The World’s Ancient Forests

Originally published on the Watershed Sentinel

By Rex Weyler

About one-fifth of the world’s ancient forests remain intact. The forests have protectors and champions, but Earth still loses ancient forest every year to human enterprise, and now, to the new human-mediated climate.

Deforestation in New Zealand (2011) by Michael Coghlan via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Half of the Earth’s Ancient Forests

Half of Earth’s forests – the once great forests that stood on Earth ten thousand years ago, at the dawn of human agriculture and empire – are entirely gone. However, that measure accounts only for land area – approximately six billion hectares of forest reduced to three billion. Most of the remaining forests survive only as tree

farms, second growth, small, fragmented, skeletal forests, no longer fully functioning ecosystems. These forests hold less than half their original biomass, and support lower quality standing trees in depleted soils, disrupted ecosystems, fragmented by roads and resource development. When we account for this, we find that humanity has obliterated about 80 per cent, four-fifths, of the world’s ancient forests.

The once legendary cedar forests of Lebanon and Sumer are now desert. In Western Europe, all ancient forests are gone. The great forests of India and China have been reduced to scattered remnants. The world’s remaining forests survive in five intact ecosystems: Two boreal forests in Russia and Canada, and three tropical forests in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Amazon basin. In North America, 56 per cent of coastal temperate rainforests are gone, and global wood consumption is projected to double over the next 30 years.

Mont Siguniang (China) by Yohann Agnelot via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Forestry Fail

Annually, we lose about 16 million hectares of forest, 13 million in the tropics alone. Pulp, paper, lumber, and agriculture companies pursue the vestige ancient forests night and day, 365-days per year. Asia Pulp and Paper, Kimberly-Clark, International Paper, Weyerhaeuser, Oji, Nippon Unipac, Stora Enso, Brookfield Asset Management, others, and their owners and investors, appear willing to plunder the last vestige of Earth’s ancient, wild forests

I am struck by the fact that the combined brainpower of humanity’s schools of forestry, doctors of forestry, doctors of forest engineering, forestry consultants, and Nobel-prize-winning resource economists have not yet figured out how to achieve a sustainable yield of forest products. On the contrary, the world’s forestry schools appear resigned to overseeing the obliteration of Earth’s last remnants of ancient forest.

This failure remains particularly disturbing since genuine sustainable forestry is practiced all around the world by small communities and foresters such as the late Merv Wilkinson, who logged his 36-hectare (90-acre) forest on Vancouver Island for 73 years, 1938 to 2011, and the land held more standing timber on the day he passed away than when he started. His formula remained simple: Cut below the growth rate. Perhaps someone should burn that into the chalk boards of all the forestry schools.

Remember when computers were going to save paper and we were going to preserve the forests by going digital? Never happened. Today, human enterprise uses six-times the paper we used in 1960 at the dawn of the computer age. The pulp and paper companies log ancient forest and mine the soils of the second growth forests for pulp. Meanwhile, agriculture giants – Monsanto, Cargill, and others – level forests for agricultural soil that they will deplete in a decade of over-production and pesticide use for genetically modified crops that further degrade ecosystem diversity.

Forests disappear for ranching, industrial projects, human residence, urban sprawl, resource sprawl, and energy sprawl. But now, a new human impact has arrived. We have cut down so much forest, and burned so much ancient hydrocarbon energy that global heating is now causing forest degradation and loss. Each year, as Earth loses those 16 million hectares of forest, we gain six million hectares of desert. These trends, not surprising to those armies of foresters, remain connected.

Throughout human history, some degraded forests became scrub brush or grassland. Humans occupied some of those lands, farmed, grazed cattle, built structures, and paved roads. Some former forests became depleted further to become desert. Now, with a planet quickly heating and human enterprise expanding, this process has accelerated.

Desertification at Soestduinen (Netherlands) by tacowitte via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Ecological Feedback

Forests hold less biomass in warmer earth conditions; the trees die faster and release more carbon; and atmospheric carbon increases planet temperatures, a feedback cycle of forest collapse. Virtually all tropical rainforests are at risk on a hotter Earth. Up to 40 per cent of the rainforest will likely be lost from climate impact even if we restrict temperature rise to 2°C, which now appears unlikely since we are halfway there and accelerating. A 3-to-4°C rise, more likely, would result in the loss of 75-to-85 per cent of the remaining tropical forests.

Drought and heat also leave forests more susceptible to insects and fire. The warmer temperatures have already benefitted bark beetles, which have attacked boreal forests in the US, Canada and Russia. In western Canada, over nine million hectares of pine forest have been decimated by beetles. The invigorated beetles now, for the first time on record, swarm over the Rocky Mountains.

Dryer trees are naturally more vulnerable to fire. Carbon, sequestered by forests over centuries, can be released in a few days by wildfires, as we have witnessed in southern Australia and in the US southwest in recent years. Fires, increasing worldwide, now contribute about a third as much atmospheric carbon as the burning of fossil fuels.

Early climate projection models expected forests to absorb much of humanity’s carbon pollution. The data now shows these negative feedbacks have made forests less effective than predicted. Deforestation is already responsible for 20 per cent of global warming. “Forests we once hoped would sequester carbon,” says Dr. J. Michael Waddington at McMaster University, “now appear to be a ticking carbon bomb.”

