healthier and more economically just and prosperous future for the rural South.
The Wetland Forest Initiative is as much about protecting people as it is about protecting wildlife and birds. It’s as much about saving taxpayer money as it is about saving species. It’s as much about safeguarding our communities from natural disasters as it is about improving the economic conditions for rural southerners and creating more options for landowners. It’s as much about maintaining the diversity within the forest as it is about embracing the wisdom in the diversity of people that define the Southern culture. And, it’s as much about the here and now as it is about the legacy that we leave for future generations.
Sea levels are rising and the threats from climate change to the citizens of the South grow every day.
As storms become more frequent and intense, coastal communities need to strengthen defenses not weaken them. Our Southern forests provide vital protection from extreme weather and we cannot afford to lose any more. To ensure our economic prosperity, to protect our health and children, to ensure our security and safety, and to protect our wildlife we need to act now to keep natural forests intact.