“Restore Our Earth”: Earth Day’s Call for Sustainable Forestry

The United States celebrated Earth Day for the first time in 1970, marking a surging wave of American interest in the planet’s well-being. Just months later, momentum from that day led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and landmark laws like the Clean Air Act. Now an international event, Earth Day is observed by an estimated one billion people worldwide.

Today marks the Paris Agreement’s fifth anniversary and the 51st occasion of Earth Day, whose theme for 2021 is “Restore Our Earth”. It’s a powerful message of hope — but also urgency. The rallying cry asks the global community to spring into action, or else risk environmental and climate harm beyond repair.

Forests are one key ecosystem in need of rescue, covering a third of all land but rapidly disappearing. Yet there is no quick or easy answer that solves the need for sustainable forest management. People use forested regions for a variety of purposes, and combined with climate change, trees face a huge range of different stresses and pressures.

This is the challenge taken up by countless dedicated individuals and organizations: to do what it takes so that we can use and enjoy forests for centuries to come.

EARTHDAY.ORG doesn’t just oversee a single annual event. They lead movements in environmental education, policy, science, and conservation year-round. One of their major campaigns, the Canopy Project, has restored forests across 32 countries, replanting tens of millions of trees from Brazil to Norway to Vietnam. Their motto: every dollar plants one tree.

These types of focused replanting programs are widespread, both at home and abroad. American Forests, a conservation non-profit, has planted 8.4 million trees in California since 1991. On a national scale, no country outrivals China’s replanting efforts. A 2018 report for the UN found that China has replanted more trees than the rest of the world combined. Due to China’s achievement, the Asian continent overall went from losing 0.6 million forest hectares annually to gaining 2.2 million hectares each year instead.

Despite these success stories, simply replanting the world’s forests is not a practical solution. After trees are cut, new saplings do not immediately recapture an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, and sometimes the replanting process can even be detrimental to the ecosystem. The scale of the problem is staggering as well. As the global population grows, forest clearing accelerates. In California, pressures like drought, logging, and housing development mean that the state has lost half of its big trees (defined as trees over two feet in diameter) in the last century. Overall, the world loses a net 10 million hectares of forest every year, around 25 million acres, accounting for 12 to 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

These problems mean that sustainable forestry can’t end at replanting. Experts caution that we must also create stronger protections for existing forest cover. Without those safeguards, replanting projects are too slow to replace the lost benefits that trees normally provide: reducing greenhouse gasses and climate change, helping supply clear water, and supporting livelihoods.

“Trees planted today can’t grow fast enough. We are like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who needs to run endlessly to stay in the same place,” says Robert Nasi, director general of Center for International Forestry Research in an interview with Forest News. “This is not to say that carbon offset projects should stop, quite the opposite. But it cannot simply be a one-for-one model.”

Not all trees are created equal either. Without oversight, mass replanting leads to wide swaths of area covered by a single tree species. Monocultures behave differently from the natural forests and can harm biodiversity, water quality, and overall ecosystem resilience.

The Redwood and National State Parks (RNSP) are one group still addressing damage from this kind of large-scale replanting. They are a complex of several state and national parks in California, spanning over 100 thousand acres and containing close to half of all coast redwoods remaining in the world. In previous years, logging companies sold tens of thousands of acres to the parks, but not before they had already logged and reseeded these areas.

The planted trees were mainly Douglas firs, crammed to a density of around a thousand per acre. The parks describe numerous ways the over-dense firs contribute to an unhealthy forest: trees are unable to grow to their proper height or width, reduced light reaches the forest floor, and the diversity of forest floor plants and food for wildlife diminishes. Now RNSP must remove the younger, non-redwood trees in these second-growth forests. Their hope is to restore the parks to the old-growth redwood conditions of the past.

Older redwoods affect the broader global ecosystem as well. In an interview with the Yale School of the Environment, policy scientist William Moomaw explains that mature tree stands are critical to combating climate change.

“In multi-aged forests around the world of all types, half of the carbon is stored in the largest one-percent diameter trees,” he says. “[…] A recent paper talked about how we could plant more than a trillion trees on nearly a billion hectares of land and how much that would do to solve the problem. These are great things to do, but they will not make much of a difference in the next two or three decades because little trees just don’t store much carbon. Letting existing natural forests grow is essential to any climate goal we have.”

Even today, timber companies are quick to claim to the public that their practices are sustainable because they replenish as much forest as they cut. After all, their industry relies on consistent wood supply — it’s in their own best interest to keep forests growing. But those companies are much quieter when it comes to the exact nature of what kinds of forests will be lost, and how they will be replaced. Questionable industry practices like clearcutting, where older trees are removed and replaced by same-age stands, are still widely practiced in many states. This includes California, despite growing calls for bans across the country.

“We’ll continue to need and want forestry products — that’s understood,” says Moomaw. “But the attitude in much of the forestry industry is that all forests must be managed by principles that improve forests for timber production. We have to recognize that there’s a distinction between industrial production forests and natural forests.”

“Letting existing natural forests grow is essential to any climate goal we have.”

Some of the drivers behind forest consumption are obvious. Land for agriculture and housing is in constant demand. Wood-based products like fuel, paper, furniture, and building material come directly from harvested trees. The list of forest goods, however, stretches surprisingly long, far beyond wood-related materials alone. As the 2018 report details, they include medicines, foods, spices, herbs, fodder, fibers, fragrances, seeds, resins, and oils, as well as materials from the animals who live in those forests, like hides and honeys. More than 1.6 billion people depend on forests for these products, or for their livelihoods.

It’s the chief reason why the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) has established the most recognized standard for forest products. With detailed definitions on whether or not a product has been sourced using responsible forest management, their certification covers criteria spanning conservation, social responsibility, and economic outcomes. For partner companies, including big names like Williams-Sonoma and REI, a FSC designation on merchandise from armchairs to wetsuits indicates that the product meets FSC rules.

Other guidelines on forest sustainability come at the direction of the local communities themselves. Because they have an up-close view of long-term forest health, local leaders are more likely to limit consumption and protect natural resources. In one study, when groups were given more authority to govern their local forests, those local communities saw livelihood benefits, like increased timber and fodder availability. The forests captured more carbon as well. The researchers called it a “win–win outcome”.

It’s the same story in the Amazon rainforest. Only 17% of Amazonian deforestation takes place within the official boundaries of Indigenous Territories and Protected Natural Areas. The vast majority of deforestation (83%) occurs outside of any Indigenous domain.

“Evidence shows that if communities have ownership or secure tenure right to forests, as well as the right to harvest and market products from them, they will have a strong interest in conserving the forests and managing them sustainably,” says Eva Müller to the European Forest Institute. She is the Director General of Forests, Sustainability and Renewable Resources at the German Federal Ministry.

The State of California is beginning to tap into partnerships with Indigenous tribes more seriously. Historically, California tribes managed cultural burning over thousands of acres, using controlled burns to alleviate wildfire seasons. Statewide fire regulations, set without their input, hindered these practices. Now, in a case covered by NPR, California is hoping to bring Indigenous viewpoints to the table.

“We don’t put fire on the ground and not know how it’s going to turn out,” says Ron Goode, who is tribal chairman of the North Fork Mono. “That’s what makes it cultural burning — because we cultivate.”

Jennifer Montgomery, who works for California’s fire agency, was present to witness a cultural burning in person. “It’s an opportunity for me to really see how effective cultural fire can be in addressing the issues we have around uncontrolled wildfire,” she says.

But California isn’t always the first to heed local feedback. In Mendocino county, Indigenous groups are still struggling to have their voice heard. After failing previous air quality tests, a wood pellet plant is now authorized for renewed activity, despite continued public concerns. A group of activists, including SEIJ (Social Environmental Indigenous Justice), is alarmed by the public health hazards to nearby residents in Coyote Valley Reservation and working-class Hispanic neighborhoods.

Regions with low-income or marginalized communities often suffer most directly from forest misuse. SEIJ and other members of the activist coalition petitioned to suspend the plant’s operations, without success. When Priscilla Hunter, tribal elder of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, filed a CA Public Records Act, she received a response — but with air quality data from the plant’s smokestacks and burners redacted.

At its core, the message “Restore Our Earth” is a call for change. Our forests, and our communities and climate future as a consequence, are at stake. While replanting work is a valuable piece of the puzzle, preserving existing forests is even more critical.

There are promising signs. Pushes for science-based policy, sustainable forest products, and increased interest in local forest management are gaining momentum. But for every success story, there are considerable hurdles to overcome — hurdles that need support from more people before we can clear the distance.

What are some ways you can help “Restore Our Earth” this Earth Day?

  1. Support efforts to restore and protect existing forests such as the Sempervirens Fund, the Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc., and the California State Parks Foundation.
  2. Educate stakeholders and decision-makers on ill-advised forest clearing, such as through petitions or letters to the editor.
  3. Seek out the FSC certification while shopping. Ask companies if they are FSC certified.
  4. Contribute to replanting nonprofits that accept donations or volunteers.
  5. Ally with local communities who are striving to have their voice heard at a city, state, or national level.

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Our mission is to educate and engage the public, lawmakers and regulators in California about the damage caused by widespread industrial clearcutting, as well as advocate for alternatives to clearcutting for the long-term sustainability of forest ecosystems throughout the state.

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