Forests Are Getting Denser, But Is That A Good Thing?

A recent report in The Independent discussed an interesting trend in worldwide forests; forest density is actually increasing overall, according to a study conducted by researchers in Finland and the United States. This growing density directly contributes to increased carbon sequestration, an especially important issue these days as people become more aware of the high costs of human activities on the environment.

As I read the article, I found myself nodding along and going ‘this is all very well and good,’ because it was, ‘but what about biodiversity.’ To my astonishment, the article actually addressed these concerns, pointing out that the focus on carbon sequestration to the exclusion of other important topics in forest management was definitely an issue. Forest density does not translate into more forests and more habitat. It means that more trees are present on smaller areas of land. This can most definitely create a carbon sink, but does it contribute other value to the environment?

Deforestation in the Amazon, for example, is not just about the loss of carbon sinks. It is also about biodiversity concerns. Scores of unidentified plants and animals live in this region of the world, and some of them may play important environmental roles or could contribute something of value, like new pharmaceuticals. Even if increased density makes up for the loss of carbon sinks in these regions, can it repair the loss of habitat? Habitat is critically important, and in fact, a lot of that density comes in the form of monoculture, which is very dangerous. Monocultures don’t create room for biodiversity and they are extremely vulnerable to disease. If a fungal infection that kills all trees in a specific species strikes a diverse forest, it loses some trees but stays healthy overall. When it hits a monocultured plantation, it kills everything in one fell swoop.

Furthermore, forestation also prevents topsoil loss. Soils in ancient forests have had centuries to build up. They are extremely rich and contain vital assortments of vitamins and minerals that can support diverse, complex life. When trees are cut down, when the land is cleared, it creates the very real risk of topsoil loss. All that rich soil runs off into neighbouring waterways and out into the ocean, where it does no one any good at all. In fact, it can contribute to the creation of dead zones caused by nutrient pollution. Density, again, does not resolve this issue, and does not contribute to the development of new deposits of topsoil in denuded areas, which reforestation would.

And, of course, deforestation is also of concern to indigenous people. People around the world are being forced off their traditional lands, some of which they have inhabited for thousands of years. This is done directly in the service of clearing for agriculture or other activities, or indirectly in the form of situations where people can no longer live on their lands because resources are so depleted. If your homelands shrink because they are dedicated to other uses, you may not be able to support yourself on what is left. Some indigenous peoples relied historically on being able to rotate and move through a broad range to take advantage of resources and leave room for resource recovery. They can no longer do that, and may be forced into poverty in urban areas or on other lands far from home. That this is not addressed at all in the Independent piece is another example of pernicious environmental racism at work; forests are regarded as important in terms of what kind of value they can offer to people in positions of dominance.

It is absolutely important, from the perspective of carbon sequestration, to be talking about forest density as well as area. This study contributes some important findings to the understanding of forest management as well as best practices when it comes to addressing rising carbon levels on Earth. The finding that, overall, forest density is increasing runs contrary to popular expectation, and that makes it an important topic of discussion.

No scientific study can be all things to all people and the study creators acknowledge this in their discussion of the findings. They argue that carbon sequestration is an important issue and that uses for forests and forested lands must be ‘balanced.’ They also point out that their findings do not directly point to evidence of lack of biodiversity, which means that more study is necessary to learn more about how forest density impacts biodiversity. ‘Needs more study’ isn’t always an exciting conclusion, but it can be an important one in this case as we talk about what these findings mean in a larger way.

But it is notable that the focus on ‘balance’ tends to be rooted primarily in concerns about biodiversity, not in the human populations who may rely on forests for a living, or who may have a long cultural tradition of inhabiting a specific area. The study promotes ‘rising living standards’ and argues that one of the reasons forests are doing better in some developing nations is because people are less likely to use their wood as fuel. This positions the people living on the land in opposition to it: Forests need to be protected from their inhabitants, with less of a focus on external pressures that might be playing an important role. (For example, people may be forced to strip a small area of land of usable fuel because they no longer have large tribal lands that they can manage sustainably.)

We cannot talk about environmental issues without discussing the human populations they impact, and that includes all human populations, not just the ones with the power. While topics like indigenous people were not within the purview of this particular study, it’s important to be aware that much of the reporting on the study and its larger implications didn’t address indigenous inhabitants of forested regions, though they took care to explore other issues.