In Our View: Mapping Forest Loss

Satellite data provide unflinching view of state of Northwest, world tree growth

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ne of the finest examples of forest management and forest restoration can be found right outside Clark County’s backdoor.

From 1933 to 1951, a series of wildfires in Northern Oregon’s Coast Range burned some 350,000 acres of old-growth timber and became collectively known as the Tillamook Burn. Decades later, after a massive restoration and replanting effort, that area is known as the Tillamook State Forest, and its lush landscape of pines and evergreens is enjoyed by anybody who makes the drive between Portland and the Oregon Coast on U.S. Route 26.

All of this is relevant in the wake of a new study by a group of researchers and the University of Maryland's department of geographical sciences. Examining satellite data from 2000 through 2012, scientists developed an interactive map showing forest loss and forest gain throughout the world. The study found that 888,000 square miles of forest cover were lost globally during that time period, while 309,000 square miles were gained (a story and interactive map can be found here).

“The thing that to me was shocking was the visual picture of it,” Jurgen Hess, a board member of the Friends of Mount Adams, told Columbian reporter Eric Florip. “You can see it in abstract form when you read about it … but to see these patterns, wow.” Locally, lands south and east of Mount Adams experienced the greatest change among Southwest Washington areas, primarily due to large wildfires in 2008 and 2012. Globally, densely populated developing countries such as Indonesia experienced vast deforestation.

That worldwide forest loss is of significant concern. Deforestation contributes to climate change through the release of CO2, exacerbates soil erosion, diminishes wildlife habitat and impacts the water cycle. According to the World Resources Institute, forest loss contributes between 12 and 17 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, and much of that loss is the result of clear-cutting, which the Natural Resources Defense Council calls “an ecological trauma that has no precedent in nature except for a major volcanic eruption.”

In many places, including the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, forests are being lost to encroaching development. Growing populations and burgeoning economies are leading to the harvesting of natural resources or the construction of new developments. Those are forests that are lost forever.

In Washington, a 2013 study by the state Department of Natural Resources indicated that the state lost 650,000 acres of forest between 1976 and 2006. “It’s a really disturbing trend,” DNR state forester Aaron Everett said. “There’s a lot at stake with the current rate of losses that we see.”

And yet, there are lessons to be learned nearby. In 1948, author Stewart Holbrook wrote about the Tillamook Burn: “There they stand, millions of ghostly firs, now stark against the sky, which were green as the sea and twice as handsome …” A couple decades later, the forest had been rejuvenated and replenished. Initially, it was assumed the trees would be logged when they matured, but modern environmentalists’ leanings have altered that thinking.

Overall, the future of the world’s forests will continue to be an issue, particularly in developing nations. What might seem to be just 1 or 2 acres lost to development can have an environmental impact that reverberates throughout the world.