Forests harbor most of our Earth’s extraordinary biodiversity — more than 80 percent of all the plants and animals that exist on dry land. Forests dominated the Earth’s surface. Wherever one looked — on over forty-six percent of the land — forests thrived. They contained the tallest living organisms ever to have evolved, regulated local and global climates, ameliorated extreme weather events, the hydrological cycle, stored vast amounts of carbon and protected soils so vital for Nature’s health.
Yet we have already destroyed half — and continue to do so. And only 15 percent of those original forests still survive close to their natural state. Whilst the rate of loss has eased from the startling levels of 16 milllion hectares each year to much less, 130 million hectares were lost in the ten years between 2000 and 2010. This is why we have a crisis. It’s as great as any that have threatened life on Earth.
The history of civilizations chronicles the losses. But today, we have the knowledge and capacity to save what’s left and restore much of what was lost. Nature’s wellbeing and ours depends on it.
Our wellbeing depends on forests
Probably from the beginning of civilization giant trees were revered for their immense size and age — their grandeur and antiquity. We experience awe in the presence of trees that soar to great heights, that last for up to 5,000 years — half the span of all human civilization! Awe stops us in our tracks, overwhelmed, humbled, part of something beyond ourselves, more primed to respect and help. That sense of meaning, deeper even than happiness, appears the real basis of our wellbeing. Science even infers an evolutionary basis. Our brains, hardwired to ‘awe’ and ‘wonderment’, generate altruism and connectedness, upon which not just our survival depends, but that of society and nature as a whole.
Nature’s wellbeing depends on forests
The first true trees 385 million years ago were a gigantic leap in evolutionary innovation. The tallest trees ever possible can only reach 130 metres. To lift water against gravity to such dizzying canopy heights is nothing short of miraculous. These ancestors heralded the era of forests and the explosion in biodiversity that transformed the Earth.
But for forests to thrive and serve their vital functions as fundamental life support systems of our living planet they need to be extensive, rich in species, functional groups, tree ages and niches for myriad other organisms. The forest giants are keystone structures vital to ecosystem health. But, for example, 95% of all the original old-growth redwood forests in the US have been logged and the tallest giants that ever existed, felled. The tallest trees in Australia too suffered that fate, the few remaining feted as icons (National Register of Big Trees). That glorious era is gone. Future climate change and past clearing means we may never see such pinnacles of evolution again. The largest trees remaining occur mostly or only in intact forests, in very large reserves needed to sustain microclimates moist enough and buffers against winds.
This is our challenge — to ensure these critically important forests are protected and left to be.
So many species depend on it. Possibly a third to half of all old-growth species avoid younger forests less than 30-years of age. Only old forests provide the hollows that more than 360 species of non-flying mammals worldwide need or use. Sixty-two percent of Australia’s arboreal and climbing mammals use tree hollows. The hollows for larger vertebrates take many hundreds of years to form. We urgently need to protect all our old-growth forests or the future for so many of our wildlife is dire.