April 15, 2012

SUSTAINABILITY: Fixing the Forests

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The world’s trees and forests provide many benefits for humanity. Just think of all the products that come from forests; paper is certainly an important one, but forests are also a source of lumber, still the material of choice in conventionally built homes. In addition, wood is a significant source of energy, accounting for 2 percent of energy production in the United States. Forests are a major part of the global ecosystem. Covering approximately a third of the globes total land area, trees and their associated biological communities influence climate by interacting with hydrologic and atmospheric processes.

Although the value of forests has been known for decades,  research has continued to reinforce the view that these ecological systems need to be sustainably managed to ensure their continued existence and supportive capacity.

A new study suggests that the pre-Columbian Mayan and Aztec civilizations may have been doomed by their inability to recognize the importance of forest land, and to manage those lands effectively. After rising to prominence in the first millennia C.E., there is evidence that points to drought as a factor leading to the decline of these civilizations. A new climate model based on reconstructed historical vegetation maps of Central America found that these droughts were, at least in part, caused by deforestation and conversion to grassland.

Grasslands reflect more solar radiation back to space, resulting in a reduction in evaporation and transpiration, in turn causing reduced precipitation. This case starkly illustrates the importance of land management to long term sustainability, there is little else that humans can do to influence the climate and environment on a global scale.

In the United States, sustainably managed forests have become the norm. Conservation efforts by many people have succeeded in protecting, and preserving this land’s forests, but there are still many threats to these natural resources. Invasive species, forest fires, acid rain, and urban sprawl, and conversion for agriculture are all forces that perturb the balance of forests and in turn, the earth’s climate and biology.

We should all take steps to ensure the continued vitality of our forests. Many of us in the United States can be considered among the wealthiest people on the planet. We are the ones who can most afford to make financial sacrifices to protect forest land, both domestically and internationally.

If we hope not to follow the path of the Maya, the Aztecs and other vanished civilizations of the past, we should all make the effort to understand how we as individuals fit into the large scale interactions between humanity and the natural world, and how the choices we make in our daily lives play a role sustaining, or depleting our natural resources.

Cedric Mason is a graduate student. He can be reached at cwm77@cornell.edu. The Missing Link: Sustainabillity appears on appears on Mondays.

Original Author: Cedric Mason

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