close this bookBiodiversity and Conservation
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View the documentChapter 1:Introduction, History of Life
View the documentChapter 2:The Age of Mammals
View the documentChapter 3: Extinction And deplition From Over-Exploitation
View the documentChapter 4:Whaling And Fishing
View the documentChapter 5:Overexploitation Threatening Living Species
View the documentChapter 6:Global Patterns of Biodiversity
View the documentChapter 7:Values of Biodiversity
View the documentChapter 8:Endangered Species Conservation
View the documentChapter 9:Exotic Introductions
View the documentChapter 10:Forests and Deforestation
View the documentChapter 11:Endangered Aquatic Habitats
View the documentChapter 12:Islands
View the documentChapter 13:Protected Areas
View the documentChapter 14:Habitat Pollution
View the documentChapter 15:Captive Breeding and Reintroduction
View the documentChapter 16:Human Population

Chapter 10:Forests and Deforestation


Ponderosa Pine forest ten years after harvest, Shoshone National Forest

USDA Forest Service - Rocky Mountain Region Archives



      Biological Value
      The U.S. Forest Service
      Roadless Areas in National Forests
      Bush Administration attempts to weaken environmental protection in National Forests
      The Northern Spotted Owl
      Marbled Murrelet
      "Salvage logging"
      Timber Sale Exclusions
      The Headwaters Forest
      Logging outside the U.S.

      Tropical Deforestation
      Papua New Guinea
      Causes of Deforestation
      Migratory Songbirds and Coffee Plantations
      Non-timber Sustainable Use of Tropical Forests
      Controlled Study of Tropical Forest Fragmentation

"The law doth punish man or woman
That steals the goose from off the Common
But lets the greater felon loose
That steals the Common from the goose"

-- Anonymous response in 1764 to Sir Charles Pratt's fencing of common land (Thanks to US Fish and Wildlife Service for finding this!)


Wherever people have lived in forested areas, they have always cut down trees, either to use the timber or to make space for agriculture. Wood has been the dominant heating fuel, and construction material for housing and ships, for almost all of recorded history, and in this century vast quantities are also being used for paper production. Paper products now use 25% of the world's timber harvest. Paper production worldwide has increased 20-fold since 1913. 

There are alternatives to tree-cutting for paper making.

In the last 5,000 years, humans have reduced forests from roughly 50% of the earth's land surface to less than 20%. If deforestation continues at present rates, Thailand will have no forest left in 25 years; the Philippines in less than 20 years, and Nepal in 15 years. And in most places the rate of deforestation is increasing.

Many of the large areas of grassland in the world, such as the savannas of Africa, the steppes of eastern Europe and Russia, the pampas of Argentina, and at least some of the prairies of North America, were forested before human disturbance. In the drier areas of the world such as North Africa, Greece, Italy, and Australia, the deforested areas have subsequently been overgrazed, and have lost soil so rapidly that they have turned to desert (desertification).  The UN in 2000 reported that half of all land in South Asia has lost agricultural potential because of desertification.

As a result of deforestation and poor forest management, about ten percent of the world's 80-100,000 tree species are in danger of extinction, according to a 1998 report by World Wildlife Fund.

Replanting is done on only a fraction of the deforested area, and it usually creates a monoculture plantation, with much less biological diversity (both plant and animal) and less disease resistance than in virgin, or old-growth forest.
Rainforest, Forest and Biodiversity Conservation News & Information


Biological Value

Temperate old-growth (i.e. not harvested) forests such as those in the U.S. Pacific Northwest provide a unique habitat for many plants and animals. Old-growth forest in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia provides the only suitable habitat for the Northern spotted owl. These forests also provide essential habitat for the Marbled Murrelet, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, the Northern Goshawk, the tailed frog, the Olympic Salamander, and the Red tree Vole. In Alaska, old growth forest provides critical winter habitat for the Sitka black-tailed deer and breeding habitat for the Canada goose. 

Old-growth forest is threatened mainly by direct exploitation in the form of excessive logging. In Northern California, Oregon and Washington over 90% of the ancient trees are gone. 95% of the original area of redwood forest in California has been lost.

27 Fortune-500 companies including Kinko's, Hallmark, and Hewlett-Packard announced in 1998 that they will no longer sell products or use packaging made from old-growth trees. 

