An Antidote to Deforestation: Plant a Tree

In his famous essay "Thinking Like a Mountain," conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote movingly of "the day I saw a wolf die." His description is a haunting image of loss often invoked by later environmentalists to lament the demise of wilderness.

At times forgotten is Leopold's confession that the wolf died because he had shot it. Leopold's mea culpa contrasts with the obliviousness many of us display toward our own role in ecological loss. The gap between environmental concern and denial of one's own complicity is particularly evident in the shrinkage of the earth's forests.

Each year an average American uses a 100-foot high tree for wood and paper - equivalent to 18 cubic feet of lumber and 750 pounds of paper products. An American family of four will consume a full acre of trees - more than a lifetime's need for housing, wood fuel, and newsprint.

In magazine ads, United States timber producers point out reassuringly that a greater percentage of the US is forested today than in 1900, with more trees being planted annually than logged. When compared to its original forest cover, however, the nation's woodland has been reduced by one-third; in the continental US only 5 percent of the old-growth forest survives, and biological diversity faces ongoing threats from logging.

Global deforestation continues unabated. An acre of tropical forest is downed each second for agriculture, logging, or fuel. The highest deforestation rates occur in Asia and the Pacific region. Central America's forests have declined by two-thirds since 1950. In Africa, an estimated 40 trees are cut down for every one planted. The disparity grows more apparent each year: Those who use wood often neglect to restore trees.

With America leading the world in per capita paper consumption - with half its newsprint imported - how does one generation replace for the next what it has used? In short, how do we plant trees for harvest?

Owners of private woodlands have a ready opportunity to plant and foster natural regeneration; small timberlands currently provide over half the country's wood supply. Corporate shareholders can be said to plant indirectly as investors in large-scale timber industries. But what is available for those individuals who, by circumstance or choice, own neither timberland nor shares of stock?

Dozens of US organizations exist to plant for reasons other than harvest. Groups such as the National Arbor Day Foundation and the National Tree Trust are well-known for their environmental and aesthetic plantings. While some trees may eventually be cut for management reasons, their destiny at planting is neither for pulp nor two-by-fours. As volunteers restore degraded ecosystems, prevent soil erosion, and beautify urban streets, they plant with dirt on their hands and a poem - "Woodman, spare that tree" - in their hearts.

Individual action

But how do other individuals plant a tree for harvest?

Opportunities exist on both a local and global scale. Closest to home, most Americans live within a day's drive of one of the nation's 156 national forests, many of which enlist volunteers to plant in areas likely to be designated for timber harvesting. Statewide nonprofit groups arrange efforts to regenerate federal and state lands with carefully selected species, plantings which may eventually reduce pressure to log old-growth forest. Over time - 40 years in the Northwest to 120 years in the arid Southwest - an acre may yield 150 to 300 mature trees for our descendants.

Even more urgently needed are reforestation efforts abroad. By the end of the century, more than 2 billion people around the world will lack adequate wood fuel for cooking and warmth. In many deforested regions of developing countries, village-level organizations stand ready to plant trees for fuel, food, and fodder. Several US-based organizations currently channel support to such indigenous groups, which are able to manage long-term care but are often short of initial funds. CARE, American Forests, and the New Forests Project in Washington work in thousands of communities worldwide, underwriting the cost of seedlings at roughly $1 per tree.

Planting trees is not a panacea. Inappropriate species and inadequate care can uproot the finest intentions. As Audubon essayist Ted Williams warns, "Only God can make a tree, but any environmental illiterate can plant it in the wrong place." Moreover, replacing trees will achieve only a rough symmetry; the action - whether undertaken firsthand by shovel or vicariously by check - may seem token and small-scale. But each woodland planted for harvest takes pressure off ancient forests invaluable for their ecosystems, stores carbon dioxide while trees grow, and alerts the planter to the magnitude of global deforestation.

The head of one environmental organization, asked recently if he had ever planted a tree for harvest, said no. He had sought instead to reduce his consumption of wood and paper by recycling - then promptly undercut his point by handing out three-pound packets of brochures touting his organization.

A new demand: Replenish

Leopold's lament for wilderness was all the more poignant because he recognized his complicity in its loss. The response of many Americans to forest shortages has been to point fingers at others - government, industry, environmentalists - or suggest that third-world farmers change their ways.

Like those defenders of redwood groves who themselves live in redwood houses, we must acknowledge how our own lives are framed by forests. In the developing world this year, six acres of trees will be felled for every acre planted. Given the global deficit of trees, another word in the conservation lexicon must be yoked to recycle and reduce: Replenish.

David Douglas writes about environmental and religious issues from Santa Fe, N.M.

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