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Conservation / Sustainability

Why Trees and Forests Matter: The Need for a New Sustainable Use Model


ACCORDING TO THE BIOLOGIST and entomologist E.O. Wilson, author of Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, the only proven way to halt the destabilization of the living world is to protect the largest possible reserves and the native biodiversity surviving within them. In fact, Wilson says we must set aside half of the earth, if we are to save the other species on this planet. 

Trees and woodlands have all sorts of benefits, so we need to save the trees that we have and we need to plant additional trees on a large scale, as well as in our own front yards and backyards. 

Yet, America’s trees and forests are being compromised in innumerable ways including: clear-cutting, habitat fragmentation, the expansion of agriculture into woodlands, building roads into the wilderness, suburbanization and real estate development, mining, ranching, underenforcement of laws to protect the environment, weaknesses in the Endangered Species Act and Congressional underfunding of wildlife habitat delineation and forest preservation efforts. 

The assault on America’s forests, wetlands and woodlands (and the species that depend upon them) continues unabated. America’s forests are experiencing death by a thousand cuts. 

Forests are increasingly mismanaged

For those of us who thought the purpose of our National Forests was to preserve trees and wildlife, it is time that we became disabused of that notion. 

The Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act of 1960 directs the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the US Forest Service (rather than the Department of the Interior), to administer five renewable resources in the national forests: timber, livestock range, water, recreation and wildlife for “multiple use and sustained yield.” 

The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 mandates "harmonious and coordinated" management of these various resources and adapts the Multiple Use doctrine to include “natural scenic, scientific, and historical values.”

But how harmonious can it be to manage the various resources on public land? Certainly, logging, in many cases, must be seen as being in direct opposition to the conservation of our forests. And activities such as mining and fossil fuel extraction often involve the cutting of trees, the flattening of mountaintops and the leaching of toxic oils, chemicals and mine tailings into nearby rivers, lakes and aquifers. These activities and their negative externalities can have profound adverse impacts upon the human population, upon endangered species and upon nearby wildlife habitats (such as trees, forests, wetlands and woodlands). 

Tree cutting and clearcutting have been excessive:  Whether on private lands or public lands, the forests have been overcut in many parts of the US and beyond.  As far away as Canada’s Northwest Territories subsistence hunters and recreational hunters have been reporting a lack of wild game due to clearcutting of vast sections of Canada’s boreal forest. 

In some states, very few forests have been preserved:  In Texas, the largest state in the Lower 48, about 98% of the land is already in private hands.  Conservationists face an uphill battle in protecting the remaining forests in Texas, and in other states that have not seen the value in preserving lands for wildlife, the natural world, and the public.

There has been excessive harvesting of trees on private property:  Before European settlement, longleaf pine forest dominated as much as 90,000,000 acres stretching from Virginia south to Florida and westward to East Texas. In the late 1800s, these virgin timber stands were among the most sought-after timber trees in the country.  Due to clearcutting practices, this rich ecosystem now has been relegated to less than 5% of its pre-settlement range.

Longleaf Pine Trees and Red Cockaded Woodpeckers:  But it is not only these longleaf pines that have disappeared.  The Longleafs supported a wide range of wildlife species including the red cockaded woodpecker, which lives almost exclusively in longleaf pine trees.  Today it is estimated that there are only about 5,000 groups of red-cockaded woodpeckers, or 12,500 birds, from Florida to Virginia to Texas, representing less than 1% of the woodpecker's original population of over one million birds. These woodpeckers are now extirpated (locally extinct) in Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Tennessee.

Help forests by reigning in excessive grazing of livestock:  In many of America’s forests, the ranching and timber cutting functions have overwhelmed the preservation of trees and wildlife habitat.  80% of forests controlled by the US Forest Service are now open to livestock grazing (mostly cattle ranching); and 60% of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands are now open to grazing. 

Livestock grazing trade-offs in the Sawtooth National Forest:   Ranching has coopted forest preservation and natural resource preservation in many national forests and BLM lands.  Looking at Idaho’s Sawtooth National Forest, we can see from a recent year that grazing livestock in the Forest directly served the interests of only 145 permittees occupying 83% of the total area of the Sawtooth National Forest.  Yet in the same year, the Sawtooth National Forest directly served the interests of 1.25 million individuals and recreational users.  Grazing on federal lands created only three tenths of one percent of employment in Idaho and less than one quarter of one percent of total state income. 

