"I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree."
- Joyce Kilmer
The United Nations has declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests, to celebrate trees.
In New York City, Bette Midler works to green urban spaces with trees. In a town in southwest Florida, the TREE Foundation is planting a thousand trees. Even the Queen of England got her hands in the dirt, launching a project to plant 6 million trees throughout the United Kingdom.
All of us depend upon trees for life on Earth. Forests contribute significantly to sustainable development, poverty eradication and human health, according to the United Nations.
Several generations ago, trees covered approximately 10 billion acres (30 percent) of our planet's land area. Satellite images indicate that over 80 percent of this green canopy blanketing Earth has been destroyed by human activities. The remainder faces enormous pressures of degradation, with an area the size of New York City (approximately 200,000 acres) removed every day. Some countries fare worse than others: Madagascar has cleared almost 95 percent of its forests, whereas forests in Surinam remain almost intact.
Why are forests so important? Forests provide what scientists call "ecosystem services." These essential services keep us alive, providing free benefits even as we sleep. Forest services include water conservation, energy production, medicines, climate control, building materials, shade, homes for countless species, soil stability, carbon storage, pollution offset, and cultural heritage for millions of people. When forests disappear, people experience water shortages, soil erosion, loss of pollinators, and extinction of species that provided food and livelihoods.
But the good news is that many individuals, governments and businesses are planting trees. More than 10 million acres of forest are planted each year.
Scientists still have a lot to learn about the machinery of forests. How do these "factories" produce oxygen, store carbon and support millions of creatures living in their foliage? In Peru, a quarter-mile-long walkway through the treetops provides scientists with unprecedented observations of orchids, beetles, macaws and other creatures high in the jungle. In Brazil, the Amazonian Tall Tower Observatory will soar almost 1,000 feet above the forest, providing long-term monitoring of forest respiration and other important processes. Such research programs are critical to ensure the health of our planet, and the future of life on Earth.
Meg Lowman: www.canopymeg.com