What is Deforestation?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that deforestation contributes nearly 20% of the overall greenhouse gases (GHG) entering the atmosphere (see their news release). The IPCC lists GHGs as the cause for anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

So, what is deforestation exactly?

The people blogging at Geography Blog say:

Deforestation is the logging ot[sic, I think ot should be “or”] burning of trees in forested areas.

No, it’s not that. Next?

Wikipedia says Deforestation is:

[T]he logging or burning of trees in forested areas.

No, that’s what the other team said, you just spelled it right. Thank you for playing. Definitions matter. There is one more step before deforestation has occurred. Next?

The Free Dictionary defines Deforestation as:

The cutting down and removal of all or most of the trees in a forested area. Deforestation can erode soils, contribute to desertification and the pollution of waterways, and decrease biodiversity through the destruction of habitat.

Nice, an elegantly phrased yet incorrect definition and editorializing based on its disingenuous supposition. No wonder people think timber harvesting is a pact with darkness. Next?

Let’s have a look at the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) definition in their world Forest Resource Assessment in 2000, On Definitions Of Forest And Forest Change:

Deforestation is the conversion of forest to another land use or the long-term reduction of tree canopy cover below the 10% threshold … Deforestation implies the long-term or permanent loss of forest cover. Such a loss can only be caused and maintained through a continued man-induced or natural perturbation.

That’s it. The FAO nails it by defining deforestation as the conversion of forestland to another land use.

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

Under the erroneous definitions, this is deforestation (It's been logged on before).

Logging and burning of stands of trees have occurred for a long time; for logging, we’re talking a couple thousand years and for fires we’re talking about as long as there has been fire and forests. The FAO rightly says, “to determine whether the removal of trees from an area is a deforestation it is necessary to predict the future development for the area.”

As a forester, I have seen the before-and-after of tree cutting and I have watched forests over decades. I support conserving trees. I also support harvesting trees responsibly. We need to grow more trees. And then we need to use the wood we grow as a substitute for metal and plastics wherever possible.

This is what deforestation looks like.

This is deforestation.

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New Zealand Forestry and California Dreaming


“We Californians are really not very good conservationists – we’re very good preservationists. Conservation means you use resources well and responsibly. Preservation means you are rich enough to set aside things you want and buy them from someone else.” – William Libby, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

New Zealand harvests trees.

Today, with over four million acres (an area larger than Connecticut) of tree plantations, New Zealand is more than self-sufficient. Forest exports contribute over $(US) 1.8 billion to the New Zealand economy, roughly 3.5% of their gross domestic product (GDP). Wood is their number three export after meat and dairy.

To me, a California forester, it’s heaven with a lower case “H.” Mind you, they don’t cut native trees. They cut California trees: California’s Monterey pine(Pinus radiata) to be precise.


Radiata pine is the primary species grown for wood because it grows fast and straight there. Jeff Tombleson, of New Zealand’s Forest Research Institute says, “to paraphrase Henry Ford, we think any tree is fine as long as it’s radiata pine…it’s our ‘New Zealand mahogany.’”

The Kiwis have improved the crops both mechanically and genetically. They prune the trees to create clear, knot-free timber. They plant radiata pine from rooted cuttings rather than seedlings because the results are better. The cuttings are from well-formed trees selected over many years. They ship the wood all over the globe—even to California.

They work at meeting the world’s market demands of the world. And the market demands sustainable forestry. They need to meet the certification standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to classed as a ‘green producer’ by Home Depot and others.

FSC began in 1993. It is an independent, not for profit, non-governmental organization based in Germany. It promotes environmentally appropriate management of the world’s forests that is also socially beneficial and economically viable. FSC sets standards and accredits companies and organizations practicing responsible forestry.

California, and the United States, may have something to learn from New Zealand. Currently California could grow and produce all the wood it needs. Many people point to the native forests to meet the demand. There is enough timber now in our forests to provide what the state needs, and we could grow it in a sustainable way. Yet these same areas are also valued for old-growth and endangered-species habitat, recreation, or other values.

To protect these values, there are also those who promote replacing wood with other products such as plastics or hemp. Both of these options have negative costs. Plastics come from nonrenewable sources from unstable areas: either politically or environmentally (as in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – ANWAR). Hemp, straw (for straw bale building), and other annual crops are monocultures. Monocultures require frequent applications of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to keep down pests and stimulate growth. Those who argue that radiata pine plantations are monocultures only need to listen to the animal life and see the undergrowth to recognize the difference.

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

This is what a plantation looks like, it's hardly a monoculture

And, trees are the skyscrapers of the plant world. They put a huge amount of biomass in a smaller area of land than other plants.

We could replicate what the Kiwis have, that is, grow more wood on fewer acres. Forest geneticist William Libby, Ph.D. says increases of 40% in productivity are easily obtainable in American forests. Instead, California imports 75% of its wood, meanwhile New Zealand produces enough wood to take care of its own needs and exports the surplus.

I will return to New Zealand. It is a place of beauty with an undercurrent of optimism. David Young the author of Our Islands, Our Selves – A History of Conservation in New Zealand, sums it up this way, “we think we can; and therefore we do.”

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The Week’s What Next? Contest/Feb. 20, 2009

The Week’s “What Next?” Contest (emailed entries are due to whatnext@theweek.com by 5 p.m. Eastern Time, Monday, Feb. 16.) revolves around flight Aeroflot 315’s drunken pilot incident where passengers made enough of a fuss about the apparent intoxication of their pilot, they were able to have him removed and replaced.

According to an article on the London Times Online:

One [Areoflot official] sought to reassure [passengers] by announcing that it was “not such a big deal” if the pilot was drunk because the aircraft practically flew itself.

The Week’s Challenge:

Please come up with a takeoff announcement that might tip off plane passengers that the pilot is too soused to fly.

What the heck. Here’s the entry I sent to “whatnext@theweek.com”:

Good after-noon ladies and germs,This you’re your captain drinking. Welcome to Flight Fwee-Five-Fo-Fum, non-stop from wherever the hell we are right now to Dallas or Dulles or one of those places that begins with the letter “d.” This is a non-smoking flight, but the government has not yet made it non-drinking. Trust me on this one when I tell you that the lovely Maya who just demonstrated how to put a life preserver on, though I think we can safely say she doesn’t need one. Am I right or what? Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, drinking. Maya mixes a terrific bloody Mary. So, drinks on the house; have her mix you one of those tomato smoothies, sit back, relax, and enjoy our flight to Denmark.

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