Other links:  Indicators of the Condition and Use of Forests | Taiga Rescue Network | Heartwood | The Dilemma of Indian Forestry | Native Americans and the Environment - forestry | Forestry Links - Native Americans and the Environment | Sierra Club - Responsible Trade Campaign

The U.S. Forest Service

Much of the forested land in the U.S. is managed by the U.S. Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture.  The Forest Service is the largest natural resource agency in the federal government, with an annual budget of about $2 billion. It manages 300,000 square miles in 155 National Forests and 22 national grasslands in 44 states.  The lands provide habitat for more than 10,000 plant species and about 3000 species of fish and wildlife including 17 percent of federally listed endangered and threatened species, especially those that require large undisturbed areas (e.g. grizzly bear, gray wolf, lynx) or that require old-growth forest (Red-cockaded woodpecker). 

The main statute governing the management of National Forests is the National Forest Management Act of 1976 (as amended).  It requires the Secretary of Agriculture to implement a resource management plan for each unit of the National Forest System.  The management plans must be based on multiple-use, sustained-yield principles.  They must:

In spite of its multiple-use authority, the Forest Service gives much higher priority to timber harvesting than to other uses. 136,000 square miles out of the 300,000 square miles (conversions) in the National Forest System are classified as commercial forest - producing, or capable of producing, timber. The Forest plans project huge increases in timber harvest including the cutting of old-growth timber, below-cost sales, and extensive clear-cutting. They pay relatively little attention to wilderness and biodiversity. Consequently, their legality is being challenged by environmentalists in the courts.  The Sierra Club recently launched a campaign to completely protect all of our national forests and other federal public lands from commercial logging. 

Much of the timber that is harvested from National Forests is sold at a great financial loss. Lodgepole pines in Idaho's Targhee National Forest are sold to timber companies for about $1 each, even though it costs the Forest Service (in road construction, surveying, and paperwork) twice that amount to make the sale possible. The Forest Service sells 600-year old Sitka spruce trees from Alaska's Tongass National Forest for $2 or less; the trees are chopped into pulp for paper production. The Forest Service subsidizes timber companies to the extent of about $500 million per year in taxpayers' money. According to the government’s General Accounting Office Forest Service lost over $2.1 billion from 1992 through 1997 on its logging program.

The effect of this subsidy is to make wood and paper cheaper than it should be, and to encourage excess use. It makes virgin paper much cheaper than recycled paper - making it difficult for the recycled paper industry to succeed.

The Forest Service justifies below-cost sales in terms of their "non-timber benefits" - the roads also serve as fire roads, and they claim that some timber sales improve wildlife habitat or remove diseased trees. But the real reason is that the unprofitable harvests are being carried out to provide work for foresters and sawmill operators.

Clear-cutting is taking place in many National Forests including Tongass National Forest in Alaska, and Olympic National Forest in Washington.

Environmentalists have also been trying to change a USFS rule in order to allow them to compete with loggers in bidding for leases on timber in national forests. The current rule allows bidding only by "responsible purchasers" who are able and intend to log the trees. In May 1997 the Administration refused to legalize "nonharvesting bids", mainly because it would waste money spent on reviewing the environmental impacts of proposed logging. A spokesman also said that non-harvesting bidders might enjoy an unfair advantage over harvesting bidders because they have lower operating and personnel costs!

Roadless Areas in National Forests

In October 1999, President Clinton announced a plan to protect 40 million acres of USFS forest, as roadless areas.  Get a map of the plan for your own state.  Here is the Southern California part of the plan:

Only 18% of Forest Service lands -- the wilderness areas designated by Congress -- are currently protected from new road building.  An additional 31%, or 60 million acres, are still free of roads but not permanently protected.  But in December 2000 President Clinton published the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to protect those 60 million acres from road building and most logging.   The rule has been challenged in lawsuits by states, tribes, and various interested parties but so far has been upheld in the courts.  

Bush Administration attempts to weaken environmental protection in National Forests

In 2002 the Bush administration proposed a sweeping revision of the National Forest Management Act. New rules would allow supervisors of each of the country's 155 national forests to approve logging, drilling and mining and to ignore the forest plan's guidelines for protecting wildlife.  The proposal also eliminates the need to scientifically monitor the effect of these activities on plants and wildlife and restricts public participation in the planning process.  Environmentalists see this proposal as one of many indications that the Bush administration is willing to allow timber, oil and mining interests to harvest natural resources with little or no concern for the environment.  They point out that the proposed National Forest Management Act regulations are almost identical to a set of recommendations made by the American Forest and Paper Association.

The Northern Spotted Owl

The Forest Service manages most of the remaining occupied habitat of the Northern spotted owl in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest. They estimate that about 1,700 pairs remain. Spotted owls require old-growth forest because the mixture of new, old and dead trees gives them protection from predators as well as plenty of prey.

A lawsuit forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in June1990 to list the owl as threatened, but the timber companies have been trying hard to prevent the owl issue from reducing their harvest rates.

