Sounding the alarmed, are the world’s forests 80% fragmented?

Ignorance is the parent of fear” – Herman Melville

Willful Sturm und Drang

A statement crafted to alarm you: “…80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone.” – Tzeporah Berman, co-founder of ForestEthics. But it could have come from any number of environmental organizations—in competition for your wallet. You need to act now with cash to keep the remaining 20 percent from being, in their opinion, profaned. “Thanks be to Gaia. Send those heartfelt donations to…”

Sifting fact from soundbite can help you keep your head and avoid Witoid Ricsas (when in trouble or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout)? First, recognize the calculated Sturm und Drang to get your attention, often playing up bad news and downplaying or omitting good news.

Reality rarely increases a heart rate the way Romanticism, with its magical quality of nature, does. But, clear-headedness tops fear when considering where to put your efforts.

A previous post double-checked a factoid also crafted to sound troubling: one-half of the world’s forests have been converted to non-forest use. After some checking sources: Probably not.

What set me off on this in the first place was a Yahoo Green blog, “10 big reasons to stop using dead trees.” to which I replied, “You’re pulling my Yang. Ten dead-on reasons for using dead trees.”

The “10 Big Reasons” post cited a number of references and that’s commendable, there should be more reference citing in posts. The ‘gray literature’ (e.g., non peer-reviewed sources), references need more fact checking. Number 6 on his list struck me: “Half of the world’s forests have already been cleared or burned, and 80 percent of what is left has been seriously degraded.” The “Environmental Paper Network” was cited. Their paper on the subject cited a number of other environmental organizations. The EPN report led me to Tzeporah Berman’s assertion, “…80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone”

I want to look into the citation to the assertion that 80 percent of the world’s forests are fragmented. And, does forest fragmentation matter?

“Of course it matters if the world’s forests are not intact,” you may say. “Fragmentation is not natural.”

Naturally Squishy

The word, “natural,” squishes a lot. It means something produced by nature’s processes. As an example, is the growth of a planted tree seedling “natural”? I think so as long as it’s from seed from the area. But, I know lots of folks who would say it isn’t.

In the 1960s, Sequoia National Park began a prescribed fire program; the goal being to get the park back to its natural state. Parks try to preserve a place’s natural ecological, biological, and physical processes. The question then was, “What’s natural?” Was it before European descendants settled in the area, or before the Native Americans arrived? Experts could tell from fire scars within tree rings how often the forest burned during European and Indian times, but was that what the park was supposed to use as a baseline? [For more on our National Park Service’s dilemma, see Playing God in Yellowstone by Alston Chase. Jim Macdonald’s The Magic of Yellowstone website has a good synopsis of Chase’s book.]

Fact Check the Soundbites

The concept of natural gets tied up in Romantic ideals; and because it does, it’s wholly appropriate to try to separate the Romantic from the realistic and critically consider:

  • What evidence is there that this figure of 80% fragmentation is true?
  • If it is true, is it a problem?
  • If it is a problem, what can be done to fix it?
  • If it can be fixed, how much will that cost?
  • And, given the cost, is that the most appropriate place to sink our dough?

These are wholly appropriate responses, not Witoid ricsas.

Find Peer-Reviewed Facts

Ms Berman, told producers and directors of the movie ‘The 11th Hour,’ “I think you need to look at the world’s resources and data showing that’s showing that 80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone and there are only three countries left in the world with enough forests to maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services. And that’s Canada, Russia, and Brazil.” They took the statement at face value apparently: they hired her as a consultant.

The myth of sparsely populated wilderness

It could be this intact forest doesn’t exist except in the mind of the Romantic. The Romanticism was a reaction to the rational thinking of the Enlightenment. This is after the time Europeans introduced smallpox to the new world, killing off 90 percent of the native inhabitants and wiping out their civilizations. This catastrophe allowed the native forests, which had been agricultural fields and population centers, to grow back.

“The myth persists,” writes Professor William Denevan, “that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness…The pristine view [of an untouched ‘natural’ landscape] is to a large extent an invention of nineteenth-century romanticist and primitivist writers such as W.H. Hudson, Cooper, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Parkman, and painters such as Catlin and Church!”

