Why Are Forests Important & How Can You Help Protect Them?

why are forests important

For a lot of us, forests represent our fondest memories and distant dreams.

But they’re also an important source of many things we take for granted in our everyday lives.

Understanding how and why forests are being destroyed to meet demand for products is the first step in knowing how you can help.

Healthy forests protect our water, air, and global weather patterns – these ecosystems are crucial to safeguarding our requirements for life.

Let’s start with how forests function before diving into the ways you can take action and help stop their destruction.

What goes on inside of a forest?

We all have a different idea of what a natural forest looks like. Lots of trees, some deer, owls, and in some cases – scarier things like bears, snakes, and haunted cottages.

And while (almost) all these things are true, these are the icons we grew up with. For most of us, forests are firmly logged in the fantasy section of our mental library.

old growth forest
Image by Alaina McDavid via Flickr

But there’s a lot more to a forest than this, considering that 30% of Earth’s dry land is covered in forests, and half of all plants live within them.

This is in stark comparison to our oceans, where a majority of biomass is found in the form of animal life, although unsustainable overfishing and a resurgence in whaling are making a sizable dent in that.

Forests also contain the majority of all life on land, as more than half of all vertebrate species are found in forests, increasing to 90% in tropical forests.

40% of known invertebrate species are found in tropical rainforest canopies alone, and there are likely millions of undiscovered species still to be found. Hidden ecosystem engineers like beetles and termites call forests their home as well, considered the unsung heroes of the forest.

fungus beetles on fungi
Image by Pavel Kirillov via Flickr

Nutrient exchange in the soil is performed by microbes, and mycelial networks of underground fungi work as chemical communication channels between plant life.

Because many plants and mushrooms have this symbiotic arrangement with forest trees and underground fungal networks, it makes them difficult or impossible to cultivate outside of the forest itself.

Deep in the forest, these unspoken architects control almost everything, and the soil and form communities that are a significant carbon sink of their own.

So, the forest itself is more than a fairy-tale movie; it’s an infinitely complex and diverse ecosystem with countless individuals relying on it; and these systems don’t stop at the forest edge – they extend well into our everyday lives.

What are the ecological benefits of forests?

Forests provide us with much more than is immediately obvious.

At a glance, some things are clear: they provide wood for our buildings and furniture, mushrooms and berries to eat, and tranquil spaces for camping trips, hikes, and outdoor adventuring.

But the various benefits and uses of forests extend beyond that:

Forests hold onto soil. Plant roots grab onto soils, which stabilizes riverbanks and prevents flooding and landslides.

They provide protection from wind. Trees in the forest act as a buffer from the elements for things like cities, towns, farms, and other agricultural operations. Planting trees was one of ways in which US states within the Great Plains recovered after the dust bowl ravaged farmlands.

Forests filter the air. Airborne contaminants from industries like oil and gas contribute to early deaths and childhood asthma; while forests may not solve the air pollution crisis, plants do absorb harmful toxins and help to purify the air we breathe.

Most importantly, forests sequester carbon. As they grow, trees take carbon out of the CO2 in the air and use it for their biological structures, helping to maintain healthy levels of atmospheric carbon and counteract the effects greenhouse gasses have on our climate.

Forests can easily provide us with benefits on an individual level, too. Despite advances in synthetic drugs, forests and other ecosystems like coral reefs still house an enormous potential for the discovery of new treatments in medicine; although the threat of coral bleaching has put reefs in a similar position.

Medications used by millions everyday have all been discovered in forest trees and shrubs; including drugs like antimalarials, painkillers and heart attack medicines – and the majority of plants have yet to be investigated for their potential.

mountain range forest
Image by Boris Kuznetsov via Flickr

So forests are important because they store carbon, hold onto soil, protect us from air pollution, and provide us with thousands of products and foods we rely on each and every day – and they still contain so many secrets yet to be discovered.

Without intervention, these secrets will be lost forever as a result of the continued destruction of tree cover worldwide, which affects both the physical environment as well as the traditional ecological knowledge and non-human animal culture and societies that exist in the local region as well.

What threatens the conservation of forests?

Our planet has lost about 2 billion hectares of forest since the last Ice Age, with around half of these losses occurring gradually over nearly 10,000 years.

The other half has happened since the year 1900, an alarming acceleration of biodiversity loss that signals there’s very little time left to act if we want to save our forests.

What’s causing this rapid uptick in forest loss?

The first thing to consider is the global population boom, with Earth’s population skyrocketing from 2 billion in 1927 to 8 billion in 2022. And yes, it does seem to be slowing down as nations start to feel the squeeze of resource depletion – but the obvious conclusion is that we’re running out of space.

forest after logging
Image by Daniel Beilinson via Flickr

The Earth has a limited amount of biological capital needed by all the organisms that live here, and as one species grows it takes resources away from others.

Every one of us needs a place to live and food to eat, and we’ve all got hobbies or interests that take up more space and things. So this may explain some of the need to cut down trees, but there’s more to it than just the number of people.