In 1994 the Clinton Administration came up with a plan to try to preserve spotted owl habitat and at the same time allow logging on millions of acres of federal land in Washington, Oregon and Northern California. The plan allows logging up to 1.1 billion board feet per year, about one fourth the annual average cut in the 1980's, and it allows harvesting of 20% of the remaining old-growth timber. It bans logging on 10 million acres of forest in a collection of nature reserves. While increasing protection for the owl on federal lands, the plan eases restrictions on the incidental take of spotted owls on non-Federal lands.

The United States government and 13 conservation groups reached an agreement in November 1999 to settle a lawsuit over implementation of the Pacific Northwest Forest Plan. The agreement obligates the USFS and BLM to complete wildlife surveys prior to conducting timber sales and other activities that could harm wildlife.

The plan is similar to other Habitat Conservation Plans being developed in other areas.  It increases protection in a series of nature reserves, providing some protection for other natural resources as well as the spotted owl. For example, by providing buffer zones along rivers and streams it tries to prevent the silt build-up in streams caused by deforestation which is one of the main reasons for salmon decline.

Five years into Clinton forest plan, some fear goals slipping away

Marbled Murrelet

The case of the Marbled Murrelet

Charlotte goshawk

U.S. order may bolster Alaska goshawk's protection

"Salvage Logging"

Massive destruction of U.S. National Forests took place during 1996-7, thanks to an obscure rider to the 1995 budget rescissions bill initiated by North Carolina Rep. Charles Taylor. This provision opened up millions of acres of trees for "salvage logging" - the selective removal of trees that had been damaged by fire, pests, or the weather. It was signed by the President on July 27, 1995.  Vice-president Al Gore has called it the Clinton administration's biggest mistake. The Salvage Timber Rider expired in late 1997, but by then thousands of "salvage" sales had been accomplished and the resulting cutting may go on for decades.

Timber Sale Exclusions

A recent lawsuit has revealed another USFS strategy for promoting timber sales at the expense of environmental considerations.  Timber harvests that removed 250,000 board feet or less of merchantable wood products, or salvage activities that removed 1,000,000 board feet or less of merchantable wood products, were exempted from the review requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  So the USFS simply subdivided the sales in order to make the individual sales exempt. 

The Headwaters Forest

The Headwaters Forest, near Eureka in Northern California, is the focus of recent controversy over timber harvesting. Take a tour. Many groves of the 2000-year old Coastal Redwoods are in public ownership, but the Headwaters Forest is the last significant stand still in private ownership and therefore unprotected. It contains six groves of the oldest and tallest trees in the world. The forest provides habitat for the California black bear, mountain lion, Pacific fisher, marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, torrent salamander, tailed frog, steelhead trout, and coho salmon. Their survival is dependent on a diverse and healthy old-growth forest.

The Pacific Lumber Company owned the Headwaters Forest for over a century, then in 1986 it was purchased in a hostile takeover by Charles Hurwitz, owner of Texas based Maxxam Inc. He immediately announced that, in order to pay off the bonds that were issued to finance the takeover, all of the old redwoods would be logged by 2007.

It soon became obvious that the only way to save the Headwaters Forest was to buy it from Pacific Lumber. After a long and contentious series of proposals, protests, ballot measures, and negotiations, an agreement in principle was announced on February 27, 1998 for a 50-year Habitat Conservation Plan. The proposal was endorsed by the federal and state governments, Pacific Lumber Company and its parent company. Under the agreement:

"California and U.S. governments acquire approximately 5,600 acres from Pacific Lumber, including Headwaters and Elk Head Springs virgin old growth forests.

California and U.S. governments acquire approximately 9,600 acres of previously logged timberland from another landowner, turn 7,700 of those acres over to Pacific Lumber as partial compensation, and add the remaining 1,900 acres to the 5,600 being acquired from Pacific Lumber to create a permanent 7,500-acre habitat preserve.

Pacific Lumber to receive, in addition to the 7,700 acres of timberland, approximately $300 million of compensation (a significant discount below full market value of property). "

As one of its last decisions in the 1998 session, on Sept. 1 the California State Assembly agreed to spend $245 million for the state's share to buy 7,500 acres of the Headwaters Forest. The federal government would pay an additional $250 million. The agreement was signed just two minutes before the government offers were due to expire on March 1, 1999.  As part of the agreement, Pacific Lumber agrees to strict monitoring of and restrictions on lumbering in its other forest holdings.

Headwaters a Case Study in Forest Policy Failure | Final Environmental Impact Report, January 22, 1999 | One Battle - Headwaters Forest | Headwaters Information Page | The Alaska rainforest

Logging outside the U.S.

