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Global deforestation: A statistical thicket

Dr. Harold Brown's picture

It’s all about forests: The United Nations declared 2011 “International Year of Forests”; the U.S. theme for World Environment Day on June 5 was, “Forests: Nature at Your Service.” This is an ideal opportunity to stop those barking up the wrong tree and debunk a long-running legend: the deforestation of the earth.

The lead-off sentence of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) first survey of world forests in 1948, encapsulated the purpose, “The whole world is suffering from shortages of forest products.”

So deforestation was a concern even before mid-century. But environmental activism has since given the issue more appendages than a mother pig. This diffusion of purpose led to a conclusion in a 2000 FAO document that, “National and local forestry planning is seldom dominated by wood production and utilization,” a clean reversal since 1948.

Earth prophets have been relentless in predicting calamity. A 1979 New York Times article said, “The world’s forests are disappearing at an alarming rate, a loss that poses potentially dire economic and environmental problems for most of humanity ...” The “alarming rate” description was epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s.

The alarm was partly about the demise of species; a 1985 report predicted “10 to 20 percent of the earth’s animal species” would disappear by 2000. It was also about loss of potential drugs for known and unknown ailments, unstable water supplies, increased global warming, increased soil erosion, desertification, even poverty.

Fortunately, as with so many environmental doomsday predictions, the reality is infinitely brighter. In its 1948 report, FAO estimated that the world had 4 billion hectares (a hectare is 2.47 acres) of forest. In 2010 the estimate was 4.03 billion hectares.

How did the “alarming” deforestation of four decades disappear? The answer is that FAO’s own estimates have been contradictory almost from the beginning. Two estimates given for 1963 differ by over 300 million hectares. But radical reassessment really began for the year 1990, after FAO tallied 3.4 billion hectares of forest and a loss of nearly a half-billion hectares since 1960.

FAO has repeatedly cautioned about the difficulty of estimating world forests and repeated revisions of the 1990 survey illustrate. Five FAO publications give different estimates, and the most recent (2010) listed 4.17 billion hectares of forest for 1990, the second highest estimate since 1948. The re-estimates wiped out the deforestation of 42 years.

Nevertheless, FAO continues to estimate large areas of deforestation. Its 2010 report claims: “The rate of deforestation shows signs of decreasing, but is still alarmingly high.” Eighty-three million hectares were reportedly lost in the 1990s and 52 million hectares since then.

The “alarming” loss of forest feared for so long appears to be 633 million hectares, yet hasn’t reduced the amount of forest since the 1960s. The change in forested areas reported since 1948 is not statistically significant. It is a maze of numbers, definitions and revisions that boggle the mind.

Definitions for some surveys have required that forests have 10 percent tree cover, but for others (even in the same year), 20 percent cover. Forest area in Australia almost quadrupled from 1990 to 2000 because the definition of forest was changed from 20 percent cover to 10 percent cover.

Forest clearing has occurred throughout history. Land for food has always had precedence over forests. But there are encouraging trends. Modernization and economic progress holds hope for future forests. Countries that are replenishing their forests today are those that can afford to; because they can grow more food on less land.

A recent analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ties forest regeneration to economic progress. It noted the transition from net deforestation to reforestation that has occurred over the last 200 years in Europe and in America. France’s forest, for example, reached a low point of less than 15 percent of the land area in about 1830, and has since rebounded by one-third, while its population nearly doubled.

Among 50 nations currently with large forest areas, the analysis showed that every nation with a per capita gross domestic product of over $4,600 had a positive rate of forest growth.

So the good news about world forests is that, if they are declining, it is not much, and in some areas they are increasing. Europe (including the former Soviet Union) has 15 million more hectares of forest than in 1990 and China’s has grown by one-third.

Alarmed “global deforesters” can relax after 30 years, that is, if they can see the trend through the statistical thicket.

[University of Georgia Professor Emeritus R. Harold Brown is an Adjunct Scholar with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.]


"""The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians""" - your kidding right ?

"There are Lies, Damn lies and Statistics" - Mark Twain. Meaning a statistic is often worse than a Damn lie.

In 1942 when Christopher Columbus landed on Plymouth Rock the forest of America extended unbroken from the high water mark of the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Known of that forest is still around. That was old growth forest. That forest is gone and it will never come back.

You want to see what a tree from old growth forest looks like? Rent the movie "Birth of a Nation" (AFI top 100 movie) OK it is about the founding of the KKK and Nathan Bedford Forest. But in the opening scenes they run through old growth forest. The trees steal the scene. Truly astounding. Those trees are all gone and they are not coming back.

Last year I went for a hike in Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I met a man who lives near the park and hiked it as a kid. We were spending the night at a shelter on the Appalachian trail. He lamented the tragedy of the loss of the spruce forest along the ridge. Nearly all of the spruce are gone killed from acid rain and warmer temperatures.

When the cut down Amazon rain forest, it is essentially lost forever. Sure trees will grow there but that part of the Amazon rain forest is lost.

There is managed forest lands - monocultures antiseptic lands that lack critical biodiversity. And the 2x4 board of today is not the same as the board of 100 years ago. The density and strength is gone.

Before Long Leaf pine populated all southern lands, now it is gone from most of the south.

The wooden ship the USS Constitution floating in Boston Harbor is made from the good oak. You could build the same ship today. The wood does not exist in the USA.

For a country to have expansion of forest lands, it means not so long ago they were depleted. And that forest is not coming back.

So you know what the statistics are worth.


Anyway thing that requires capitalists to spend any money to prevent is not needed.

That includes cigarettes, alcohol, false advertising, erosion, contamination, safety, air quality, and trees.

Heck tare, I can't even clarify all them numbers in this piece---some in Biblical days, some now, and all wrong---but a lot of heck tares.

I do think the old settlers of the west chopped down every tree they saw and some they didn't. They are gone. The place still blows off when the wind gets up.
Enough pine trees have been ground up and mixed with glue for construction panels than Carter has got liver pills!

Hardwoods have practically disappeared---that used to make some long-lasting fine furniture.

We do have sixteen trillion scrub pine seedlings however.

The thing is, even creatures don't like pine forests---they would just as soon die or move.

we simply ain't worried about our kids earth and their kids earth atall!

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