How much time do you spend in the forest? According to an organization that dedicates a lot of effort to studying these things, the average American visits a wooded area—and this can include an urban forest—110 days each year.
Recreation is only a small part of what forests provide, though, even for those who visit them often. Directly or indirectly, forests are responsible for almost two-thirds of our freshwater supply in the US. They offset 12% of our greenhouse gas emissions. They have some problems: Drought, invasive plants and animals, disease, insects, and wildfire—especially wildfire—are threatening them. In the last 50 years, the forested area burned by wildfire each year has doubled.
But the news isn’t all bad. The total amount of forested land in the US has remained pretty much steady over the last 100 years. We’re gaining in some areas—New England, for example, has reforested about 80% of the land once used for agriculture—and losing in others. Since the early 1980s, about 18 million acres of forested land in the US has been developed. The forests aren’t always cleared; sometimes they’re fragmented by patches of development, and this phenomenon is not unrelated to the fire risk. Communities at the so-called urban-wild land interface are constantly under threat, especially in Western states. In Connecticut, the interweaving of forested land and human communities has had a different and unexpected result—human encounters with bears have increased fifteenfold in the last 20 years.
The US Endowment for Forestry and Communities is trying to make us more aware of all these issues through an interactive website, www.usaforests.org. You can see, for example, the percentage of your state that has burned over the last 30 years, and how it compares to other states, or which insects are most likely to defoliate your local trees. The site is still being developed, with new topics and statistics being added.
Overall, it seems, we’re doing a good job with stewardship, replanting what we cut in some regions and making some—about 20% of forested land overall—completely off limits to industry and development to preserve biodiversity. Some of the problems we do have are systemic—clear-cutting for timber in some places, and allowing undergrowth to get out of control in others, which makes the fires, when they do happen, burn hotter and take longer to control. Other problems are isolated and simply bizarre, like the recent incident on Shelter Island, NY, where the tops—only the tops—of trees on 4 acres of forested public park were lopped off. (One theory is that inland homeowners were trying to improve their ocean views.)