Forests: The Lungs of the Planet

Mount Nemo
Mount Nemo Conservation area
By Norm Miller, Communications Advisor | Conservation Halton

Many of us know that forests and trees are important to us, but have you ever stopped and thought about all the benefits they provide? Sure, forests are a place to walk your dog, and the colours look incredible in the fall, but what are the  other benefits?

Forests provide a home for wildlife and help maintain our biodiversity, clean our water and the air we breathe, as well as other indispensable environmental benefits. The United Nations declared 2011 as the International Year of Forests (IYF) to help reinforce the importance of forests. Celebrations are taking place around the world, including here in the Conservation Halton (CH) watershed, for people to consider the role forests play in our everyday lives.

Forests are the lungs of the earth providing invaluable air and water filtration services. Trees replenish our oxygen and filter out air pollution, including potentially harmful things – like carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and sulphur dioxide – which are known to cause health concerns for us. Trees are vital for the water we drink, help cool our cities and towns, and are home to many species of plants, birds and other wildlife.

Forests, in particular, provide a wide range of ecological goods and services including, as noted above, air quality, carbon storage and sequestration, soil formation, and biological control just to name a few. Ecological services include maintenance of biodiversity and the generation and renewal of soil and vegetation.

Why is carbon storage and sequestration so important? Heat from the earth is trapped in the atmosphere due to high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other heat-trapping gases that prevent heat from being released into space (and cooling our planet) creating a phenomenon known as the “greenhouse effect.”

This has potentially devastating consequences, which include global warming, dramatic changes in rainfall patterns, and rising sea levels that threaten flooding in coastal cities. Trees and forests are playing a vital role in helping to counteract the increase of this gas in the atmosphere; by acting as “carbon sinks” by removing the carbon and storing it as cellulose in their trunk, branches, leaves and roots, while releasing oxygen back into the air.

Our forests also provide important sources of food, medicines, energy, and building materials. Forests have a significant economic impact as well, providing jobs for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. According to the United Nations, over 1.6 billion people’s livelihoods depend on forests. Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of forest products, with the industry accounting for 1.7 per cent of our national gross domestic product.

Often forgotten, or perhaps taken for granted, in a country like ours, is the fact that forests offer recreational opportunities for people, and a chance to connect with the natural environment. Trails through forests allow us to immerse ourselves in the natural world around us on foot, or on bicycle. In the winter months, the quiet, snowy landscape can be a perfect escape on skis or snowshoes from the bustle of everyday life.

Ontario has a variety of forest types, with trees ranging from the hardwood species of the deciduous region in the south to the conifer species of the boreal region in the north. Forests cover two-thirds of Ontario, an area of 107.6 million hectares, which is the size of France, Spain and the Netherlands combined!

The interesting paradox we face in our province is that only three per cent of this forested land is in Southern Ontario, where the overwhelming majority of people live. So why is this of concern?

Growth and land management practices have reduced the quality forest and woodland habitats throughout our area, and left the remaining woodland in fragments which has led to the reduction of native plant and wildlife species in the  Greater Toronto Area.

In these urban areas, forest cover is much lower than the provincial average of 66 per cent. In the Conservation Halton watershed forest cover is currently 25 per cent of all land, which is actually pretty good when compared to most areas similar to ours. CH staff, using science based studies, suggests that 30 per cent forest cover is the minimum target to maintain the health of watersheds.

So what can you do to help?

You can plant a tree on your property or participate in a community tree planting. Over the years, Conservation Halton has worked with hundreds of school groups and local communities to create a legacy of healthy forests. Take an interest in the natural areas that we are fortunate to have in our watershed and ensure they are protected.

For more than fifty years, Conservation Halton has played a major role in forest management, tree and shrub planting, and reforestation throughout our watershed. Conservation Halton has planted nearly 2.5 million trees during this time with private landowners and on public land.

For more information on Conservation Halton’s Forestry Programs, visit our website’s Forestry section. For more on the International Year of Forests, go to www.un.org/forests.

Sources: United Nations, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, TreesOntario, Ontario Forestry  Association.

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