The Importance and History of Forest Conservation

The pivotal role forests play in the global ecosystem cannot be overstated. Forests provide everything from powerful natural resources to massive environmental biosystems hosting thousands of vibrant species. Additionally, forests are producers of oxygen and are massive CO2 sinks, acting as foundational blocks to life itself. Without them, life as it is would not exist, which is why the preservation and conservation of forests is so critical.

Forest conservation is an always-necessary approach to maintaining a usage balance. While lumber plays a role in manufacturing, production, and supply across the world, excess use (like any natural resource) leads to deforestation and harrowing environmental damage.

This article will take us through the history of forest conservation efforts in the U.S.

Table of Contents

    The Goal of Forest Conservation

    The leading goal behind forest conservation is to both protect natural resources and maintain it for feasible production. In other words, forest conservationists wish to protect forests while still using the forest’s resources, like lumber, sustainably. Other goals are to protect forests from destruction, disaster, and impact typically caused by human overconsumption. 

    Read more: The Difference Between Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration

    Threats Facing Forests

    The threats posed to forest environments around the global chain, many of which are driven by human demand and consumption, are numerous. For instance, one common example of widespread deforestation is the preparation of farmland for cattle. That land is “prepared” to be an agricultural area for raising cattle (and thus deforested) because of the overwhelming demand for beef across the global supply chain.

    Deforestation is also caused by:

    importance and history of forest conservation
    • Invasive species
    • Overpopulation of insects or animals
    • Disease
    • Pollution
    • Natural disasters

    When deforestation occurs, forest bodies become fragmented. This fragmentation exacerbates the problem, leaving trees and animals more susceptible to problems like loss of habitats and biodiversity and reduced forest health. Over time, entire forest biomes can be lost, threatening wildlife stability and the environment. 

    A Brief History of Forestry Conservation

    While the aim to preserve and maintain forest bodies is a global effort and every nation utilizes different methods to protect forests, we’ll focus on the United States. 

    Conservation efforts and legislation in the U.S. began in the late 1800s. The US Department of Agriculture appointed a Special Agent in 1876, with the goal to maintain and preserve the quality of forests. From there, the foundations of forest conservation efforts began. 1881 saw the Division of Forestry’s creation, and in 1891 the Forest Reserve Act was passed. That allowed the president to declare and dedicate public lands and bodies of forests as “reserves.”

    In 1905, Gifford Pinchot was the first chief of the US Forest Service and a powerful voice for conservation efforts as a whole. 

    On Gifford Pinchot

    It’s impossible to talk about forest conservation efforts in the United States without discussing Gifford Pinchot. While his support of eugenics is a dark mark on the history of environmentalism in this country, Pinchot is still an important foundation to forest reserves and how we utilize lumber.

    Gifford pinchot - history of forest conservation
    Gifford Pinchot

    Gifford viewed forest preserves as an important social necessity, and realized the need for balancing use vs consumption. He worked closely with President Roosevelt, heading the National Forest Commission and overseeing forest reservations for a decade. Pinchot’s overall philosophy regarding conservation was one of practicality. He did not believe in total restriction of land use, but recognized the severe harm and long-term consequences of exploitation and excessive use.

    This balanced approach helped rapidly expand the amount of reserve forests in the United States, and in 1910, the total amount of reserve forests counted for 193 million acres.

    Gifford sums up his philosophy on conservation with this quote:

    Conservation means the greatest good to the greatest number for the longest time.

    Gifford Pinchot, first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service

    Regulatory Law throughout the 1900s

    Since the initial conservation acts and laws of the early 1900s, other acts have passed to further preserve and protect US national forests. Some, for instance, were in response to check increased demand as a result of global events (such as WWI and WW2). Others were to avoid excessive use of forested land.

    Some examples include:

    • The NEPA Act (National Environmental Policy Act) of 1969 and 1976
    • The Endangered Species Act of 1973
    • The Wilderness Act of 1964

    There are numerous others, but Acts like those listed were (and still are) critical to the protection of reserved forest biomes. 

    Modern Conservation and Threats to Forests

    Though the United States has a robust set of laws and regulatory bodies to help protect forests, this does not mean modern forests around the world are not in danger. Most notable is the Amazon rainforest, arguably the most important and diverse forest biome in the world.

    Much like the threats facing forests a century ago, problems impacting biomes like the Amazon are driven by factors like exploitation and consumption. The Amazon continues to face the severe threat of deforestation, caused by:

    • Excessive farming, primarily for global meat production (other food production are causes too; over 20 million hectares of Amazon rainforest land is used for soybeans)
    • General expansion of populations, cutting down sections of the Amazon for construction
    • Mass burning, whereby entire sections of forest are burned to create “nutrient appropriate” soil for other means of production

    The long term use of mono-crops and other exploitative measures create long term damage which can take years to recover from. Considering the vital importance of the Amazon rainforest, loss of such a diverse biome will have catastrophic effects throughout the world. For instance, the Amazon is nicknamed the “lungs of the earth,” given how large of a carbon sink it is, and losing it would exacerbate the effects of climate change even further. This is nothing to say of the damage to unique species and their eventual endangerment. 

    With so many threats facing forests in the US and abroad, it’s daunting for conservation efforts to maintain reserves and protected environments. What can we do to help protect these important biomes?

    What Can We Do to Protect Forests?

    Forest - history of forest conservation

    Protecting and conserving forest biomes – within and outside of the US – is a monumental task indeed. Some take initiatives to plant trees in forest depleted areas to help restore those zones over time. For example, Ecosia, an alternative search engine, plants tree seeds based on the amount of searches by an individual person. However, long term and significant changes are largely on how we address widespread consumerism and economic issues. Individual efforts and group activism help start grassroots movements for conserving forests, but without severe limits on deforestation around the world, we’ll lose the biomes entirely.

    Key Takeaways

    We’ve seen how important forest conservation is, not just for environmental importance, but for production too. Here are the key takeaways:

    • Excess and mass exploitation of resources, in the long term, is damaging to both species diversity and the nature of human production/survival. 
    • Protecting future environments and forests requires continued regulatory stances on how we consume lumber.
    • Like other resource use, finding alternatives to both production and consumption of forests is key for long term survival and environmental stability.