Space clearly isn’t the issue, which means the problem comes from our unsustainable and inefficient use of land.

Which makes sense, as the major causes of deforestation are from:

Cattle ranching operations. The endless need for land to graze cattle on is the main cause of deforestation, especially in rainforest regions like the Amazon. Beef consumption is on the rise, and directly leads to trees being cut down.

Food for animal agriculture. Not only do we need land to grow animals on, we also need things like soy and grain which we turn into cheap animal food used all over the world, with most of these crops being fed to animals – not humans. These crops are also grown in areas similar to beef farms.

Illegal tree and timber harvesting. Nearly half of all logging is illegal, including 15% of timber exports worldwide, which is why you see countries like the UK banning goods linked to the destruction of trees.

Palm oil and other crops: Palm oil plantations are the most efficient way to produce an edible plant oil found in countless products ranging from food to skincare items. But even things like supposedly sustainable bamboo farms can be planted on top of previously deforested land.

Oil, gas, and mining operations. Oil and gas exploration, fracking, and mining impacts on the environment are insanely destructive, industrial mining in particular is responsible for deforestation in two-thirds of tropical countries.

Poaching and wildlife trafficking. The illegal wildlife trade is often a satellite industry of things like mining operations, and the loss of key species hunted for food or unethical zoos can spell disaster for entire ecosystems.

amazon rainforest farmland
Image by CIAT via Flickr

As you can see, the things we buy and consume are often the cause of deforestation, both directly or indirectly; you honestly may be shocked to find out just how many products and foods from the rainforest your diet or lifestyle includes.

This is both good and bad news – as the developing world catches up with wealthier nations, the market and demand for these products grows.

On the other hand, most of these things are optional purchases – and those in the position to choose between different brands have some power over global trends.

How can you help protect forests?

Unless you’re personally cutting down trees, protecting forests is as simple as not buying products that cause or contribute to deforestation.

Easier said than done, I know, but here’s where to start:

Lifestyle and diet changes

The most effective way to help is by avoiding or eliminating meat and animal products from your diet.

And learning how to go vegan, at least diet-wise, really isn’t that hard. With both lab grown meat and plant based meat (and even insect protein) exploding in popularity recently, it’s pretty simple actually.

And while I’m not really here to preach about veganism, it’s clear that eating meat is bad for the environment and contributes to devastating amounts of forest loss. Regardless of where farmed animal products come from, plants are just more efficient.

Crops used for plant based replacements of animal products produce up to 20 times the amount of nutritionally similar food compared to meat. That’s twenty times the amount of food in the same amount of space – or to put it another way, we get 95% of the land back for the same amount of food.

There’s a difference between supporting massive monoculture farming operations and farms practicing sustainable agriculture, of course, but common arguments like these tend to ignore the emissions of dairy and meat industries.

Palm oil is a trickier thing to eliminate from your life, as growing palm oil is an exceptionally efficient use of space in the world of farming, which is what makes it such a great cash crop for low-income farmers in particular.

A graph showing the world's oil palm production from 1961-2019.

But there are definitely a few ways you can avoid it:

Buy palm oil free products. Products made by more sustainable skincare brands, for example, tend to have much better formulas than conventional brands. If you do buy things with added palm oil, make sure they’re certified by sustainable palm oil organizations.

Support local initiatives to protect forested land. Engaging in ecotourism is an easy way to travel more sustainably; by visiting protected forests, paying for tours, and spending your money in local communities, you increase the value of the forest to those who live around it – providing a reason to keep them this way.

Tree planting initiatives

Plans to balance the rate of deforestation with planting more trees are sprouting up all over, which offer us another way to help reforestation efforts, other than being a forest tourist.

Getting involved with one might be as simple as buying a product that donates some profits towards tree planting, but not all of these planting initiatives are created equal, so it’s important to support the ones that do what they claim.

Pay attention to forestry protection and management programs and No Net Loss (NNL) initiatives as well. The basic idea of these programs is to protect aged, mature forests instead of planting new ones after cutting them down.

redwoods and douglas firs
Image by Redwood NPS via Flickr

While all plants sequester carbon, they also respire, which releases CO2 as a by-product, and the same is true of the soils they grow in. How much CO2 they release differs between ecosystems, but either way, young trees are not often as efficient at storing carbon compared to old growth forests.

This makes old growth forest management incredibly important, and becoming aware of these programs and spreading the word can make a difference. More eyes on the topic of tree planting can help keep tree forestry industries compliant, and governments accountable when it comes to developing or mining on forested lands.

Final thoughts

Preserving forests helps protect our sources of food, clean air, filter our water, and maintain the stability of our climate and the homes of billions of animals, plants, and unknown scientific discoveries.

Our individual behavior affects ecosystems as a whole across the planet, and the consequences of biodiversity loss are becoming more obvious in an increasingly globalized world.

Have you spared a thought for your local forests lately?

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