Listening to the Forest Giants

This is the eighth blog in CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign. Read all blogs in this series.

“I’ve seen just about everything.”

Robert Redford — playing The Redwood in our Nature Is Speaking film — sums up the incredible life history of redwood trees, which are older and bigger than most living things on Earth.

We can look upon trees that grew under the same sun as Julius Caesar and were already immense by the time Columbus traveled to the New World. But although they capture our imagination, few realize that just a short time ago, these botanical “dinosaurs” and national treasures were on the brink of destruction.

Logging of these giants began soon after westward expansion reached California in the mid-19th century. Yet the majesty of redwoods was enough to eventually convince President Abraham Lincoln that these trees needed to be protected.

In 1864, during the height of the Civil War, Lincoln took the remarkable step of setting aside the Mariposa Grove of redwoods and sequoias for “public use and recreation … for all time” — essentially creating the first protected area in the country, and in so doing acknowledging that forests have a value beyond the sum of their timber. Public good had won out over short-term private business interests.

But the redwood story did not end there. Although more patches of redwoods have been protected over time, incredibly the logging of giant redwoods continued well into the 1960s and eventually saw over 90% of these ancient trees being cut down for what is considered to be timber of mediocre quality.

redwood logs on train, early 1900s, California

Redwood logs on a train on the way to a mill in early 1900s California. (From the National Photo Company Collection/Library of Congress)

The redwoods are of course by no means alone. Living in Washington, D.C., it’s hard to believe that most of the forests that blanket the East Coast of the U.S. were at one point cut down. In fact, it’s estimated that over half of the country’s forest cover — a staggering 500 million acres [200 million hectares] — fell to the ax in the quest for timber and agricultural land. Americans eventually found the limits of this “limitless” resource, and the forests that we look upon now are mostly new, having taken root once farmers turned industrialists in the early 20th century.

Although the story of the East Coast forests went from loss to regrowth, this unfortunately doesn’t reflect a fundamental change in humanity’s attitude toward forests. Demand for wood and agricultural products has only increased, and these goods have simply been sourced from other places, pushing deforestation to the developing world.

The good news is that the world is now — finally — shifting toward more sustainable production and consumption patterns.

In September in New York City, world leaders put forth the New York Declaration on Forests (PDF), aiming to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020 and striving to end it by 2030. It also calls for restoring forests and croplands of an area larger than India. Meeting these goals would cut between 4.5 and 8.8 billion tons of carbon pollution every year — about as much as the current emissions of the United States. The Declaration is endorsed by dozens of governments, 30 of the world’s biggest companies and more than 50 influential civil society and indigenous organizations, including CI.

The Declaration is a great first step, but words need to be replaced by action. We simply have too much to lose.

Forests are one of the most versatile and useful natural resources we have, providing the basic building blocks needed for our well-being. Even in a rich developed country like the U.S., people’s modern lives are still incredibly dependent on healthy forests, which provide 20% of the nation’s fresh water, create 2.5 million jobs and give us the medicines, food, building materials and pollinators that we all depend on.

In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the U.S. was largely built on the back of its forests and will depend on them more than ever in the future in the face of a changing climate.

If we are to achieve the goals of the Declaration, then the world as a whole needs to transition to new economic models that fully value the role nature plays in our lives and don’t consider a standing forest as an “unproductive” resource to be exploited. Forests should be our biggest ally in the fight against climate change, capturing and securing the carbon we emit instead of being burnt to make way for cattle and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere in the process.

In short, forests and all natural systems need to be recognized as an active supporter of our modern lives. As the Nature is Speaking film series highlights, people need nature to thrive.

redwoods, California

Sunlit canopy of redwoods and Douglas firs in California. Today, the state’s redwood forests are a popular tourist draw. (© William Crosse)

At CI, we are working with governments, companies and local communities to make this transition a reality. By working on the ground with industry leaders to ensure deforestation-free supply chains and developing new and innovative financial mechanisms to incentivize forest protection, we are piloting the approaches that will be needed to reach the 2020 goals.

For the first time, the world has the tools and technology to shift us onto a more sustainable path. We have the ability to communicate widely and learn from past mistakes. Developing nations need to be supported — and given the right incentives — to ensure that their development does not come at the expense of the natural capital we all need.

Unlike in the early days of redwood conservation, we don’t measure progress anymore by the number of barren, stump-filled acres we leave behind. Instead, it is determined by the healthy, sustainable societies we develop.

In defending the “big trees” of California, a contemporary of Lincoln once remarked, “With the disappearance of the forest, all is changed … the earth is rendered no longer fit for the habitation of man.”

Those words were written a century and a half ago. Isn’t it time we start listening?

Agustin Silvani is the managing director of carbon finance in CI’s Ecosystem Finance and Markets division. To learn more about what you can do to help, check out our Nature Is Speaking website. In addition, every time you use the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking on social media platforms, HP will donate $1 to CI (up to $1 million); learn more.

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