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What's in a Forest Besides a Tree?

Ms. Carroll is an avid outdoors person and environmental activist. She was a Wilderness First Responder for 10+ years.

whats-in-a-forest

Despite its quiet solitude, a forest is a living, life-giving organism. Trees are the obvious component of every forest, yet each forest is indelibly comprised of far more. A forest's life-giving value is unparalleled. Sadly, that value is often extinguished by the need for trees to meet human consumptive needs.

Individual trees get more notoriety than forests, for instance, the Tree of Life. While environmentalists have done great work accentuating forests and the adverse impacts of deforestation, over 8,000,000 acres of land are deforested each year worldwide. Another 1,200,000 acres is destroyed in wildfires. Less than half of that will be replaced, creating unsustainability. Just consider on the one hand how quickly an entire forest can be removed by industrial equipment or a wildfire, and on the other hand, consider how long it takes a comparable replanting to reach full maturity.

Trees have been described as silent beauties! A forest then, is a menagerie, and contained in this natural vivarium is everything we need to survive on this planet except water. Nuts, seeds, fruit, leaves, bark, roots, stems—a great deal of which is medicinal. Forests are the kingpins of biodiversity and survival. They absorb toxins and create oxygen. They provide habitat, food, and shade for thousands of species including us. Given the chance, they have the ability to perpetually sustain themselves.

“O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew – Hack and rack the growing green!” Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins - 1918

If Trees Could Talk

If trees could talk, you might ask, what story would they tell? Oh, but trees DO talk! One of the oldest still-living non-clonal trees, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, tells us that it has existed over 5,000 years surviving at least two major droughts and the Little Ice Age. Its location is a secret for its own protection.

The oldest known forest is called the “Trembling Giant” or “Pando Tree.” It tells us “I am many, but I am one.” Located in Utah, this 105-acre colony of 47,000 aspen trees is collectively considered one tree because each individual tree is genetically identical to every other tree in the same colony. This aspen forest is connected by a single, solitary root system estimated by scientists to be over 80,000 years old. It has watched glaciers form and melt.

Threats Facing the Four Main Forest Classifications

In general terms, a forest is a large land area covered with woodlands and an understudy. In technical terms, a forest’s definition is more mathematical – land covered with trees representing more than 10% of a land mass in an area more than .5 hectare. Forests go by several names but they can be more broadly assigned to one of four classifications:

  1. boreal (taiga) forests;
  2. temperate coniferous forests; and
  3. tropical rain forests; and
  4. plantation forests.

Boreal forest is another word for a snow forest. It depicts a northern hemisphere forest, one that grows in colder temperatures, and consists of cold tolerant species like spruce and fir. You find these forests in eight countries including the United States. The boreal forest represents the world's largest land biome or major life zone. It is replete with edible herbs, many of which serve medicinal purposes. The largest threat to boreal forests is industrial logging.

A coniferous forest is simply a forest with evergreen conifers like pines, spruces found in more temperate zones in Asia, Europe and North America. A coniferous forest will support substantial wildlife including fox, moose, owls, bear, deer, and a myriad of plant life. The soft wood of conifers is used to make pulp and paper.

Tropical rainforests get attention that bears repeating. This type of forest is a hot, moist and unchanging biome where it predominantly rains all year. Rainforests cover less than 3% of the planet but provides habitat to more species—plant and animal—than any other terrestrial ecosystem. Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth's surface; now just 6%. Projections are that rainforests could be exhausted in less than 40 years. Why are we destroying one of the Earth's greatest biological treasures? So that we can replace it with palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the most productive oil seed worldwide and one of the most profitable with an export value in the billions. It is used in food products, as a lubricant, and in cosmetics.

In addition to these three main classes, there are numerous sub-classifications of forests ranging from mixed-temperate forests to Mediterranean to sub-tropical forests, but any forest not deliberately planted is a natural forest. Plantation forests are deliberately planted by seed or yearling, and lure us into the belief that forests can survive the pervasive deforestation of our natural trees.

To our dismay, none of these classifications give forests the reverence they deserve as astounding givers of life and sustainers of the planet Earth. The impact of forests on human life, wildlife, and the natural world itself is as far reaching as any ocean. In life-giving terms, a forest is irreplaceable in most of our lifetimes, largely under-appreciated during our lifetime, and all the while, they keep trying to tell us that we can't live without them.

whats-in-a-forest

List of Things Forests Do for Planet Earth and Its Species

  • Forests and trees provide habitat to animals which in turn, serve as a viable food sources to humans and animals and ensure biodiversity.
  • Forests and trees support bird life which in turn, serves to transfer seed generation without the necessity of human interjection in the way of resources, expense or labor.
  • Forests and trees are self-sustaining and regenerate from their own root systems and by-products without the necessity of human involvement.
  • Forests and trees provide shade and shelter which in turn protect humanity from the harmful effects of the elements such as UV rays and high temperatures.
  • Forests and trees are the single largest and most effective means for the absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, which is great for botany, but uncontrolled - extremely harmful to humanity. The best example of how harmful CO2 can be to humans are the many deaths caused each year by a running an automobile in a closed garage.
  • Forests and trees provide a canopy and root structure that significantly helps prevent erosion (as evidenced by 2018 wildfires in California).
  • When trees of a forest naturally decompose, they create organic matter which in turn, provides nutrients to and conditions the soil.
  • Through a process called transpiration, trees and especially forests, affect relative humidity and precipitation.
  • Trees, particularly in a forest setting, create a complex ecosystem that has a domino-effect on countless species and the environment.
  • Forests, orchards (food forests), and the trees that comprise them, provide fruits, nuts and essential oils which have been clinically demonstrated to have significant nutritional and medicinal effects on humans and animals.
  • Trees and plants, therefore forests, create oxygen through a process known as photosynthesis.
whats-in-a-forest

Did Charles Darwin Make a Mistake?

