Natural Forests: The Greenest “Infrastructure” on Earth

Diverse, intact forests are literally the greenest infrastructure on Earth, vital to our health and survival. They are the ultimate water pumps, critical to ensuring abundant, fresh water supplies. They provide natural air filtration, storm protection, food, medicine, recreation, and a place to find peace. Yet environmental policy solutions put forward in America today largely fail to recognize protecting existing, natural forests as a “green infrastructure” priority.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day when the modern environmental movement was born.

Millions of people mobilized in the streets and in the classrooms marching, rallying, and educating the public about the need to protect our planet, catalyzing landmark environmental protection laws including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

Photo Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory

50 years later, however, no one will be in the streets or the classrooms. Instead millions are self-isolating in their homes, confronting a sobering reality as a virus wreaks havoc across the planet. Extreme weather continues as climate change intensifies, compounding impacts to human health and the economy. An estimated 150-200 species are going extinct every 24 hours.

The web of life is unraveling.

As the economy shut down amidst the global pandemic, pictures of clear water in the Venice canals went viral. Reports of smog-free skies in Los Angeles spread like wildfire. Carbon emissions show promising declines around the world.

The need to green our economy has never been clearer than at this moment.

That’s why hundreds of organizations across America are pushing for policies that can help transform our economy to one that is restorative, regenerative, and equitable. Countless organizations are coming together to ensure that the next governmental economic stimulus package includes billions of dollars for “green” infrastructure, helping to lay a foundation for broad-sweeping and comprehensive policy initiatives, such as the Green New Deal, which was designed to address the climate crisis, improve human health, and create millions of “green” jobs.

There is no question that these initiatives are vital, representing hope for a future where protecting people and the planet are at the forefront of policies that shape our economy. Ironically, these “green” policy proposals miss the mark when it comes to forests by failing to address the devastating climate, health, and economic impacts of industrial logging.

The US is the world’s largest consumer and producer of wood products.

Logging rates here are among the highest on Earth, estimated at four times that of South American rainforests in the Southern US alone.

Every year, millions of acres of forests are logged, degrading the greenest life-supporting infrastructure on Earth. Logging releases vast amounts of unreported carbon emissions into the atmosphere, while limiting forests’ ability to remove carbon and provide natural protections against intensifying flooding and droughts.

From this:

To this:

Though the US Forest Service reports that the area of “forests” in the US has remained relatively stable over the past 50 years, the ecological integrity of our nation’s forests has been in constant decline.

Hundreds of millions of acres of natural forests have been logged over and over again.

Tens of millions of acres have been destroyed to make way for industrial tree plantations sprayed routinely with chemical herbicides and fertilizers. Entire forest ecosystems have been brought to the brink of extinction. Hundreds of industrial-scale wood processing facilities release vast quantities of toxic pollution, compromising the health of nearby residents, disproportionately impacting low income communities and communities of color. Meanwhile, the vast majority of wood products end up in landfills, our once living forests tossed aside as trash.

Air pollution coming from a paper mill in SC.

The degradation of forests along with the pollution of our air and water has left communities in a degraded economic condition, with disproportionately high poverty and unemployment rates.

These same communities are bearing the brunt of the economic impacts of extreme weather events linked to climate change.

And now, they are at higher risk of dying prematurely if they get the Coronavirus due to high levels of industrial pollution which have been linked to higher mortality rates.

Proposed policies focused on solving the climate crisis and creating “green” jobs simply do not address these problems. Climate policies designed to curb carbon emissions fail to hold the forest industry accountable. Misguided solutions, such as “planting a trillion trees”, have become a focal point of investing in “green” infrastructure and jobs, while expanded protection for existing natural forests, especially on private lands, is largely ignored.

Even worse, are so-called “green” policy initiatives that accelerate the logging of forests.

Whether it’s “green” subsidies for burning wood as a “renewable” fuel alternative to coal or proposed “green” stimulus money for building skyscrapers out of wood, policies that promote logging are often embedded in otherwise sound proposals that mandate a phase out fossil fuels and new investments in solar and wind energy. The word “restoration” has become an overused policy buzz word, often used to justify even more logging. “Restoration” is also frequently used to mean re-establishing new forests as opposed to restoring the ecological health and function of existing forests through protecting them.

Yet, protecting existing forests is vital to solving the ecological crises we face, restoring our failing economy and creating “green” jobs. The forest industry employs an estimated 955,000 people in America. That may seem like a lot, but other businesses that help keep forests standing already create more jobs with potential for even more growth.

For example, outdoor recreation employs 7.6 million people.

A growing body of research documents other community benefits associated with outdoor recreation, including improved education and health outcomes. Communities dependent on logging have restricted opportunities for building outdoor recreation-based economies.

Photo of kayaking in wetlands

Another example is the recycling industry that employs 1.25 million people compared to 250,000 in solid waste. Paper and wood products currently make up roughly half the materials in our landfills. A US recycling rate of 75% by 2030 would create 1.1 million new jobs, while helping to ease pressure on forests.

Forests should be prioritized in a way that reduces poverty and increases well-being.

The world’s leading scientists recently revealed clear links between degradation of land and degradation of communities, finding that restoring degraded land between now and 2030 could generate $9 trillion in environmental benefits, such as clean water, clean air, and increased wildlife.

It’s not too late for “green” policy initiatives such as the Green New Deal, the People’s Bailout, or the Green Stimulus, to embrace the term “proforestation” which refers to letting existing natural forests grow to reach their full biological potential.

No batteries, no mining, no transportation, no chemicals, and no factories are required.

Protecting forests is truly the greenest investment we can make for our future.

Invest in our green future today. Make a gift today to protect the forests and people of the South.

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