Since the timber companies have been running into difficulties in the U.S., they have been turning to other countries where the laws are more in their favor. Both Weyerhauser and the Korean Hyundai Corporation are logging extensively in the northeast corner of Russia, where the economy is extremely depressed and the people are in great need of jobs and income. This is destroying some of the only remaining habitat of the Siberian Tiger, a species whose population is only about 300 and that faces serious threats from poaching.

The Siberian tiger is also jeopardized by forest fires that burned out of control for over three months in 1998. The Siberian northern boreal forests, called Taiga, where the fires were burning are mainly spruce and fir trees. These forests are twice the size of the Amazon rain forest and contain about a quarter of the world's timber reserves. The fires reached the Sihote-Alin wildlife reserve, one of the last remaining refuges for the Siberian Tiger.  Partly a result of a very dry year, the fires devastated  over 50,000 square miles of forest, including about two-thirds of the island of Sakhalin.

The attention on the forest fires is obscuring another serious problem - the smuggling of valuable cedar, elm, and ash to China, Korea, and Japan. Illegal logging has soared over the past decade, especially since borders opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Illegal logging is practically equal to forest fires in terms of its threat to the taiga, says Vladimir Shetinin, deputy chairman of the Primorsky regions State Committee on Environmental Protection, based in Vladivostok.

U.S. timber giant Boise Cascade has shut down mills in the Pacific Northwest and now has plans to construct a huge wood mill in Chile's temperate rain forest.  More than a third of the world's remaining temperate rainforests are in Southern Chile, and the "siempreverde" coastal temperate rainforest that is threatened by the Boise Cascade mill has the highest levels of biodiversity of all of Chile's forests.

British Columbia's timber industry has lost money three years in a row, leading to closure of 10 sawmills, one plywood mill and one pulp mill in 1998. In response, the industry is calling for less government regulation of the industry.  Recent controversy has focused on the spectacular Clayoquot Sound, which has already suffered from extensive clearcutting.
Weyerhaeuser commitment to Great Bear questioned | West Fraser -- Raw Log Exports

What you can do

The Heartwood organization has prepared a guide to help people to get involved in protecting their public forests. 

Additional reading

Forest News | Taiga News | GREEN TEA TIME: Nature conservation in Japan and trees of the world   


The habitat with the greatest abundance and diversity of species on earth is the tropical moist forest.

This includes areas with over 400 cm of rainfall per year (rain forests) and additional areas receiving between 200 and 400 cm of rainfall (moist deciduous forests).

The remaining tropical moist forests (about half the original area) now occupy about 3.6 million square miles or 7% of the earth's land surface, yet they are home to about half of all species on earth. This type of habitat is probably less studied than almost any other. Only about 15% of species in this habitat have been named.

In one four-mile square of tropical forest in Brazil, you could find 750 species of trees, 15,000 of flowering plants, 125 of mammals, 400 of birds, 100 of reptiles, and 60 of amphibians.

Recommended book:

The Last Rain Forests : A World Conservation Atlas (1990) by Mark Collins (Editor), David Attenborough. Hardcover - 200 pages.  Spectacular illustrations, plus the first comprehensive maps of rain forests. 

Countries with especially high levels of biodiversity are called "megadiversity countries". They are mostly the countries with large areas of tropical forest. Many of these countries are rapidly losing their tropical forests. Brazil, Central America, parts of Africa, and the Philippines are losing forest at the highest rates. Rain Forest Report Card

Tropical Deforestation

Tropical deforestation is leading to the loss of thousands of species, many of which were undiscovered. Well documented historical examples include the nearly complete clearing of Mauritius and Rodriguez islands resulting in the extinction of at least 12 bird species. The complete clearing of Cebu island in the Philippines resulted in the extinction of all 10 of its endemic birds. The clearing of St. Helena led to the extinction of 80 of the islands' more than 100 endemic plant species, most of its land snails and 3 of its 4 native land bird species.

Deforestation may have been responsible for the mysterious collapse of Mayan civilization in Guatemala about 500 years before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the West Indies.  The Peten region had one of the densest human populations of any time in human history, with almost 2,600 people per square mile in the cities. Then over a period of about 100 years these people vanished.  It is being suggested that this was an example of what happens when a human population exceeds the carrying capacity of its environment.  The government of Guatemala is now seriously concerned that history is about to repeat itself.

