The World’s Forests

Conflicting Signals

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A number of diverse currents and pressures are simultaneously being brought to bear on the world’s forests.  In the tropics, forestlands are continuing to be converted to other land uses at increasing rates.  By contrast, the temperate forestlands have stabilized and are expanding in most industrial countries.  The countervailing trends witnessed in the forests of the world cause alarm to those who perceive them to be in rapid and perhaps irreversible decline.  But to others, the forests’ ability to expand and flourish, providing society with both commodity and environmental outputs, demonstrates an amazingly adaptable and resilient ecosystem which is expected to continue providing a host of goods and services into the future.  If the forests are to be preserved for future generations, it is imperative to base any assessment of the condition of global forests on accurate data and a clear understanding of the dynamic between the forest and the institutional structures of the community that uses it.

It has become commonplace, even fashionable to blame deforestation on industry’s rise.  Yet private forest lands have accounted for eighty-five percent of total tree planting and seeding in the U.S. in recent years.  The forests of the Northern Hemispheric industrial countries have been steadily expanding for decades while continuing to provide nearly 75 percent of the world’s industrial wood production.  The United States has been the world’s top producer of timber since World War II.  Yet the volume of our national forests today is greater than it was 50 years ago, while forest area in the U.S. has remained fairly constant over the past 75 years.  Indeed, improved tree growing technology, the escalation of deliberate efforts to promote forest growth through tree planting, and improved control over wildfire have been influential agents of forest preservation.  Testimony to the success of such efforts is the 30 percent increase of forest biomass in the northern Rocky Mountains since the middle of the Eighteenth Century.

Conversely, the rate of forest conversion in the tropical areas increased from 0.6 percent to 0.8 percent in 1993.  The 1,910 million hectares of land covered by tropical forests in 1980 was reduced to 1,756 million hectares by 1990.  This occurred despite an impressive 2.6 million hectare a year expansion of tropical plantation forests throughout the 1980s which totaled 30.7 million hectares of tropical plantation forest land in 1992.

Why is it that industrialized countries do a better job than developing countries in preserving their forests?  Comparing the alarming rates of land conversion in the tropical forests of developing countries to the stable rates of the temperate forests in the industrialized regions evinces a clear relationship between levels of economic development and degrees of forest modification.  Part of the reason for this is that agricultural expansion, not commercial logging, is a major cause of deforestation.  Developed countries in the temperate regions have achieved relative land use stability while the developing countries in the tropics are still in a mode of agricultural expansion.  Additionally, industrialized countries have well-developed institutions of land tenure, property rights, enforcement capabilities, and judicial systems that encourage long-term commitments to the land.  The absence of such systems in the developing tropical regions encourages the slash-and-burn agriculture that exacerbates deforestation.

Historically, humans everywhere have interacted with and “disturbed” the forest.  As humans progressed and became agriculturists, rather than simple hunter-gatherers, they found it necessary to modify natural ecosystems.  However, the land conversion process is not one-way, flowing only from forests to cleared lands.  Lands once cleared may be converted back into forests either as plantations or as naturally regenerated forests.

Forests are not and have never been unchangeable.  Being biological systems they have an amazing resiliency and ability to adapt to fluid conditions, whether these changes are the result of nature or humans.  Thus, although the forests of the temperate world have experienced many anthropogenic disturbances over the millennia, in many respects they are in remarkably good condition.  In vast areas of the globe much of the natural forest is intact and minimally affected by human disturbances.  In addition, plantation forests are growing in importance and increasingly deflecting timber harvesting pressures away from natural forests.  It is likely that the world’s forests will be stabilized early in the next century.