We owe our lives to trees. Trees provide far more than furniture and fuel. Everyone finds forests to be beautiful, but not many know how hardworking forests really are. The world’s great forests help make our planet hospitable to life; they purify the air, manage nutrients, capture greenhouse gases, create soil, regulate wind and ocean currents, house two-thirds of the world’s plant and animal species, cool the globe, provide subsistence or jobs to 1.6 billion people, and even play a role in weather systems. And yet, the world’s forests are critically threatened. Though, like amazing threatened species, there are hundreds of endangered forests and other beautiful aspects of nature, the following forests are visually stunning, ecologically precious, unique and simply wondrous and you don’t have to go vegan to help them out.
1. Sherwood Forest
Yes, that Sherwood Forest. What was once a thick and dark mass of trees covering 100,000 acres is now a spartan 450 acres. Intense harvesting of the forest’s massive, ancient oaks for several centuries is the cause of the deforestation of this legendary woodland. Outcrops of Sherwood’s trees exist beyond the 450 acres but are not dense enough to be considered intact forest.
2. Cork Bark Forest
The odd and distinctive cork bark forest of the Mediterranean is a case where industry actually preserves this unique biome. In fact, the advent of the screw-top wine stopper is the cork bark forest’s greatest threat. As vintners switch from cork plugs to alternative wine stoppers, millions of hectares of cork forest will be cut and replanted with other more viable crops; the loss of jobs to the cork bark industry would be another side effect. Experts say we will lose cork forests in the next decade if the wine industry continues to turn to alternative corks. Cork oaks are really fascinating; they can be “shorn”, much like sheep, for many years with proper maintenance. Without market incentive, though, these forests may fall into disrepair or be cleared all together.
3. The Christmas Tree
The unique Fraser Fir, better known as the original Christmas tree for its iconic, plump cone shape, has been struggling with a pestilent insect called the adelgid since the 1950s. (The adelgid eats the tree down to the bare wood, leaving swaths of naked branches behind.) Most of what is left of the Fraser Fir in nature can be found in the majestic Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
4. Appalachian Hemlock Forests
Several states are home to the Appalachian Hemlock, which is threatened by the woolly adelgid. This forest is in New Hampshire.
In North America, a range of factors threatens the 155 national forests, with at least a dozen being critically endangered (some experts consider the number to be closer to 30). Forests are at risk due to the following factors: pestilence, invading species, human activity and climate change. Human activities such as mining, logging, air and groundwater pollution, noise pollution, deforestation, clear-cutting, the “island effect” and other poor silviculture methods have the greatest impact. (The “island effect” involves breaking up forests into smaller sections, as in the case of Sherwood Forest.)
5. The Cloud Forests
Cloud forests, or montane forests, are unlike any others. Known as “nature’s water towers“, cloud forests play a unique role in evaporation and precipitation, helping to purify both water and air. Not only do these forests supply fresh water to nearby residents, they contain some of the most amazing biodiversity on earth. Most cloud forests are found in Asia and Central America, but they’re particularly threatened in Central America. In places like Guatemala, where 40% of the water comes from the cloud forest, preservation is essential. Though cloud forests are located around the world, Guatemala is emblematic of the cloud forest problem because its national symbol, the Resplendent Quetzal, is in danger of extinction as its habitat continues to be destroyed by logging, non-native species, development and climate change. (These fantastic images are from Costa Rica’s Monteverde Reserve, Guatemala, and Ecuador’s Los Cedros cloud forest.)
6. The California Old-Growth Forests
The famous redwood forests of Northern California are home to some of the largest, oldest trees on earth. In 2008, much of these old-growth areas, including stands of massive redwoods, continue to be sold to industry. If you are interested in further information, read about 10 recent sales of old-growth forest that have concerned researchers and scientists.
7. The Tongass: the Only Coastal Temperate Rainforest
The Tongass is one of the world’s only temperate rainforests (the Hoh in Washington State is another). Many Americans have been surprised to learn that the United States is home to a tropical rainforest - and even more surprised to learn that its virgin trees are being rapidly logged for the production of goods exported to Asia. The Tongass is truly a wonder - at 17 million acres, it is the largest forest in the United States and the only coastal rainforest remaining in North America.
8. The Inland Rainforest
Did you know there’s a rainforest in the frigid inner reaches of Canada? 400 miles away from the coast of British Columbia, the Inland Rainforest is home to the unique mountain caribou. Environmental challenge: 1/3 of the caribou have been wiped out since 2001 as clear-cutting continues to affect the Inland Rainforest.
9. The Great Bear Rainforest
Covering most of the West Coast of Canada, the 15-million acre Great Bear Rainforest was once severely threatened. A landmark agreement to guarantee protection of 5 million acres of this forest was made in 2006, and efforts are being made to protect all 15 million acres. This is a welcome example of a positive development in forest conservation.
Trivia: Did you know that just 14 of the world’s countries are home to 92% of its forests?
10. The Daniel Boone National…Tree Farm
The Forest Service has been working to convert the historic Daniel Boone forest to a regulated tree farm. While forestry leaders have always had to balance the interests of development and industry with those of conservation activists and scientists, scientists believe the environmental costs of such an initiative would be too great. When forests are cut down, not only are working greenhouse conversion “factories” destroyed, but the harvesting process itself creates millions of tons of carbon dioxide pollution. And when monocultures of rapidly-growing tree species replace these organic, diverse forests, the ecological impact is often severe.