Teasing out the Percent Fragmented

While not mythical the amount of forest on the earth depends on the definition. Given the present definition of forest from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations‘ (FAO), the Earth’s total forest area is just under four billion hectares (10 billion acres) or 30 percent of earth’s total land area

[source 1=”FAO” 2=”Global” 3=”Forest” 4=”Resources” 5=”Assessment” 6=”2005″ language=”:”][/source]

This 30% figure has remained reasonably stable since 1950. Around 36 percent of 4 bn hectares gets classified as “primary forests,” i.e. “forests of native species, in which there are no clearly visible indications of human activity and ecological processes are not significantly disturbed.”

How much of the Earth’s land is forest?

So is Ms Berman’s contention ‘80 percent of the world’s intact forests are already gone’ a myth as well? To meet the 80 percent number the world would have had to have eight billion hectares (20 billion acres) to begin with (which is disputed by researchers). And, 80% X 8 billion = 6.4 billion hectares either fragmented or destroyed. This should mean that 1.6 billion hectares are intact (e.g. Primary Forest). Our earth’s present primary forests comprise 36 percent of earth’s forests, about 1.44 billion hectares. The two numbers, 1.6 and 1.4, match pretty well, so as far as I can tell, that is where her figure of 80% comes from.

Is fragmentation a problem?

The underlying concern about the lack of intactness, forest fragmentation, is about habitat and biodiversity. While tropical forests show high biodiversity, temperate and boreal forests have 1/10 the biodiversity of trees (and, presumably, other species of plant and animal). According to Willie Smits, “If you look at the number of tree species we have in Europe, for instance, from the Urals up to England, you know how many? 165. In [the Samboja Lestari] nursery [on Borneo], we’re going to grow 10 times more the number of species.” From a tree perspective, tropical trees are not as productive for biomass as those in temperate climes because tropical trees have many other plants that compete for light, water, and nutrients.

Intact forest in boreal and temperate forests can be detrimental and, in fact, fragmentation can be beneficial. Unbroken tree canopies in temperate and boreal forests can shade out plants trying to grow underneath. According to the FAO, temperate and boreal forests “bordering agricultural areas may provide additional habitats and thus harbour more species” than primary forests.

If it is a problem, what can be done to fix it?

Preventing fragmentation of tropical forests should be the highest priority because tropical forest trees have more biodiversity and are critical to curbing global warming (their presence creates clouds and rain). One way to meet that challenge is to cut more in the temperate and, to a lesser extent, the boreal forests. Currently North Americans blocking harvests in their second and third-growth forests means they get their wood from other places.

Second, the locals in the tropical forests need more efficient wood stoves. Most of the wood that is harvested in the world goes toward firewood for heating and cooking. More efficient stoves will lessen the amount of wood needed for those necessities by 70 percent while lowering the CO2 put into the atmosphere. As an example, the average Mexican Ejido family requires 40 trees annually; an efficient stove reduces this to 12 trees. (For more on the effect of efficient wood stoves click here)

If it can be fixed, how much will that cost?

Fuel-efficient Patsari stoves that use 70% less firewood cost about $120 each, according to the Ecolife Foundation.

And, given the cost, is that the most appropriate place to sink our dough?

Certainly, one could do worse than Ecolife to put one’s money. They install the stove and work with locals to help maintain the forest for the winter grounds of the monarch butterflies.

For a list of worthwhile endeavors and which ones give the most return for each dollar invested go to The Copenhagen Consensus Center, whom I have written about before.

Choose Wisely

Where you put your money and what you believe should be based on facts on the true state of the environment. We started by fact-checking the question of forest fragmentation. We found the 80 percent fragmentation figure to be based on the dubious figure of the loss of 50 percent of forests since the introduction of agriculture.

Facts can be difficult to come by. There are lots of numbers and figures floating about but fewer facts. In his book The Republican Noise Machine, David Brock writes about the amplification of the conservative message through repetition and right-wing think-tanks are then used to give the talking points intellectual cover. The same happens in the green machine. Some “facts” and figures echo through cyberspace and if used can become canon; one only needs to look at the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report where they cited a seeming fact from New Scientist that Himalayan glaciers would “vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming.” The figure was based on idle speculation but ended up in a report that was supposed to be based on the best science available.

The purpose for the Sturm und Drang may not be the health of the environment, but rather to make you reach for your wallet using the fragmentation of once intact forests as the stick. “Competition [among environmental groups] for money and members is keen,” wrote Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity. And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.” Without a crisis to scare you, they don’t stay in business. So many people want to frighten you to give up your money for their cause. Confirm their “facts” first and then ask the tough questions.


Who do you find reliable? Where do you find your facts to make good choices?

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