As paper continually gets attacked in popular culture as “killing trees” and being environmentally unfriendly, the print and paper industries have countered these claims with data about the flourishing of the nation’s forests. Consider these frequently cited stats from Two Sides: 

  • Net forest area in the United States increased by approximately 18 million acres between 1990 and 2020. This is an area equivalent to approximately 1,200 NFL football fields every day.
  • Each year, U.S. forests grow approximately two times more tree volume than is harvested, with a net average annual increase in growing stock of about 25 billion cubic feet.
  • More than half (58%) of the forestland in the U.S. is privately owned and managed. The demand for sustainably sourced paper products provides a powerful economic incentive for landowners to keep their land forested and sustainably managed.

If the number of trees in the United States is growing, where is this idea coming from that there are not enough trees? Are the people making these claims clueless? Or is it possible that certain reforestation data don’t tell the whole story?

The answer is, both. Here in the printing industry, we hear the forest growth facts, so we might think that people screaming about tree loss are crazy. But enter the world of environmental activism, and you find that there is, in fact, another side to the story. (The average person doesn’t have a clue about either side of the issue; hence the power of greenwashing.)

Look Beyond Forestland

The confusion gets resolved when you consider the different types of forested areas. There are the largest forested areas—thousands upon thousands of acres—that we associate with tree harvesting and the forest products industry. Then there are smaller forested areas in and around rural, suburban, and urban areas that are not harvested and play a critical role in the ecosystem. In those areas, tree losses are significant. So is the environmental impact.

Let’s take the state of Maryland as an example. The state has a net zero forest loss goal, yet a new study commissioned by the Harry R. Hughes Center for Agro-Ecology found that, unlike the aggregate forest numbers in many data sources, the forest area in Maryland is actually shrinking. These decreases are slight  (-0.14% annually from 2013–2018; -0.23% annually from 1999–2019, for example), but they are still counter to the trend we see from organizations like Two Sides. Counties in central Maryland with rapid development and population growth experience greater rates of loss. Continued urbanization is not only destroying forests, but fragmenting them.

Why does fragmentation matter? Because like a bundle of sticks, trees are stronger together. Intertwined branches provide strength against the elements. When forestlands are connected, this creates natural pathways that support wildlife. And there is this other really cool thing that scientists are just discovering—lattice-like patterns of fungi called mycelium and mycorrhizal networks that spread through the root systems of trees and transfer water, nutrients, and information between them. Some scientists even believe that trees are able to communicate through these networks. Without mycelium and mycorrhizal networks, our forest ecosystem would not be the same.

When you hear environmentalists talk about the need to do reforestation, they aren’t talking about shrinking national or commercial forests. They are talking about the deforestation of our waterways and our farmland to create luxury home plots and vast, open and unbroken agricultural tracts, or the little pods that create tiny urban oases in the midst of a concrete jungle.

Why Do They Matter So Much?

Is the need for these trees overblown? How much difference can a line of trees make anyway? The answer is, a lot.

Let’s take Maryland’s Chesapeake Watershed as an example. Today, the Bay faces serious problems due to human activities, including polluted stormwater runoff, over-fertilization and pollution from animal waste, deforestation, wetland destruction from agricultural, urban, and suburban development. Trees play a vital role in protecting and revitalizing the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding waterways by absorbing excess nutrients and pollutants from the soil and water, reducing soil erosion, and providing habitat for wildlife.

With Maryland’s population up 17% since 2000, urbanization is leading to the loss of large swaths of forested land that provide these natural benefits. The elimination of much of nature’s natural filtering system contributes to poor water quality, as well as a loss of biodiversity and increased sedimentation that can harm fish and other aquatic life. Additionally, without the shade provided by trees, water temperatures can rise, leading to the growth of harmful algae blooms.

Trees are critical in farmland, too. When land is left uncultivated or is reforested, the new vegetation helps to stabilize the soil, replace nutrients, and reduce erosion. This leads to the formation of a thick layer of organic matter, known as litter, which provides important nutrients to the soil. As the litter decomposes, it releases nutrients that can help to improve soil fertility and make that soil more arable for crops.  

Both urban and rural/agricultural reforestation is so important that there are programs, both state and private, to identify key areas that would benefit from reforestation and create plans for doing so. In some programs, farmers, for example, are being paid by the acre to reforest it, benefiting them both financially and by improving the quality of their soil for future crops. In urban areas, municipalities are working with nonprofits (such as the Potomac Conservancy working in Washington D.C.) to implement “green” planning projects.

Resolving the Contradiction

When people are talking about the loss of trees, they may not be talking about the type of forestland we associate with the forest products industry. They may be talking about forestland along the banks of waterways, alongside fields, and in open areas with a “for sale” sign for industrial development.

So it’s not as if the stats cited by organizations like Two Sides are wrong in implying that there are plenty of trees any more than the environmental organizations are wrong in saying there aren’t enough. It’s an “and/both” situation. It just depends on which part of the world you’re concerned about.