Tag Archives: deforestation

Forest decline in the eastern U.S.?

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

Covering much of central New York State is a mosaic of forest, pasture, and cornfields punctuated by lakes, small towns, rural residences, and sometimes wind turbines (© Peter Klepeis)

by Peter Klepeis

Most news coverage of forests tends to focus on deforestation. And for good reason. The Food and Agricultural Organization concludes that from 2000-2010 upwards of 13 million ha of forest per year were converted to other uses or lost to natural causes. Most of the clearing occurs in the tropics, and the resultant biodiversity loss, carbon dioxide emissions, and threats to local inhabitants are among the reasons to be concerned.

Global trends in forest cover hide regional differences, however. Many temperate and rich-country contexts have been experiencing forest recovery for decades. In the eastern United States, for example, cleared areas reached their peak in the mid-to-late 19th century, but this was followed by widespread natural forest regeneration. This forest expansion is celebrated for increasing carbon sequestration and improving water quality, reducing flood risk, decreasing soil erosion, expanding wildlife habitat, and providing opportunities for recreation and extractive industries. But it is not entirely positive. As described in Jim Sterba’s new book Nature Wars, extensive forest cover, a decline in hunters, and a lack of natural predators has led to a boom in wildlife – and deer in particular – with tick-bearing disease, auto accidents, and munched veggie gardens among the negative consequences.

Regardless of its positive or negative impacts on nature and society, what explains the shift from net forest loss to net gain? In the early 1990s the geographer Alexander Mather started to develop forest transition theory: economic development, the abandonment of lands marginal to agriculture, and the movement of rural inhabitants to urban areas tend to stimulate forest recovery. The theory captures fairly well the recovery trends seen in the U.S. and Europe over the past few hundred years. But the theory is not without its critics. Forest change is dynamic, non-linear, and the factors involved are linked to specific places and time periods. Not surprisingly, therefore, recent scholarship documents how – after decades of net gain – forest cover in the eastern U.S. started to decline in the 1970s.

In a new article in the journal Area, my co-authors and I use aerial photographs to evaluate changing forest cover between 1936 and 2008 for a town in central New York State. As expected, a decline in the farming sector and changing life and livelihood goals within farming families led to 25.8 % of the town reforesting. Two new trends emerge, however. First, there is a pronounced increase in the percentage of forest recovering on prime agricultural soils, which holds the potential to diversify habitat and increase biodiversity. Prior to 1994, reforestation on high quality soils was rare. Second, alternative land uses and invasive species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis), represent possible new forms of forest disturbance. Landowners are starting to develop wind power and natural gas, and practice silviculture. Also, there is steady growth in amenity-oriented land use and rural residential development. These new dynamics challenge theories of forest change, and raise questions about the prospects of sustainable land and forest use in the region.

The author: Peter Klepeis is Associate Professor of Geography at Colgate University, N.Y., U.S.


Klepeis P, Scull P, LaLonde T, Svajlenka N and Gill N 2013 Changing forest recovery dynamics in the northeastern United States Area DOI: 10.1111/area.12016


Mather A S and Needle C L 1998 The forest transition: a theoretical basis Area 30 117-24


Grainger A 1995 The forest transition: an alternative approach Area 27 242-51


Mather A S 1992 The forest transition Area 24 367-79


Sterba J 2012 America gone wild Wall Street Journal 2 November


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2012 State of the world’s forests FAO, Rome

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees: Deforestation and the Challenges Facing Conservationists

Jen Dickie

Illegally felled rosewood log in Marojejy National Park, Madagascar.  The original author does not wish to be named for safety reasons.  This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licenseAt the end of November, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a British NGO, published a damning report on China’s involvement in the illegally logged timber trade.  China’s rapid economic growth has seen the demand for timber and wood products for both domestic consumption and re-export increase substantially, earning its crown as the world’s biggest importer, consumer and exporter of timber and wood products.  Laurence Caramel and Harold Thibault in The Guardian Weekly summarise some of the key findings of the report highlighting that public enterprises, which are often controlled by provincial governments, play a significant role in this lucrative trade.

Despite accusations of being “the largest importer of stolen wood”, China ironically has enforced strong measures to protect and grow its own forests, including a logging ban across 41.8 million hectares of natural forests and initiating a reforestation programme.  Whilst the EIA acknowledge the Chinese Government’s forest conservation efforts, they argue that the gap between supply and demand has led to China “exporting deforestation to a host of countries around the world”.