Fencing:  The public lands used for grazing are technically open to public use, although recreationists find these areas “less ideal” for recreation, and ranchers often fence off these lands and find other ways to block or intimidate other users from utilizing these lands.   (So the voices of 145 cattle ranchers appear to have greatly outweighed the voices of 1.25 million hunters, campers, hikers, kayakers, birdwatchers, fishermen, and other recreational users of the forest.  And now only 17% of the Sawtooth National Forest is reserved exclusively for recreation and conservation.)  And there is a similar situation in many other US National Forests.  

Damage to wetlands from cattle grazing:  Livestock grazing has also been damaging rivers, wetlands, and riparian zones.  According to the Western Watersheds Project, large-scale cattle grazing endangers native species, and is the most significant cause of non-point water pollution and desertification. This is especially important, because in many parts of the country, riparian areas make up only one or two percent of the landscape, but their value in terms of biological diversity is incomparable.  As much as 81% of the forage removed by livestock within a grazing allotment can come from this very narrow riparian zone.  And through time, the direct effects of livestock can dramatically change the structure, function, and composition of this zone in a way that harms trees, shrubs and numerous wildlife species (even fish).

Damage to trees and shrubs from cattle grazing: Livestock have also been chewing cottonwood, willow, aspen stands, and other trees to death in national forests, state forests, and on private lands.  The big trees persisted, but shoots have not survived to become saplings.  

Roadbuilding leads to habitat fragmentation:  Roadbuilding in and through America’s wetlands and forests continues unabated.  Yet road building leads to the destruction of trees and wilderness, the fragmentation of forests and wildlife habitat, and the eventual disappearance of the wildlife that depend upon these forests.  Additional roadbuilding could easily threaten Staten Island’s greenbelt. 

The Endangered Species Act does NOT protect trees or vegetation on private lands:  Although the US Endangered Species Act protects wildlife on both public and private lands, it only protects trees and vegetation on public lands (not on private lands).  Given this, the burden for protecting endangered or threatened trees, declining tree species, and heritage trees on private lands, falls to states such as New York and to municipalities such as New York City. 

Insufficient funding:  In recent decades, the US Congress has refused to properly fund habitat delineation for hundreds of species that the US Fish and Wildlife Service has formally acknowledged are warranted for protection.  Level 8 Candidate Species still remaining in this limbo as unprotected (precluded) species include the Whitebark Pine tree, Pacific Walrus, Sierra Nevada Red Fox, Red-crowned Parrot, Gopher Tortoise, Washington Ground Squirrel, as well as various frogs, newts, butterflies, and many other species. 


Bald eagles need tall trees:  Many bird species require big trees as habitat, and if we want species such as Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons to remain in Staten Island, we must preserve their habitat.  The bald eagle occurs during its breeding season in virtually any kind of American wetland habitat such as seacoastsrivers, large lakes, marshes, and other large bodies of open water with an abundance of fish. It typically requires old-growth and mature stands of coniferous or hardwood trees for perching, roosting, and nesting. Tree species reportedly is less important to eagles than the tree's height, composition and location.  Of paramount importance is an abundance of large trees surrounding or in proximity to a large body of water.  Selected trees must have good visibility, be over 66 ft tall, have an open structure, and proximity to prey.


Trees or forest used for nesting should have a canopy cover of no more than 60%, and no less than 20%.  Most nests have been found within 700 feet of open water. The bald eagle is quite sensitive to human activity while nesting, and prefers areas with less human disturbance.  So, if we want Staten Island to be a center of Bald Eagle and peregrine hawks, we must preserve their habitat – the big trees, woodlands, and wetlands of Staten Island along the Atlantic Ocean, Arthur Kill, and the Kill Van Kull. 


Fallacies of the Free Market:  Many politicians support self-regulation and deregulation across a range of industries and public policy arenas.  But economists Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus have written that self-regulation does not work in industries or companies that manifest negative externalities or “public bads” such as pollution or resource depletion (including cutting down trees and forests).  There is no incentive in a laissez faire economy for a polluter or resource extractor to eliminate all of the social and environmental costs that they create.  The producer (such as timber harvesters, miners, cattle grazers, polluters, and fossil fuel drillers and extractors), “will almost always make the decision to maximize profits,” even if it undermines public health, environmental health, the natural world, and other people’s private property. 


The Tragedy of the Commons:  The tragedy of the commons is an economic paradigm that helps to explain the destruction of our forests and wildlife habitat.  The tragedy of the commons can be seen in a shared-resource system where individual users acting independently, according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action.  The paradigm is based on essays by economists William F. Lloyd and Garret Hardin who use a hypothetical example of the effects of unregulated grazing on common land (also known as a "common").  Commons can also refer to any shared and unregulated resource such as forests, wetlands, pastures, the air we breathe, oceansriversfish stocks, wildlife, and roads.  Based on this paradigm, it is easy to see how our natural resources such as forests can be overused and destroyed.