The incredible rate of destruction of tropical forests was first brought to the attention of the public by a book called "The Sinking Ark" by Norman Myers published in 1979. At that time Myers estimated that of the original extent of about 6.2 million square miles of tropical moist forests only about 3.6 million square miles was left: about 44% of the original tropical moist forest on the earth had already been lost.  Enormous amounts of tropical forest have been lost in Central America, Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Recommended book:

Trees of Life : Saving Tropical Forests and Their Biological Wealth (A World Resources Institute Guide to the Environment) by Kenton Miller, Laura Tangley, Gus Speth. Paperback - 218 pages (April 1991) 

Deforesting for the hamburger habit | Rainforest Action Network | The Rainforest Alliance Home Page | Rainforests Biodiversity Scale Of Destruction

Major Tropical Forest Regions


In the Brazilian Amazon, deforestation has been occurring during 1995-1998 at the rate of 4.8 million acres a year (the equivalent of seven football fields a minute).  Companies from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, South Korea, and Singapore are stripping the Amazon of its most valuable timber, such as mahogany, but they also destroy many other kinds of trees.  Their main customers are the U.S., Europe and Japan.

One of the contributing factors to deforestation in South America is the construction of roads. The Transamazonian Highway in the 1970's, and another big road from Manaus 600 miles north to the Venezuelan border, have opened up large areas of forest for slash-and-burn agriculture. More highways like this are planned. 

One of the highest rates of deforestation is in the state of Rondônia, in western Brazil. The federal government has given away large tracts of land in order to encourage settlement in this state, leading to a land rush in the 1970s and 1980s.  Loggers, cattle farmers, and peasants clear the land by burning when vegetation is driest at the end of the growing season.  It is estimated that Rondônia has lost 20% of its forest through burning. In October 1991 a team of scientists estimated that, at peak times, 88,000 fires were burning in Brazil, releasing as much soot as a volcanic eruption.

One of the areas that is almost totally gone is Brazil's 400,000 sq. m. Atlantic Forest - 95% of it has been lost already. This is an area with hundreds of species found nowhere else, including 21 species and subspecies of New World Monkeys, of which 13 are endangered.

Brazil’s problems = Earth’s problems

The Brazilian government announced on 2/11/99 that it was suspending all new permits for clearing land in the Amazon River basin.  This announcement came the day after reports that the rate at which the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed jumped 27% in 1998.
Amazon forest loss estimates double


Madagascar is the world's 4th largest island, just a bit larger than California and situated just off the east coast of Africa.  It has been separated from Africa for about 65 million years, and during that time has evolved a very distinctive flora and fauna.  Biologically it is one of the richest areas on earth, with about 10,000 endemic species of flowering plants, including 8 entire families found nowhere else. It is one of ten recognized "hotspots" of biological diversity on the earth. 97% of its butterflies and moths, 90% of its primates, reptiles and frogs, and 75% of its flowering plants live nowhere else. Slides show baobab trees, chameleons, lemur and comet-tailed moths. The rain forests of eastern Madagascar have a very high species richness per unit area. Since the arrival of man only 1500-2000 years ago (it is the most recently occupied major land mass) there have been many large mammals and birds driven to extinction.

The tropical rain forests of Madagascar before human colonization are thought to have covered most of the eastern coastal plains that run along the length of the island.  Now most of the forest has been cleared by people, cattle and fire, leaving forest covering less than 15% of the land, mostly on steep slopes and rugged terrain.  Only about 2% of the total area is in parks or reserves.  The rate of destruction slowed from 2.5% per year between 1950 and 1973 to 0.8% per year between 1973 and 1985. This appeared to be a result of reduction in the amount of forest that is accessible because of the elimination of most of the forests on all but the steepest slopes. The satellite images also showed extensive deforestation even in areas that had been established as Nature Reserves.

Madagascar also has a tropical dry forest, that is even more endangered than the rain forest.


Deforestation in the drier parts of Africa has led to an even worse problem - desertification. This is happening very quickly in the Sahel - a semi-arid belt of poor soil several hundred miles wide along the southern edge of the Saharan desert. A combination of overgrazing and deforestation has allowed the desert to overrun, in 50 years, an area the size of France and Austria combined. This type of desert is completely barren, consisting of wind-driven sand dunes.

The town of Timbuktu, Mali, is on the edge of the desertification area; it was once the "Golden City" of interior Africa. In 1976 the waterways and floodplain were clearly visible in aerial photographs. Nine years later, similar photographs show the floodplain and waterways dried out, and Timbuktu surrounded by sand dunes.


Australia is clearing its native forests for grazing, wheat production and urban development  faster than any other developed country in the world, losing about 2,000 square miles a year.  Partly because of this, many of Australia's unique marsupial mammals are threatened with extinction. Most at risk are the northern hairy-nosed wombat and the rat kangaroo.

