Why You Should Hug a Tree -- And Mean It!

The San Gabriel Mountains are a watershed for the Los Angeles region | Photo: Rennett Stowe/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Yesterday was World Forestry Day.

I know: you didn't know. Neither did I. Of course, you have an excuse -- this isn't your work. But I don't, as it is mine: I spend a lot of time teaching and writing about the forested estate of the United States, but until I received an email early Wednesday morning announcing that this was a special day, I had not known it existed.

Imagine my chagrin.

More chagrining is that World Forestry Day has been celebrated since 1971. That's when the 23rd General Assembly of the European Confederation of Agriculture first suggested that the continent pause to recall just how crucial its forests -- which in many places were still recovering from the explosive consequences of two massive wars over the previous sixty years -- were to its regional economic and environmental health.

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Later that same year, the United Nations proposed globalizing the idea. Through its Food and Agriculture Organization, the U.N. suggested that March 21 be the appropriate moment, as it marks the autumnal equinox for the southern hemisphere; and the spring equinox for the northern. That nice synchronicity, bound within the shifting amounts of light available for tree growth, came with a meld of issues for constituent countries and communities might affirm: the crucial role that forests and woodlots play in environmental protection, economic productivity, and human recreation.

That's worth a good long pause. Try looking out your window at home, the workplace, or from your transport, and count the number of trees you can see. Even the decorative plantings that line our streets, shade our apartments and houses, or grace a nearby park offer food and shelter for any number of species; as well as aesthetic pleasure for passersby. But as an urban forester will also tell you, that arboreal presence, and its canopy and root system, also can reduce air-conditioning bills; absorb stormwater run-off; and, by punching holes in the concrete, take some of the steam out of the city's heat-island effect.

These contributions as ramified when calculating the impact of more extensive forest cover, such as that which occupies the high ground of Southern California. Whether speaking of the Santa Monica Mountains, the San Gabriels, or the San Bernardinos, or the canyons and foothills that frame our approach to them, these wooded landscapes are of incalculable importance.

Home to alder, oak, and pine; chaparral and Manzanita, ceonothus and sagebrush, this biological material has long offered protection to local watersheds and thus regional ground- and surface-water supplies. They are refuges for essential biodiversity, flora and fauna. As for public health: just ask any of the millions of Angelenos and tourists who flock up country to ski, hike, picnic, ride, and fish, or just plain plotz, how grand these forested playgrounds are.

That's why the recent political discourse about the public lands -- especially our national forests and grasslands -- has been so dispiriting. Rather than focusing on their multiple and overlapping benefits as World Forestry Day encourages, partisan sound bites are framing the dialog about their purposes. GOP presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, in recent swings through the west in search of primary votes, have mouthed an anti-federalism that demands our public lands be sold off or given away. Santorum promised to hand them out to private investors; Romney offered this bromide: "Unless there's a valid, legitimate and compelling public purpose, I don't know why the government owns so much of this land."

The carbon cycle. | Image: United Nations Environment Programme (view larger PDF version here)

Romney might as well have been channeling his inner Richard H. Nelson. A key operative in James Watt's Interior Department in the Regan administration, and who appears to be angling for his boss' cabinet-level job should the GOP capture the White House, Nelson earlier this month published an op-ed in the LA Times and in other major organs across the region excoriating federal land-management in the American West. In it he demanded the relinquishing of these public lands to the states. "It is time to end outdated federal land policies that are draining our country's wealth," he wrote, "tying up valuable resources in red tape and bureaucracy, and harming the environment."

Whether bankrupt cities, strapped counties, or depressed states actually can afford to take on these landed resources, and offer them the protection and management they consistently require, is immaterial to the partisan posturing of this (or any other) campaign season.

Yet it is not immaterial to the larger conversation that World Forestry Day promotes, even requires. If as its founders and current advocates assert, we need to remember the manifold environmental services that flow from wooded terrain, then we must as well consider the political context that will best promote their benefits. The national system that has been in effect since the early 1890s is not perfect; and I have written extensively about some of its failures across time.

That said, the federal government's constitutional obligation to manage the federal lands, and the Supreme Court's consistent and considered judgment that it alone has managerial oversight, underscores just how unhelpfully politicized contemporary fed-bashing is.

It's also beside the point, for the real game-changing policy-making is taking place in a quite-different arena.

Via the Pinchot Institute for Conservation
Via the Pinchot Institute for Conservation

Let me give one quick instance that comes from the collaborative efforts of insurance companies, private landowners, and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation (full disclosure: I am a senior fellow at the institute). What has been dubbed the Forest Health - Human Health Initiative is an innovative effort to resolve an interlocking set of problems. Most of the nation's family woodlands owners are aging, the bulk of whom are over 65. This population is also the most vulnerable in terms of its health, and for this cohort their forests are a key, disposable asset. Often lacking "adequate personal finances, many landowners have no choice but to liquidate their timber assets or sell their land outright, contributing to the average of nearly 6,000 acres of forest and open space being converted to other uses in the US each day."

What to do? The PIC has launched a compelling project that would enable these property owners to benefit financially from the environmental services their lands produce, a stream of income that not only will pay their bills but keep these working forests working. "Turning the value of the public benefits these lands provide -- such as carbon sequestration, habitat for wildlife, and water resource protection -- into credits that family woodland owners can use to pay for health care services." Better yet, these participating forest landowners recognize that "this kind of support for public benefits from private lands as essential to resisting development pressures."

That's a win-win-win. Now imagine the nation's forests and grasslands offering and securing a similar trifecta. Over the past several years, Regional Forester Rick Cables, whose oversight extends across public lands in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, has proposed that downstream beneficiaries of the agency's stewardship of the Rocky Mountain watersheds pay a small fee for their healthful flow. These funds then would be reinvested to increase the safety and high quality of waters that daily and everywhere flow from forest to tap.

Whatever the complications might be in establishing such an initiative, the advantages are clear and enduring -- and well worth discussing.

There's no better moment in which to start this vital conversation than on March 21, World Forestry Day.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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