In 1888, Darwin wrote that his greatest error was ascribing sufficient weight to the direct action of the environment. He expounded that when he wrote Origin of the Species, he could find little evidence of the effects of the environment on evolution, but he later conceded there was a very large body of evidence supporting the environmental affects on evolution.

What does this have to do with forests? Deforestation is actually speeding up evolution because epigenetics has now demonstrated that all living organisms, including trees, actually integrate at the cellular level by sharing genes. Remember the Trembling Giant which shared the same root despite 47,000 trees? Scientists now realize those same genes can be shared among many species and this ability to transfer genes (called genetic transfer) also speeds up the evolution of a species.

Unfortunately, when engineers speed up genetics (such as genetically modified trees or GM trees), they also speed up evolution. The danger of genetic engineering in any species should be apparent, but when it impacts a source that serves so many life-sustaining roles in our environment as forests do, the danger can be extrapolated. Artificially created genes transfer into, and forever alter the genetic coding of even natural species.

Fake Trees Cannot Compete With Real Trees

The consequences of scientific overreach with regard to forests are enormous. As we deforest our world we are altering mechanisms which provide the sustenance of life for all known species. As we replace those trees with genetically modified plantations, we are altering the pace of evolution. There are no fake nuts, fake roots, fake fruits, fake flora, etc. that can actually sustain life without unknown consequences to human genetic coding.

Hearing tree life spans like 5,000 years and 80,000 years may mislead us into believing that forests will be around forever. But in 2012 a company called ArborGen touted these words on their website:

"More Clones. Less Forest."

ArborGen claims to be the "leading global provider of conventional and advanced genetic tree seedling products." Today, this and many other biotech companies like it are developing tools and techniques designed to improve trees (and crops), but at what cost?

A genetically modified (GM) tree is purportedly an improved tree through recombinant DNA technology engineered to increase productivity by faster growth meaning greater profit, and increased drought and disease tolerance (a GM tree has pesticides and other chemicals engineered into its DNA). However, there is evidence that GM trees cross-pollinate with natural trees.

Companies like ArborGen that guide private and commercial landowners through the process of converting agricultural lands to forestry plantations cultivated from genetically modified seeds make their technology sound risk-free. Recent claims associated with GM trees are that they can even fight climate change by absorbing CO2, but how much oxygen do they create?

It's never been nice to fool Mother Nature! Natural forests have been sustaining life since the beginning of time. And the best engineering for success lies in the forests we are depleting.

Test Your Knowledge of Trees and Forests

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What is the oldest living tree in the world?
    • Methuselah - located in the White Mountains of California
    • Adonis - located in Greece (named after the Greek god of beauty, youth and desire)
    • Zoroastrian Sarv - located in the Yazd province of Iran
    • None of the Above
  2. What single type of tree absorbs the most CO2 from the atmosphere?
    • White Oak
    • Silver Maple
    • American Sweetgum
    • Black Walnut
  3. What is the most famous tree in the United States?
    • Lone Cypress, the most photographed tree located in Monterey, California
    • Survivor Tree, a callery pear that survived 9/11 and 9 yrs of rehab now replanted at the 9/11 Museum
    • Chandelier Tree - located in Leggett, California, this tree survived a tunnel cut through it
    • General Sherman, a giant sequoia located in California's Sequoia National Park
  4. Which of the world's continents contains the most remaining un-forested land?
    • Africa
    • South America
    • Asia
    • Europe
  5. Where is the largest urban hardwood forest in America?
    • Central Park located in New York City
    • Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness located in Salmon, Idaho
    • Great Trinity River Forest located in Dallas, Texas
    • Forest Park located in Portland, Oregon

Answer Key

  1. None of the Above
  2. White Oak
  3. General Sherman, a giant sequoia located in California's Sequoia National Park
  4. South America
  5. Great Trinity River Forest located in Dallas, Texas

How Much Forest Is Left?

Forests once existed everywhere! Now they only represent 31% of the earth's surface and are in continued decline due to the growing population's demand for raw materials and the need to perpetuate a capitalistic based society. Stated simply, forests will not outlive us. Moreover, they cannot sustain themselves in consistently high temperatures consistent with increases in CO2 levels. They cannot out-run record-breaking forest fires. They cannot always outlive droughts and pestilence. Mankind's best response is to build a fake tree and claim it has no adverse impacts.

Forests are indeed the most taken-for-granted aspect of our planet, yet the case for saving forests could arguably be life itself.

Sources and References

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Alyssa from Ohio on April 29, 2021:

This was eye-opening! How fascinating that the aspen trees are connected by a solitary root system. Trees are vital and I was surprised to learn how deforestation and genetic modifying efforts are speeding up the rate of evolution. Fantastic article!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 27, 2021:

Our forest depletion worldwide is of great concern. I had not realized that genetically modified trees are sharing those genes with other trees, and it might impact the lives of all trees. You have given us much to think about.

JPO on April 27, 2021:

Amazing depth and perspective.

Completely engaging!

Love, love, loved it.

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on April 27, 2021:

A great article. Trees are essential to life.

Vicki Carroll (author) from Greater Birmingham Area on April 27, 2021:

Thanks, Liz. I like your work too. You've got me wanting to travel the world ... lol!

Liz Westwood from UK on April 27, 2021:

This is a thought-provoking and well-written article. It makes a compelling case for forests in an easily understandable way.

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