On Monday, a report from Simon Speakman Cordall in The Guardian outlined the extent to which the Vietnamese forests, and the people who live there, are at risk from illegal loggers and poachers.  Blaming economic and social problems such as unemployment and alcoholism on an increase of attacks on forest guards, Cordall explains how the Carbon and Diversity (Carbi) project, an alliance of the Vietnamese government, WWF and the German Development Bank, aims to facilitate a sustainable future for the people and the wildlife of the area whilst also  acknowledging the conflict between the importance of conservation and the welfare of the people whose survival and livelihoods depend on forest access.

The complex nature of forest politics is demonstrated by Ivan Scales in his article for The Geographical Journal.  Scales explores the relationships among environmental narratives, identity politics and the management of forest resources in Madagascar, a country that has received global attention for being one of the most biologically diverse places in the world but one that has also had its hardwood forests pillaged.  He argues that more attention should be paid to local views and beliefs of the forest, particularly those associated with local practices of forest clearance, and that these should be incorporated into existing and future conservation policies.

As the global demand for timber increases, the challenges facing both conservationists and the communities who rely on the forests will intensify.  These threatened forests are viewed as a global asset, however, rather than focussing on just the bigger issues it is clear that conservation policies need to focus more on how indigenous cultures understand and interact with their environment.

 Ivan Scales, 2012, Lost in translation: conflicting views of deforestation, land use and identity in western Madagascar, The Geographical Journal 178, 67–79

 China at the centre of ‘illegal timber’ trade, The Guardian Weekly, 11th December 2012

 Vietnamese guards brave attack to reverse destruction of the forest, The Guardian, 17th December 2012

Carbon and Biodiversity Project (Carbi),  accessed 18th December 2012

 Appetite for Destruction: China’s Trade in Illegal Timber, Environmental Investigation Agency, accessed 18th December 2012

The Geographical Journal Content Alert: New Articles

These Early View articles are now available on Wiley Online Library

Original Articles

Challenging the linear forestation narrative in the Neo-tropic: regional patterns and processes of deforestation and regeneration in southern Mexico
Melanie Kolb and Leopoldo Galicia

Squeezing the rainforest

I-Hsien Porter

The Guardian recently reported that the Brazilian authorities have begun a ‘crackdown’ on deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Monitoring the rainforest with satellite imagery and aerial photographs, Brazil’s environmental protection service seek to fine or imprison those involved in illegal logging.

Such action may be locally effective in the short term. However, with such a large area to police, it is easy for loggers to move their activities elsewhere. Increased attention on one area of the Amazon merely takes the focus away from other regions.

In a 2005 paper in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Mark Maslin and others take a long term perspective.

Drawing on geological records, Maslin et al. argue that the Amazon rainforest has been a permanent feature ofSouth Americafor the past 55 million years. Having survived for such a long time, you might expect the rainforest to be able to withstand current pressures of deforestation and climate change.

However, Maslin et al. also argue that the rapid pace of environmental change is without precedent in the historical record. Temperatures are rising too fast for the forest to migrate. In any case, the pressure placed on land for agriculture and other human activities is squeezing the available space.

It is difficult to see how anything can cope with the scale of the problem, not least the complex politics and economics involved. However, by placing the scale of change in the context of the geological record, Maslin et al. demonstrate just how urgently action is needed.

The Guardian (21st May 2011) Brazil’s crackdown on deforestation of the Amazon

Maslin, M., Malhi, Y., Phillips, O., Cowling, S. (2005) ‘New views on an old forest: assessing the longevity, resilience and future of the Amazon rainforest’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 30:477-499

Illegal Logging Threatens Isolated Tribe, Wildlife, the Amazon and the Globe?

by Caitlin Douglas

The plight of the Amazon is not a new story and although it may no longer be in the headlines recently released photos return the spotlight to this region.  Six years ago Maslin et al. stated that although the Amazon has withstood huge climate shifts in the past, the forest has not previously been exposed to the dry climate predicted for the region. The situation is further complicated by the speed of climate change which is too fast to allow for the large-scale shift of these forests to the necessary higher precipitation areas, and, even if this migration was possible these regions are already occupied by human land-uses. The Amazon is headed into uncharted territory, and from the perspective of climate change the future existence of the Amazon is precarious. Depressingly the authors also describe the more immediate threat to the region – land clearance and degradation. Large conspicuous parts of the forest have been cleared for pasture land and soya-bean agriculture, and a less visible but still important threat exists from legal and illegal deforestation. These activities lead to a declining wildlife population due to the associated increase in bushmeat and intensive hunting.

