Restoring forests will counter climate change

In N.C., the American chestnut, once dominant in the Appalachians, was lost 80 years ago to the chestnut blight. We are now losing hemlock to the hemlock woolly adelgid. Emerald ash borer has invaded the state and has already killed millions of ash trees to our north. Fraser fir stands, and the Christmas industry, are being threatened by the balsam woolly adelgid. In eastern NC, laurel wilt disease is killing redbay and sassafras trees, which has already wiped out half a billion redbay trees further south. These are just a few examples of invasive, exotic forest pests threatening the health of our forests.

We are fast approaching an environmental threshold of devastating effects on our world ecosystem, economy and society. Of the environmental health issues impacting our planet, healthy forests are probably the most under appreciated. This summer, two important scientific reports reiterated the importance of maintaining and re-establishing healthy forests on a global scale.

The first paper, published in Science, found that under our current climate there is room for an extra 2.2 billion acres of trees, which would store about 205 gigatons of carbon. The authors concluded that global tree restoration is currently our most effective climate change solution. Unfortunately, climate change is already altering the potential tree coverage, and the authors estimate that on our current trajectory, the global potential tree cover may shrink by 551 million acres by 2050. These results highlight the opportunity of climate change mitigation through tree restoration but also the urgent need for action.

The second paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science examined biomass losses from invasive pests in U.S. forests. The authors concluded that more than 40% of live biomass is at risk for invasion by currently established pest species, not to mention any future introductions that will undoubtedly occur. They estimated that so many trees have already been killed that the carbon released by them as they decay is the equivalent of adding 4.6 million cars to our roadways.

So, at a time when we need healthy forests to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change, we are experiencing an influx of exotic pests that are killing trees and, through the decay process, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and thereby contributing to climate change.

Humans have utilized forests for timber and fiber production for centuries. Items made from wood are all around us, including fine musical instruments. We have long recognized that healthy forests provide ecological benefits for wildlife habitat, soil conservation, water quality, and flood control. Forests are recognized for benefits to our own human health. And now it is clear that the restoration of healthy forests is among the most effective strategies for mitigating climate change. In short, forest health is key to global health, and a complete transformation of society’s view, bordering on reverence, of forests as an essential component to life on earth is urgently needed.

We all benefit from a better understanding of forest pests and how they interact with their hosts. Unfortunately, lack of funds and infrastructure has impeded crucial programs of research and implementation.

To achieve a management system for healthy forests, it has been proposed by forest scientists that Centers for Forest Pest Control and Prevention be created within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The proposed centers, with a budget separate from fire control, would be akin to the currently operating Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The mission of the centers would emphasize programs against forest pests, including historically underfunded long-term interventions, that would result in healthy forests while mitigating climate change.

While scientists can identify the problem and suggest solutions, ultimately society’s leaders must recognize and address the issue. Regardless of the approach, support for forest restoration and controlling invasive pests is essential for the environmental, economic and social health of the planet.

Fred P. Hain is the director of the Forest Restoration Alliance and a professor emeritus in the Department of Entomology & Plant Pathology at NC State University.