Amazon Rainforest – courtesy Oregon State University vi Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Fuels, Ice Cream & Cosmetics

Tropical forests remain the world’s most efficient storehouses of carbon, but are steadily reduced to grow biofuels, palm oil, and soybeans. Palm oil is used in cookies, ice cream, granola bars, and cosmetics. In Indonesia, palm oil production tripled during the 1990s and has tripled again in the last decade. In Brazil, soybean cropland has been doubling every five years. In Argentina, I have witnessed bulldozers operating like Panzer divisions, levelling and burning forests at the rate of about 200,000 hectares each year. Forests are destroyed, species go extinct, and indigenous forest communities are displaced into urban slums to supply cattle feed, snacks, soaps, and biofuels to rich consumers in industrialized countries.

Holly Gibbs, at Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment has analyzed satellite images to track deforestation and climate change. Gibbs’ data show that between 1980 and 2000, over 80 per cent of new cropland came from rainforests, most from intact forests. “If we run our cars on biofuels,” says Gibbs; “we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks.” Tropical forests and their soils harbour over 340 billion tons of carbon, equivalent to more than 40 years worth of global carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Global heating is now proceeding faster than the most extreme scenarios had once predicted. Deforestation aggravates this trend and risks runaway heating since the impact of climate change is non-linear. After the 2°C threshold, we will experience not a steady decline, but dramatic shifts in ecosystem damage, forest dieback, species loss, and permafrost melt, releasing CO2 and methane. Beyond 2°C, we risk ecosystem collapse and conditions uninhabitable by present human civilization.

This non-linear response is due to the interaction between tipping point elements. Climatologists now recognize that when one element tips – forest die-off or methane release, for example – other critical factors can be pushed beyond their tipping points, adding to the feedback loop.

Slovinski National Park, Poland – Courtesy Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Forest Fragmentation

Some forestry scientists suggest that there may be no point in conserving forests destined to disappear with climate change, a notion used to justify logging those forests. In BC, across Canada, and around the world, the forest science community remains dominated by corporate-funded foresters and forest company lobbyists rather than by serious ecologists. Real forest ecosystem science shows that fragmentation by logging makes forests more vulnerable to drought, insects and other pressures. Preserving healthy forest ecosystems, even in forests suffering from climate change, makes these forests less vulnerable.

A scientific paper from the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Sciences (Malhi, et. al. 2009) examines the likelihood of an Amazon forest dieback and conversion to grassland. “The dieback of the forests of E. Amazonia … is far from inevitable but remains a distinct possibility,” the authors report. They add that “direct intervention to maintain forest area and limit the spread of fire offers the potential to maintain forest resilience and avoid any such tipping point … beyond which extensive rainforest would become unsustainable.”

The report concludes, “Maintaining forest cover would not only be a strategy for climate-change mitigation, regional development, and biodiversity conservation, but also a potential strategy for adaptation,” as the Amazon climate inevitably changes.

Forest loss spells the loss of vital ecosystem services. Forests provide oxygen, water filtration, air purification, soils, food, and shelter for everything that lives. For the human community, forests provide building materials, paper, medicines, fuel, and places of refuge, places of discovery, peace, solitude, education, myth, and spiritual insight. Forests, along with oceans, are also Earth’s primary climate regulator and sustainer of biodiversity.

Canadian economist Mark Anielski estimates that environmental services from Canada’s boreal forest are worth about $160 per hectare per year, or $93 million per year in Canada, almost a billion dollars in free services to humanity each decade, which we eradicate for quick cash. Deutsche Bank economist Pavan Sukhdev has estimated that humanity is losing 2-5 trillion dollars of natural capital annually from deforestation.

So, for both ecological and economic reasons, intact primary forests require priority protection. Human civilization teeters on the brink of the greatest natural disaster in our history: runaway global heating. We learned from the failure of Rio+20 and two decades of Kyoto handshakes that these meetings produce zero net increase in forests or decrease in carbon emissions. We have seen from Canada’s Boreal Forest Agreement that without enforcement logging companies may simply ignore such agreements.

Legitimate solutions exist, but they are not global in scale. All genuine solutions are local. Regional and indigenous communities will have to unite and rally to save their dwindling forests. The real value of these forests rests in their integrity as engines of biodiversity, as the source for the oxygen we breathe, and as climate regulators. The ancient forests are 80 per cent gone. Surely this is enough. Industrial society must figure out how to harvest wood products from existing tree farms and already disturbed forests.

A real forest is a dynamic ecosystem of co-evolving subsystems and species. In the recent past, some environmentalists have celebrated deals that preserve a quarter or a third of some stand of ancient forest. There may exist some political logic in saving anything we can, but our aim, and our demands need to be more bold. To preserve the integrity of Earth’s interconnected forest ecosystems, we must preserve every remaining square centimetre of our planet’s ancient forests. Humanity has taken four-fifths of those forests, and this is enough. We must make every effort to preserve the remaining ancient forests and to restore the degraded forests to once again become functioning ecosystems.

Tag says “Canadian Overseas Log” – by Paul Joseph via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

Rex Weyler is a writer and ecologist; his books include Blood of the Land (1982); Greenpeace: The inside Story (2004); and The Jesus Sayings (2008); he posts the “Deep Green” blog online at Greenpeace International.

Top photo credit: Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner Andrea Inness stands beside a freshly fallen old-growth redcedar tree in BC Timber Sales cutblock in the Nahmint Valley near Port Alberni by T J Watt (Courtesy Wilderness Committee)


One-fifth ancient forests remain: World Resource Institute,

Ecosystem services: Terry Collins, Canadian Forest Congress, :

Hadley Centre research on forest die-off: