Humans have affected the environment for many years. Europe’s beech forests grow mostly on areas that were once cleared by Neolithic farmers. Native Americans’ fires created the beautiful and productive “natural” ecosystems that greeted the Jamestown settlers. Pockets of extremely fertile soils in the Amazon, called terra preta (black soil), were created by humans. The surrounding soils are often very poor and do not retain much carbon in the soils of retain water. Naturalists have long recognized the crucial role tree islands play in in enriching the wetland ecosystem and providing habitat for animals like birds and panthers in the Everglades. Archeologists recently discovered that many of the islands started as ancient garbage dumps. The garbage heaps gave trees fertile places to root. As the water levels rose over the centuries and flooded the surrounding land, the action of the trees drawing up water and nutrients stabilized the islands and made them what they are.
Human activity in nature can be harmful. But it can also be beneficial. Natural systems are living, changing and renewable. There is not a finite amount of nature that we “use up”. We live in a living and renewing system, always have and always will.
Our forests in America are healthy and getting healthier with good management. The Global Forest Resources Assessment is not as optimistic about forests in South America or Asia, but our history, there offers reason for hope in the long run. American forests were in poor shape a century ago. One of the great American ecological success stories of the Twentieth Century was the return of healthy forests. Our American Tree Farm System (ATFS) was developed in 1941 as part of this success story. Since then, some of the first tree farms have been harvested, often clear cut in the case of southern pine, three of four times and have never been better. ATFS certifies more than 25 million acres of privately owned forestland managed by over 90,000 family forest landowners committed to excellence in forest stewardship, with wood certified from harvest to final user by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
Good management practices and certifications are spreading to places where forest conservation has been viewed with less enthusiasm. When people understand the long-term benefits of good forest management, they get less interested in short term exploitation. And when governments support landowners with strong property rights protections and sensible laws, a virtuous circle begins to coalesce, as it did in the United States. Today only around 10% of the wood sold globally comes from certified forests, but this is growing. The largest certification international network is PEFC, currently comprising thirty-five independent national forest certification programs with 510 million certified acres. ATFS is in the PEFC family. Among the countries with PEFC certified forests are Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Spain Brazil and Malaysia.
We human are blessed with intelligence that gives us the ability to contemplate the natural system. This also endows us with the ability and the responsibility to made good choices, ones that sustain our environment for ourselves, our children and for other living things. We can do it.