Papua New Guinea

Dec 1998 update

Causes of Deforestation

Norman Myers analyzed the factors that were leading to the depletion of tropical moist forests:

Logging. Myers estimated that logging for tropical hardwoods such as ebony and mahogany was causing the elimination of about 20,000 square miles of tropical forests per year. The slide shows a lumber mill in Pará, Brazil. The rate of deforestation from logging is highest in Malaysia. Of the states' 50,000 sq. m. of land, 34,000 are forested and 90% of that has been licensed for logging. And the import of tropical hardwoods by industrialized nations has increased 15 fold since 1950. The largest consumer of tropical hardwoods is Japan, which accounts for one-third of the international market. Japan imports wood in order to avoid harvesting its own forest which covers 2/3 of the land area.

Clearing for agriculture. In many areas of the tropics the soil is very thin and cannot sustain crop production for more than a few years. Therefore peasant farmers have operated with a shifting (slash and burn) method. The farmers cut down the trees and burn a patch of forest, raise crops for 2 or 3 years until the soil loses fertility, and then move on and repeat the process in another part of the forest. In temperate forests 97% of the nutrients required for new plant growth are stored in the soil, so it is very fertile. In contrast, in tropical forests up to 90% of nutrients are present in the vegetation itself and are lost during the slash and burn. This style of agriculture was sustainable as long as the human population density was less than about 10 or 12 persons per square mile. Under those conditions a patch of farmed forest land could be left fallow for at least 10 years, and in that much time it could renew itself. Now there are often three times as many people per square mile, and they use the land so intensively that it does not have any chance to recover. Myers' estimate of the rate of loss of tropical forests from slash and burn cultivation was 20,000 square miles per year destroyed and 25,000 square miles severely disturbed.

Fuel wood. Myers' estimated that gathering fuel wood destroys around 5,000 square miles and severely disturbs another 5,000 square miles of tropical forest each year.  Haiti has only about 1.5% of its original forest cover, due to logging, burning and conversion to farmland.  Now the main threat to the remaining fragments is cutting trees to produce charcoal, which is the major fuel used for cooking.

Cattle raising. Forest destruction for cattle-raising is a major problem especially in Central America, especially Costa Rica, where many foreign companies have bought large tracts of forest in order to raise cattle for beef for export, largely to the United States. The financial cost of raising beef in Costa Rica is only about half the cost in the U.S.; so, we get very cheap hamburgers if we only count the financial cost. The forest is cleared away entirely in order to establish grasslands which then remain productive for 6 - 10 years and are then taken over by scrub growth. Myers estimated that 8,000 square miles of tropical forest were being cleared each year for cattle-raising.

Allowing for overlap (i.e. multiple use) the total amount of tropical forest being lost due to these four types of human activity comes to 30-37,000 square miles as the amount of forest eliminated and an additional 40,000 square miles grossly disrupted. The total is 200 square miles of forest per day or 70-77,000 square miles per year. This corresponds to the area the size of Nebraska each year or an area the size of Massachusetts each month. The remaining tropical forests cover 3.6 million square miles, so the rate of loss is about 2% per year.

A different perspective on deforestation by the Committee For A Constructive Tommorrow can be found at The Rainforest Issue: Myths and Facts.  Even though they can't spell their organization's name correctly, the authors do raise interesting questions on the data behind deforestation estimates.

Myers' book was published in 1979, and measurements from recent satellite imaging and field surveys show that the deforestation rate (in 1987) is even higher than Myers estimated, between 62,000 and 78,000 square miles per year. This means that, since Myers' book was published, an additional 1.3 million square miles, or over one third of the area of tropical forest existing in 1979, has been destroyed.  And in many countries the rates of deforestation have increased dramatically, even since the early 1980's. In Brazil the rate has tripled to 20-35,000 square miles per year and in India the rate has increased about 10 fold to 5,800 square miles per year. Satellite imaging showed that large areas legally designated as forest land were in fact already virtually treeless.

It has been estimated that 15 - 20% of all species will have become extinct by the year 2000 because of the destruction of tropical forests. This rate is about 10,000 times as high as the rate that existed prior to the existence of human beings. If destruction continues at the present rate, all tropical forest will be gone in less than 50 years.

Not only does deforestation put species at risk, but it contributes significantly to carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere. First, it removes plants which counteract carbon dioxide buildup through photosynthesis. Second, much of the forest is destroyed by burning, and it has been calculated that forest burning in Brazil generates about as much carbon dioxide as the industrialized United States.  Global warming in turn may be restricting the habitats of specialized organisms - for example, it has been suggested that Australian marsupials have retreated to high altitudes to avoid climatic warming.  This has resulted in their populations being fragmented into small isolated groups which are vulnerable to extinction.

