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International Year of Forests brings forest conservation to main stage

Recognizing that forests can contribute to sustainable development, poverty eradication and internationally agreed upon development goals, the United Nations declared this year—"International Year of Forests." The United Nations is set to meet in New York City later this month to announce why forests matter. And meet they should, as forests face off against the double whammy of humanity’s insatiable demand for wood products coupled with climate disruptions that threaten to undermine the life-giving properties and biodiversity that forests provide . Take, for instance, the recent Global Forest Resource Assessment published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. While deforestation is showing signs of easing, it remains alarming high in South America, Oceania, and Africa as well as among the world’s primary forests that have declined by some 40 million hectares since 2000. These estimates are on the conservative side as forests are liberally defined (less than 10 percent cover) and plantations count in national forest inventories even though they are not considered “forests” by conservationists. As an example, the recent United States forest assessment to the FAO failed to report on conversion of old-growth forests to tree farms, focusing narrowly on forest cover regardless of forest quality. Nonetheless, the International Year of Forests and other global policy initiatives provide entry points for putting forests on a big stage. And last December, the UN set specific goals for the so called REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) but progress continues to stall over lack of legally binding accords. Importantly, deforestation abatement discussions have been limited to developing countries that would receive payments from developed ones to maintain their vast carbon stores by keeping forests upright. While a positive step, nonetheless, developed countries need to lead by example in limiting their own deforestation and forest degradation. With the UN kick starting a discussion on forests, perhaps this is a turning point for the world’s primary forests. Primary forests cleanse the air we breathe, purify drinking water supplies, and store an estimated 289 gigatonnes of carbon globally in their biomass alone. In the tropics, they account for over half of all the terrestrial biodiversity on earth. And temperate rainforests, with their massive long-lived trees, dense foliage, and productive soils are among the world’s champions in storing carbon long term. When primary forests are cut down, much of these benefits are lost and carbon is released to the atmosphere where it contributes to greenhouse gas pollution. As the UN deliberates over the fate of forests, at a minimum the global community needs to push for greatly expanded forest protections for all the world’s forests while promoting sustainable management on a big scale.  To do otherwise is just talk.