Potential remedies at the local level on Staten Island

Preserve trees of a certain age or height: Given that hundreds of tall, historic and ecologically valuable trees have been cut down on Staten Island for various development projects in recent years, we should draft a law that bans the cutting, removal and harm of trees over 75 feet tall and over 100 years old. There could be certain exceptions to this law; for example, if there is imminent danger of harm to human life (i.e., if the tree is falling over and about to crush a house). This law could be valuable statewide, as well as at the local Borough and Municipal levels. Let’s draft legislation to save all trees on Staten Island over 75 feet high and to save all trees over 100 years old.
Building permits: Require preservation of the most mature and tallest trees on a building site if the developer is to obtain a building permit.

Preserve trees for eagle habitat: Eagles generally breed in tall trees within 700 feet of rivers, oceans and large lakes, so let’s preserve trees within this range. Eagles generally nest in trees at heights of from 60 feet to 200 feet above ground. If we want Staten Island to be an effective habitat for Bald Eagles and other big raptors and birds such as peregrine falcons, hawks and owls, we must preserve their habitat—the big trees, forests, woodlands and wetlands on Staten Island within 700 feet of our kills and coastline. 
Setbacks: In general, at the local, state and federal level, do not cut trees within 100 yards of rivers and wetlands and within an even greater distance from the coastline. 

Building footprint and lot coverage: On all larger building sites on Staten Island, we should preserve a greater proportion of the property as natural green space rather than as part of the building footprint. In addition, green space that is required on buildable lots should remain in its natural state to the greatest extent possible (so that it can maintain its ecological value), rather than devolving into manicured lawn. 

Map out and preserve wetlands: Given Staten Island’s reputation as the Green Borough, let’s make sure that all wetlands on Staten Island are formally mapped out and fully preserved as a part of the Bluebelt or through some other mechanism.

Impose fines: Many states and municipalities have become quite assertive in protecting certain species of trees that they consider to be of great ecological, aesthetic or other value. Corvallis, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington have both undertaken conservation efforts focused on the Garry Oak tree. Meanwhile, the municipality of Oak Bay, British Columbia has imposed a fine of up to $10,000 for each Garry Oak tree that has been cut down or damaged. 

Save the snag: Snag consists of trees and branches that have fallen all the way to the ground or partly to the ground. Snag is incredibly valuable as wildlife habitat for a wide range of species from beavers to badgers, bobcats, bees and birds. Although some people prefer to remove snag for aesthetic reasons or for fire hazard reasons, it is best to save the snag unless the fire risk becomes too great. This is especially true in the portions of the US that receive heavier rainfall such as the Atlantic Coast states and the Gulf Coast states. 

Slow down clear-cutting and deforestation: The long-term benefits of a healthy forest are more valuable than the short-term profits from logging, ranching, or even mining. As we cut down trees, we imperil the health of our entire ecosystem, so let’s find a way to decrease the rate of deforestation on Staten Island and throughout the rest of the U.S.

Expand Staten Island’s Greenbelt and Bluebelt: We cannot protect other species without protecting their forest, wetland, woodland and coastal habitats. So, preservation of Staten Island’s wildlife species is dependent upon preservation and expansion of Staten Island’s open spaces, trees, Greenbelt and Bluebelt.

Ecotourism on Staten Island: Some people suggest that environmental preservation stands in opposition to jobs and economic development, but this is generally untrue. Long-term jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities in many ecologically rich regions, can far outnumber the short-term jobs associated with timber cutting. The preservation of trees, gardens, woodlands, wetlands and estuaries on Staten Island can boost tourism and create an ecotourism economy here on Staten Island.

Save trees to preserve human health: Let’s continue to work with the City of New York to plant trees and make sure those trees grow to maturity on Staten Island. Likewise, we should continue to work with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to preserve trees and improve air quality. As we improve air quality, we automatically improve our own health and the health of our family members. 

Support Staten Island’s biodiversity: Let’s support the greatest diversity of species possible on Staten Island – the Green Borough. Let’s plant more trees and save every mature tree that we can possibly save. We can make Staten Island the Borough of Eagles, Peregrines, Owls, Butterflies, Bees and Beavers—and the Borough of Tall Trees.

—Mark Latour, Summer 2019

Please go to the article "The Role of Forests As Rainmakers."

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