Saturday, February 27, 2010

Deforestation in the United States - The Loss of American Forests and Woodlands

By Inez Calender

At one time, the northwest coast and East Coast of the United States (from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River) was a huge, ancient forest. Now, only small pockets remain. The loss of virgin forest through logging, importation of blighted trees and wood products, agriculture, and monoculture has changed the face of America.

The timber industry has long been an important feature of the United States economy, providing wood and many well paying jobs. But without regulation and due to ever-increasing demand for wood products and land for developments, the American forest has suffered incredible devastation.

Trees prevent erosion. They trap and retain water. When rain falls on exposed, clear cut land, nutrients in the earth are lost along with the top soil that is washed away. Clear cutting causes flooding due to excessive run-off. The loss of shade creates a rise in temperature along streams and rivers, which effects fish and amphibian life that depend on certain temperature levels. Wildlife habitat, destroyed by deforestation has endangered America's plants and animals, leading to the extinction or near extinction of certain species.

From the earliest colonial times, trees have played an important role in America's history and economy. Early colonists felt uncomfortable in the great, virgin forest that was the East Cost of America. The huge, ancient trees and darkness gathered there made the colonists nervous. Of course, trees had to be removed for agriculture and homesteads and much of the old forest was removed for a fledgling timber industry. The American colonies became a seemingly limitless source of lumber for Europe.

America has been faced with several tree losses. Many cities and towns attempted to beautify their streets by planting American elm trees. The tall, gracefully shaped trees provided shade and created lovely tree lined streets in urban neighborhoods as well as the beautiful avenues of trees sentimentally associated with small town America. But the planting of a single type of tree, which is called monoculture, created a terrible loss for those areas. Dutch elm disease devastated those lovely avenues of trees during several outbreaks in the twentieth century. By the late 1960's, few American elms remained.

Another blight attacked American chestnut trees in the early part of the 20th century. Chestnut trees were once a dominant hardwood species in American forests. The importation of Japanese chestnuts introduced a blight first identified at the New York Botanical Gardens in 1904. While the imported chestnut trees were blight resistant, the disease spread throughout America creating what has been called the worst ecological disaster in the United States.

Southern hardwood forests began to disappear at an alarming rate following the American Civil War when timber companies logged out vast tracts of old growth forest. Millions of acres have been lost since then. In the mid twentieth century, the explosion of interest in soy bean production encouraged land owners to clear cut old growth forests in order to dedicate the land to soy beans. The resulting loss of ancient forests eventually destroyed what was left of the great southern forests and the habitat of the Ivory Billed woodpecker, an impressive bird of the south now thought to be extinct.

The West Coast was once home to extensive tracts of virgin redwood forests. Timber industry reduced the size of the ancient forests. In 1963, a National Geographic survey found that only 300,000 acres of redwood forest form the original two million acres remained.

Industrial interests have long battled with ecological interests over the condition of American forests. Timber industry decries government regulation claiming that they have a right to clear cut, that it creates jobs and business opportunity for the United States. Agriculture demands large, open areas for food production. Housing development invaded forested areas during the housing boom of the late twentieth century. But there must be a balance between business and environmental interests. The virgin forests are gone, now. Only hidden pockets remain. But the few ancient wooded areas must be preserved. They are our national heritage, a reminder of the America that once spread beneath a leafy canopy of trees.

Read the story of the Ivory Bill Woodpecker, with pictures and links concerning the debate over its extinction. Is the Ivory Bill still with us?

A beautiful story of personal loss, how a child's view of the world grew and changed in a woods.

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