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How the Forestry Industry Could Be Doing More Harm Than We Think

Forestry is a diverse industry that covers all aspects of creating, maintaining and using woodlands. Those who work in the forestry sector often take charge of a wide range of operations and concerns.

Timber and Axe
Forestry Industry, Image credit:

They often oversee:

  • Cutting down trees
  • Managing wildlife habitats
  • Encouraging outdoor recreation
  • Managing biodiversity concerns
  • Preventing and controlling erosion
  • Create natural community protection
  • Managing natural water quality

As climate change becomes a major concern for communities across the globe, the role of forestry experts has become more vital than ever. Many believe forestry will be the saving grace for the planet, as trees hold in carbon dioxide (CO2) — a major greenhouse gas — and output oxygen. However, the sector could be doing more harm than we realize.

Read on to discover some of the issues associated with the forestry industry.

More Greenhouse Gases

Forestry can contribute to greenhouse gases in more ways than you may realize. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, mitigating greenhouse gas emissions created by human activities such as driving and flying in planes. As climate change rages on, trees will play an essential role in capturing and storing excess CO2.

However, forestry experts must sustainably harvest timber, an unavoidable aspect of the industry. Deforestation eradicates the plant life that removes these gases from the air. The act of clearing timber, done with heavy machinery that runs on fossil fuels, also produces harmful emissions.

Would planting more trees reduce this negative impact? Not necessarily. In the U.K., policymakers want to plant 11 million trees to control carbon emissions and slow global warming. However, experts say this plan could do more harm than good. In fact, trees planted in the wrong areas could increase emissions.

Peat — decayed organic matter and vegetation that resembles soil — does an excellent job of capturing carbon. If people plant trees in peat bogs, they will dry out the material. The result is the release of more carbon dioxide than the trees themselves can absorb.

Ian Bateman, a professor at the University of Exeter, says, “We would be crazy to undertake this massive scale of planting being considered if we did not also consider the wider effects upon the environment.”

Displaced Wildlife

As mentioned above, deforestation is often an unavoidable aspect of the forestry industry. However, forests are home to 80% of the earth’s terrestrial biodiversity, including animals, trees, plants, and microbes. Deforestation also wipes out insect populations, many of which can benefit the environment by improving plant health and maximizing crop yields. When we cut trees down, we destroy habitats, causing animals to flee the area. The result is decreased populations and possible extinction.

When we remove trees and forest vegetation, we leave animals with reduced food, shelter and breeding resources. Many do not survive this initial destruction, as they’re unaware of the damage happening until it’s too late. Trees falling can kill species that live in trunks and canopies. Some try to remain in their fragmented habitats, though they’re often too small to maintain viable populations. Plus, the surrounding area may be disturbed by land that is now a base for agriculture or other human activity.

Many animals do not know where to go after their habitat is eradicated. Without food and shelter, many die of exposure. Others move into new areas, attempting to coexist with populations that already live in that area. When too many species live in one spot, they must compete for food and other resources, leading to starvation.

Species who begin to die in large numbers after the destruction of habitats may be categorized as endangered. At this point, their populations are so low that they may go extinct. When so few animals exist that they can no longer find each other for reproductive purposes, the continuation of the species is halted, which leads to total extinction.

Decreased Agricultural Production

As climate change worsens, it will reduce our ability to harvest food, something we need to sustain our communities. On the other hand, human populations are continually growing, meaning more mouths to feed. Experts say that, by 2050, we’ll need to provide for a global community of 10 billion people — around 3 billion more than we currently sustain. To do so, we will need to produce 56% more food.

Many countries want to plant trees to combat global warming. While more trees could reduce carbon dioxide emissions if they’re planted in the correct places, they would also reduce agricultural land, which would hinder our ability to grow crops and produce meat. Farmland is already impacted by urban and suburban development, with many people moving out of cities and into rural areas. However, animals and plants themselves require a lot of space to thrive.

For example, a single 1,000-pound cow requires around 2.6 acres, which is the amount of land needed to produce enough vegetation for that animal. On the other hand, pigs require less land, with 25 individuals able to survive comfortably on one acre. When it comes to crops, farmers often need to plant a substantial amount to feed their local population and make a profit.

Many areas rely on local food resources. If we plant more trees, it will reduce the amount of land available to raise these resources. The result will be an increase in imports — a process that would add more emissions to the air.

Reduced Rainfall

When air passes over forests, it picks up the moisture given off by vegetation. As a result, it produces rain — much more so than when it passes over areas with sparse or no plant life.

Unfortunately, when we cut trees down, it leads to a decrease in rainfall rates. Experts believe that, by 2050, deforestation could reduce rainfall in the Amazon by 21% in the dry season. This issue is prominent all over the globe, however — not merely in South America.

A few concerns arise from a lack of rainfall. One is exacerbated drought conditions during dry seasons when rainfall is already low. Lack of water can lead to failed crops, which reduce already scarce food resources. It can make it difficult for farmers to adequately nourish their livestock, which may result in a loss of income.

Harsh droughts also impact plants and animals, as they depend on water sources just like humans. Food and water supplies will shrink, leading to more competition for nourishment. Drought can also destroy habitats for aquatic animals, such as fish. For the animals that do survive, the weather conditions can lead to an increase in rates of disease.

The impacts of droughts are far-reaching and lead to more adverse effects than just the ones listed above. Some other consequences to consider include:

  • More wildfires
  • Increased food prices
  • Increased soil erosion
  • Greater migration into cities
  • More dust-related health issues
  • Reduced hydropower capabilities

Compromised Water Quality

The majority of earth’s freshwater comes from forest watersheds, and much of the globe’s population relies on these watersheds for drinking water. People also use this water for industry and agriculture. Unfortunately, cutting down trees can affect this water’s quality, which has wide-reaching consequences.

Deforestation decreases the soil infiltration of water and increases soil erosion. The result is a higher level of sediment in the liquid. With more contaminants in the water, it may no longer be safe for people to drink. The water could require additional filtration techniques, something many impoverished or indigenous communities may not have access to.

The results of decreased water quality lead to many of the same issues that arise from droughts. People and animals need clean water to survive. When they can no longer access this resource, it can increase the risk of illness and death. Water is necessary for sanitation. People need it to wash their hands and clean food before consumption. If they consume unsafe water, it can lead to diarrhea — a life-threatening issue in certain areas — and typhoid.

Additionally, when communities can’t find clean water near their homes, they often send women and children to collect it. Traveling long distances carrying heavy vessels can have a significant adverse effect on physical health. If women are pregnant during this activity, the strain can also impact the health of their unborn children.

The Forestry Industry and the Future of Our Planet

Climate change was once a backseat issue to other concerns, such as shifting political power and faltering employment opportunities. Today, however, many countries have brought the problem to the forefront of the conversation. They know that we must take action now if we want to reduce the effects of global warming and save our communities.

The forestry industry can be both a help and a hindrance. Practices performed by the sector can perpetuate many of the issues we’re currently facing, such as increased food scarcity and compromised water quality. However, trees will also play a pivotal role in recapturing carbon from the atmosphere.

With the right plans in place, we can ensure that forestry benefits the environment, including the people and animals that live in it.


Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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