11. Oregon Heritage Forests
Some of the last remaining pristine virgin forests in North America are in Oregon. Perhaps the most famous is the grand Siskiyou forest tract. Current status: the Bush Administration has faced criticism because it has supported the timber industry’s interests, both in litigation and with the Healthy Forests Initiative. The facts: 90% of these heritage forests are gone forever; of the 10% (2 million acres) remaining, the logging industry is hoping to gain greater access to 40% of what remains (800,000 acres). These heritage forests have been somewhat protected under the existing Northwest Forest Plan; logging is still permitted but the attempt is made to manage the logging in a way that is sustainable.
Oregon may be a less worrisome example than others, however. According to leading organizations, many of earth’s forests are critically threatened. A report by the United Nations found that the world loses 13 million hectares of forest every year. (That’s 36 football fields every minute, every day.) Perspective: 30% of the world is still covered in forest; but less than 8% of this land is protected.
12. South America: the Murici Reserve
South America contains most of the planet’s tropical rainforests, although tropical rainforests are found around the world. (Forests are classified as tropical, temperate, boreal, and montane; they simply follow latitude. Forests nearest the equator, then, are tropical. The one exception is the montane or “cloud” forest, which is determined by altitude.)
South America, particularly Brazil, has come to symbolize the controversy over forest management. There have actually been some encouraging success stories, such as in Bolivia, where most of the forested regions are now protected and managed sustainably. But despite public awareness of tropical rainforest deforestation in South America, and a handful of remarkable success stories, the reality remain complex. (Biofuel development has been controversial to say the least.) The infamous “slash and burn” tactic is responsible for billions of tons of carbon dioxide output, harm to indigenous peoples, and reduced biodiversity. Unemployment, economic troubles, and global demand spur the conditions. For example, in one of the most fragile forests, the Murici Reserve, locals are caught between trying to live off the land and preserve the forest. They grow seedlings in an independent attempt to replace what has been logged; but they are given little federal assistance and without tenable employment opportunities their situation is as precarious as that of the forests.
13. Mau Forest Complex
Mau is one of the world’s most ancient forests. It is threatened by agricultural and residential encroachment. The 400,000 acre preserve in Kenya is seriously endangered - and at present the government is trying to kick tens of thousands of squatters off of it. This is a global challenge. Poor communities struggling with unemployment, civil unrest or war, and inadequate resources are often forced to use the endangered forests to survive.
14. The Strangest Forest on Earth
Chile is home to some of the most bizarre forestland on earth. Trees exist there that grow nowhere else. The alerce is a tree that lives over 3,000 years; the “monkey puzzle tree” has some of the quirkiest features around. Current status: the logging industry wants to convert most of this forest to tree farms; plans are in the works to increase the tree farm range from 5 million to 10 million acres over the next 12 years. In short, South America is plagued with forest management issues.
Trivia: Half of the world’s tropical rainforests are gone, accounting for 25% of the annual greenhouse gas figure.
15. Down Under
Australia is home to some beautiful forests. The Blue Gum High Forest and the Sydney Turpentine Ironbark Forest are both listed as critically threatened. Together they comprise fewer than 230 hectares. The major threats to these forests are development and sheep grazing. Both forests contain some amazing and beautiful tree species.
16. Weld River Valley
In Southern Tasmania, the Weld River Valley is home to great old-growth forests that look like something out of another era. Loggers have continued to encroach upon the forest, and tensions have been high in recent years, leading to protests and incidents of violence. Political gridlock and fraud by industry have been defining characteristics of the fight to preserve the Weld River Valley. The upper region is protected but the lower virgin forest is still being logged.
17. The Sierra Nevada
California’s Sierra Nevada provides 60% of the state’s drinking water and is an important carbon sink for the entire planet. Like many North American forests, it is threatened by pests, fire, development, logging, off-road vehicle use, and mining interests.
18. North American Boreal Forest
The North American Boreal Forest is one of the grandest forests in the world. It stretches from Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping through Canada and parts of the United States. Unfortunately, it is threatened by none other than junk mail and catalog companies. The Boreal Forest holds more carbon than any other ecosystem on earth (second only to the oceans), purifies most of the world’s air, and holds the largest stores of freshwater anywhere on earth. Yet only 8% is protected and it is logged at the rate of 2 acres a minute, 24/7. Half of the Boreal has already been destroyed as it is transformed from tree to junk mail and displaced to the landfill.
19. Mauna Kea and Kilauea
Forest land around these two volcanoes is threatened by invading tree species, namely the tropical ash and the Canary Island fire tree. The slow-growing native species can’t compete, and now nearly half of this Hawaiian forest is comprised of non-native species.
20. Papua New Guinea: Gone in 13 Years?
PNG is the subject of intense study by scientists and conservationists. A recent joint study with PNG and Australia found that the PNG rainforests may be gone in as little as 13 years. PNG is losing 1.4% of its forestland every year. Some pretty creative solutions are on the table. One idea would involve a viral internet campaign that would pay villagers to prevent forest being logged.
There are dozens of additional threatened forests around the world, from unusual micro-biomes to the taiga to Russia to Africa and beyond. This post is an introduction to the wonder of forests - and seeks to highlight how important they truly are.