Today, illegal forestry is still a major issue and is threatening not only biodiversity but also local indigenous groups. Survival International, a charity dedicated to the rights of tribal people, recently released pictures of a remote Brazilian tribe whose livelihood is threatened by illegal logging. Widespread illegal logging in Peru is pushing Peruvian tribes closer to the Peru-Brazil border and it is feared that they will soon come into conflict with the isolated Brazilian tribe. Survival International hopes that these photos will serve as a reminder of their existence, that they are a thriving society, and that action against illegal forestry in Peru is urgently needed to protect the tribe’s future viability. The Amazon is an essential component of the global biosphere-atmosphere system and as a result its continuance is important on many scales. We now have a timely reminder that for people living their lives in the heart of the Amazon the threat is already at a critical level.

Read the journal article:  Maslin, M., Malhi, Y., Phillips, O., Cowling, S. 2005. New views on an old forest: assessing the longevity, resilience and future of the Amazon rainforest. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 30(4): 477–499.

Read the BBC news article: New images of remote Brazil tribe

Have a look at the charity: Survival International

Recent Catastrophic Flooding

By Andy Hacket Pain

This morning I typed “flooding” into Google News and, limiting the results to the last week, found that you get almost 20,000 hits.

By scrolling through the first few pages of results I then discovered that flooding disasters of different scales have affected Southern China, the US, Burma, Singapore, Winnipeg, India and southern France over the last few days, with several hundred reported deaths and many more people still missing. For example, 132 people are now confirmed dead in China, although this figure is likely to rise significantly, and almost a million people have been evacuated.

After reading these reports, and viewing pictures of the devastation, the immediate question of what, or who, is responsible for these disasters obviously springs to mind. Chang and Franczyk (2008) review the causes of floods in an article in Geography Compass, highlighting both the natural and human factors responsible for these events.

While intense or prolonged rainfall is clearly the primary cause of flooding, land-use change and potentially climate change have also played a major role in the reported increase in flood damage over recent decades. Furthermore, the urban development of high risk areas puts increased numbers at risk; in response to this weeks flooding, the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction has again called on governments to take flood risk into account in urban planning efforts.

There is also of course the question of whether climate change also has some responsibility for these flooding events. According to Chang and Franczyk (2008) this is not yet clear, but the evidence is building…

Chang and Franczyk (2008), Climate Change, Land-Use Change, and Floods: Toward an Integrated Assessment, Geography Compass, 2(5), 1549-1579

“Floods across southern China take heavy toll” from the BBC News website

Photographs of the flooding in southern France from The Guardian website

The UNISDR calls for governments to take action, reported at webnewswire.com

Satellite images of the weather system over southern China, from the Chinese National Meteorological Centre

Economic growth is no cure for environmental degradation

I-Hsien Porter

Contrary to the perception of economic activities as polluting and environmentally degrading, Forest Transition Theory (Mansfield et al. 2010) suggests that economic growth may promote environmental recovery. More economically developed countries are more likely to have the financial and technological resources and social motivation to conserve the natural environment. This is supported by figures from the Forestry Commission, which show a 3.5% (95,000 ha) increase in woodland areas in the UK over the past decade.

However, in a recent Geography Compass paper, Mansfield et al. argue that economic development does not cause forest regrowth. Rather, forest regrowth reflects a country’s ability to import forest and agricultural products. The degradation caused by the production of those materials is thus exported elsewhere.

In a recent commentary in the Guardian, Friends of the Earth executive director Andy Atkins gave one example. The UK’s imports animal feed for meat and dairy products. This results in land clearance, particularly in Latin American countries, in order to grow the feed. Forest regrowth in the UK is thus partly reliant on deforestation elsewhere. As Mansfield et al. (2010) argue, environmental recovery and economic growth are themselves due to differences and relationships with other places. This adds additional complexity to how we monitor linkages between economic and environmental change.

Mansfield et al. (2010) ‘Does Economic Growth Cause Environmental Recovery? Geographical Explanations For Forest Regrowth.’ Geography Compass 4 (5): 416-427

Andy Atkins, The Guardian, 12th May 2010, ‘Coalition government: Could blue plus yellow equal green?

Forestry Commission: Forestry Statistics 2009