Our Fate, The Fate of Forests and Wetlands, All Connected


By Dr. Michael W. Fox

Our forests are in peril by all accounts, from fires, high winds and droughts. An estimated 11–16% of US tree species are threatened with extinction, with the most common threat being invasive and problematic pests and diseases. We need the trees to hold the hills and mountainsides to prevent erosion; to sequester carbon emissions to reduce global warming and climate change; and, to produce the oxygen we and most other life-forms need to live. But still they are seen primarily as a resource to be harvested regardless.

What is utterly absurd is that taxpayer subsidies for the federal logging program ranged from $1.6 to $1.8 billion per year in fiscal years 2013 through 2017. “The Forest Service attempts to justify these losses by hiding commercial timber sale projects within larger ecological restoration projects – a move that consistently lands the agency in court. Selling timber from federal lands below cost is a form of environmentally harmful subsidy that runs afoul of international agreements.” ( Quote from National Forest Economics - Tennessee Heartwood https://www.tennesseeheartwood.org › national-forest-eco..)

Part of the problem for the trees is invasion by insect pests that have a free-range thanks to the spraying of insecticides to kill mosquitoes and the wholesale applications of pesticides by the agricultural and agroforestry industries and in the process, beneficial insects-pollinators and pest-controlling parasitic wasps and insectivorous reptiles, amphibians and birds are either poisoned or starve to death.

In 2019, Biological Conservation reported that 40% of all insect species are declining globally and that a third of them are endangered.

Like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s across millions of acres of Southern Plains, the fate of America’s trees and those of other nations may indeed culminate in the ancient prophetic warning that when the trees are gone, the sky will fall. “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.“― Franklin D. Roosevelt. A significant initiative would be for the Biden administration, if it is serious about climate change, to end the timber industry subsidies which should be diverted to reforestation and conservation.

I have the greatest sympathy for the many residents of Florida and the animals now recovering from Hurricane Ida. Such devastating and costly events are predicted to become more frequent and intense. Deforestation, in part a contributing factor to this climate crisis, will intensify with escalating demand for timber to restore damaged buildings and construct new homes. Part of the Florida tragedy can be attributed to the Army Corps of Engineers and others who altered watersheds, drained wetlands and coastal marshlands, and also in other states, for real estate and agricultural development.

In the process of eliminating these natural water-catchment and containment sinks they made residents and farmers, along with their crops and animals, more prone to flooding. Massive quantities of precipitation, punctuated by periods of drought due to Jet Stream perturbations, are predicted with more moisture in a warming atmosphere from the melting of polar ice, and more hurricanes and cyclones energized by warming oceans. Rebuilding without first restoring woodlands, wetlands and coastal marshland would be imprudent.

There is good news for wildlife and biodiversity evident in some Midwest River towns, especially along the Mississippi River where acres of corn and soy fields, once flood plain wetlands and prairie grasslands, are being returned to Nature as an effective method of community flood control. With increased rainfall caused by climate change the locks, dams and levees constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers are no longer effective so Nature-based solutions are being initiated for the benefit of all. This kind of enlightened ecological thinking and restoration is the kind of proactive, preventive response to the consequences of climate change which I advocated in my 2011 book Animals and Nature First; Creating New Covenants with Animals and Nature.

On the home-front, those who still have homes can plant indigenous trees and native grasses, engage in “rewilding” instead of wasting water, wasting energy mowing and applying harmful chemicals to lawns and golf courses. Many neighborhoods and cities across the U.S. and in other countries are creating, restoring and maintaining tree canopies to provide shade to reduce utility bills for air conditioning as seasonal periods of heat extend and intensify, and in the process create a healthier environment.

If we all had respect and empathy for the wildlife in the forests and wetlands and were not such an invasive and destructive species, we would have protected them rather than suffer the consequences. How many mourn the silence of the frogs? All of us who do must rise up and voice our concerns; vote for eco-justice- dedicated and enlightened political leadership, and remember the insight of Henry David Thoreau who asserted in 1854 that “Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

Democratic principles of justice, rule of law, the common good and the good of the Commons are ill-served when there is no ethical basis for the practice of law by attorneys who put winning over the morality of right and wrong. Every law student should have to read Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 book Should Trees Have Standing? Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. We might then, eventually, have a Supreme Court that better serves the common good and the good of the Commons. As Chief Seattle advised, “Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”