Economic pressures from the developed countries are at least partly responsible for the high rates of deforestation in the third world. Loans from the World Bank and other international lending institutions have supported many projects that cause deforestation, such as the road from Rio to Rondônia, clearing for agriculture and hydro-electric projects.  Oil and gas companies are moving in to some of the most pristine remaining areas. The U.S., with 5% of the world's population, consumes more than 25% of the world's solid-wood products and 33% of its paper. The U.S. demand for beef has also led to extensive deforestation in Central America.

The World on Fire: 1997-1998

In 1998 huge numbers of massive forest fires broke out in many parts of the world, burning an estimated 58,000 square miles.  Both tropical and temperate forests were affected.  The fires were blamed on drought conditions related to the El Niño climatic conditions and/or global warming. Wildfires were raging in Canada, Siberia (50,000 square miles burned), Mongolia, Alaska, Florida (10,000 square miles burned), Brazil, Mexico, Greece (400 square miles burned), Indonesia (15 square miles burned) Australia, Thailand and Rwanda. In many of these places, the fires were characterized as of "historic proportions" or "the worst on record". After these peak years, in some places the fires continued.  For example, forest fires in Bulgaria, exacerbated by drought conditions in South Eastern Europe, destroyed over 20,000 square miles of forests from 1999-2002.


Monitoring from satellites shows that huge amounts of forest were burned in Brazil.  The photographs showed over 24,000 fires in Brazil over 41 consecutive days from the beginning of August 1997 - an average of 599 fires per day compared with 466 in 1996.

In the northern state of Roraima, in the first three months of 1998 fires lit by farmers and ranchers raged through 2 million acres of savannah and forest.  In August of 1999, 31,000 fires were burning.

The fires are threatening some of the already endangered wildlife, including the golden lion tamarin.  In August 1997, a fire burned 5,500 acres of the Poco das Antas Reserve, the only officially protected area for this species.

Southeast Asia

Thousands of fires were also burning in Southeast Asia in September - November 1997 - the worst fire season in 15 years. The situation was exacerbated by the most severe drought in half a century, caused by the severe El Nino condition. Almost 2 million acres were burnt. In Malaysia the air pollution index reached 600 on a scale where 100 is considered unhealthy.  Some of the fires are blamed on logging companies clearing land for plantations, others are set by small farmers using slash-and-burn methods.  Only 1.5 million square miles remain of the original 6 million square miles of forests in Asia.  Each year in Southeast Asia fires, logging, and conversion to tree plantations and agriculture destroy an additional 14,000 square miles of rain forests--an area roughly the size of  Switzerland.  This destruction of the rain forests threatens many endangered species including tigers, elephants, orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, and tapirs, as well as hundreds of species of birds, plants and insects.

Satellite imaging has been used to document the enormous scale of the forest burning problem. More tropical forest burned around the world in 1997 than at any other time in recorded history,  according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. 

View satellite images of smoke from the Indonesia fires, 3 September - 16 November 1997 (click on each image):

The damage to wildlife is likely to be enormous, since these areas are home to many spectacular  species of mammals including some of the world’s most endangered species -- orang-utans, sun bears, Sumatran tigers, Malayan tapirs and golden lion tamarins.  The fires have driven orang-utans, already rapidly declining due to forest clearing, into populated areas, where the adults have been killed for food and the young taken for the illegal pet trade.

The smoke has had tremendous human health impact. "Tens of thousands of illnesses", including chronic bronchitis, emphysema and lung and cardiovascular diseases have been blamed on the fires. Indonesia’s President Suharto has apologized to neighboring countries for the smoke pollution.

Many fires continued to burn in the East Kalimantan Province of Indonesia until mid-April 1998, when they were finally extinguished by rain. Wildfires burned 6 million acres of Indonesia between 1997 and 1998.

Who was lighting the fires?

Companies clearing land for palm oil plantations.  In Jambi, one of the affected provinces badly hit on Sumatra, 80 percent of the fires are said to have been from plantations.

The rest were from traditional slash-and-burn practices by small farmers and from accidents.

Why weren't they stopped?

In Indonesia, Forestry companies are known to openly violate the law.  There is widespread political corruption, and collusion between local government officials and companies.

What else could be done?

President Suharto issued a warning that the illegal burning should stop, and there was talk of revoking the licenses of offending companies.

