We spend a lot of time talking about the effects of agriculture and deforestation on our soil and water: the erosion of topsoil, the overapplication of fertilizers, the resulting algae blooms, and so on. These are very real problems, and ones that deserve our ongoing attention. Whatever changes the next few years bring to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, the and other agencies that have been tasked with overseeing our resources in various ways, those of us in the field, so to speak, need to remain vigilant.
And yet, in the midst of these concerns, there’s something to celebrate, progress that we—and not only we in the US—should be proud of. It’s been a long time coming, outlasting any single political administration. If we take note of it now, we might even be able to replicate what we’ve achieved.
The fact is that throughout much of New England, trees are making a comeback. By some estimates, 80% of the area once cleared for farmland is once again forested. Erosion has decreased, and water quality has improved in many places. Along with the trees, wildlife is returning: deer, moose, bald eagles and many other birds, beavers, and gray seals along the coastal areas. And bears—lots and lots of bears.
In part, this is because food production has moved west, where land is flatter and economies of scale make it cheaper to grow. It’s not only that farming has declined in New England, though; as an article in the Boston Globe points out, many species are coming back because of “wetland protection, clean air laws, and bans on potent insecticides” —regulations that some are actively fighting.
This trend toward reforestation isn’t apparent only in the US. Brazil, which was once experiencing devastating losses as the Amazon jungle was cleared for logging and farming, began creating more protected areas and enforcing that protection around 2004. Since then, the rate of deforestation has decreased by 90%. The country is still losing trees, but at a much slower rate than before. Technology is partly responsible: The government is using satellite imagery to monitor activity in the jungle and to see where clear-cutting is occurring. An article in Tropical Conservation Science claims that Brazil’s slowing of deforestation constitutes the biggest reduction any nation in the world has made to reduce pollutants that contribute to global warming.
These successes are leading to a few unexpected glitches. In 2000, about 450 bears were spotted in Connecticut. Last year, there were almost 6,700 reports of bear sightings. Well over half the state is now forested, a situation that hasn’t existed for more than a century. In 1860, the state’s highest period for farming, only 29% was covered in forest, and there were no bears at all.
We can figure out how to coexist with the bears, though (don’t leave trash lying around, state officials advise, and you might want to take down your bird feeder, just in case), as well as with the many other returning animals. This is one problem we can manage. It’s a small price—a welcome price—to pay for environmental success.