Fires on this scale can cause a permanent change of climate as well as vegetation.  When forest is destroyed, less moisture is evaporated into the air, resulting in reduction of  rainfall and a vicious cycle as drought leads to more fires.  In an even more insidious cycle, the forest fires contribute to global warming by adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, at the same time leaving fewer trees to remove carbon dioxide from the air.  The World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have warned that, unless Governments act now, the fires will be much worse next time the El Niño condition returns. Three of the major Dutch banks have announced they will stop or curtail financing the development of oil palm plantations for which tropical rainforest is being intentionally destroyed.   

Migratory Songbirds and Coffee Plantations

Many songbirds in North America are declining because of modernization of coffee plantations leading to habitat loss in Central and South America.  Until 25 years ago, all coffee was shade-grown.  The dramatic increase in worldwide demand for coffee since then has prompted many coffee growers to switch to sun-grown techniques in an attempt to increase per acre yield.  According to a recent report from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, 17 percent of Mexico's, 40 percent of Costa Rica's, and 69 percent of Columbia's coffee crop is sun-grown.  The 150 species of birds which live on shade-grown coffee plantations, many of which are migratory songbirds, are losing their habitat as a result.  Songbird Coffee, a joint venture between the American Birding Association and Thanksgiving Coffee Company is marketing organically shade-grown gourmet coffees.  A portion of the revenue goes towards songbird conservation.

Some recent progress

An unprecedented agreement was signed between the World Wildlife Fund and the World Bank at Earth Summit II in June 1997. The president of the World Bank announced targets for forest conservation that match those being proposed by the Forests for Life strategy of WWF / International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).  The Bank pledged to:

  • support the establishment of 50 million hectares of new forest protected areas in the Bank's client countries by the year 2005;
  • co-operate to achieve a new Bank target of independent certification of 200 million hectares of well managed forests by 2005, with 100 million hectares in the temperate and boreal regions, and 100 million hectares in tropical forest regions.

Several International bodies are paying more attention to worldwide forest destruction.  They include:

Intergovernmental Panel on Forests

Convention on Biological Diversity

World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development.

WWF has launched a major international campaign to persuade governments to support its protected areas target - an ecologically representative network of forest protected areas covering at least 10 per cent of each country's different forest types by the year 2000. 20 countries have now agreed to the target including Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Bolivia, Canada, Chile, People's Republic of China, Colombia, Greece, Lithuania, Malawi, Mozambique, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Romania, Russian Republic of Sakha, Slovak Republic, Tunisia and Uzbekistan.

Support is growing for forest certification programs.  Forests for Life has been promoting the idea of identifying and certifying timber products that come from sustainable harvesting practices, so that businesses and consumers will know which products to buy.  This includes:

establishing national forest certification standards

persuading businesses to deal only in certified products

educating the public so that they buy only certified products

In 1998 Meyer International, the UK's largest timber trader, announced that it will purchase timber only if it has been certified under the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) program for sustainable forestry.  At a meeting in June 2000, Sweden, Canada and Brazil made new commitments to independent forest certification.

Non-timber sustainable use of tropical forest

Forest plants can provide many products other than timber, including fruits, oils, nuts, sweeteners, resins, tannins, fibers and construction materials and medicinal compounds. Studies have shown that the value of non-timber forest products can greatly exceed that of the potential timber harvest in these regions. Furthermore, exploitation of non-timber products can be more sustainable than timber harvesting, and can generate income for many local residents, whereas the profits from timber operations (and cattle ranching) are typically short-lived and made by foreign corporations. In one area of Brazil, the revenue from the collection of wild rubber and brazil nuts was shown to be four times as high as the revenue that can be obtained from cattle-ranching in a corresponding area.

Non-Timber Forest Products | Non-timber forest products

Controlled study of tropical forest fragmentation

In Brazil there is a law requiring that 50% of the land in any Amazonian development must remain as uncut forest.  When a group of biologists led by Dr. Thomas Lovejoy heard of some major plans for deforestation for cattle ranching, in 1979 they were able to arrange for the remaining forest to be left as a series of experimental plots of different sizes ranging from 2.5 to 25,000 acres.  They then studied the flora and fauna over the succeeding years to see the effect of various degrees of fragmentation (Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments project).  They found many of the expected effects around the edges of such fragments, which are of course more serious with the smaller fragments.  They also found, unexpectedly, a decrease in overall biomass in the small fragments - up to 36% of biomass being lost very soon after isolation in the smaller fragments.

Additional reading on Forests and Deforestation

Gaia Forest Conservation Archives | The World-Wide Web Virtual Library: Forestry | Other Forest Service Sites | Rainforests Biodiversity Scale Of Destruction | Conservation from the Treetops The Emerging Science of Canopy Ecology by H. Bruce Rinker | Do We Have Enough Forests by Sten Nilsson

What you can do

7 things you can do to save the rainforest

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