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5 Hidden Benefits of Forests

Forests are commonly known as the lungs of the planet, providing much of the oxygen we breathe. Covering about a third of total land area on Earth, they host millions of species of trees, plants, animals and fungi. These benefits are obvious, but the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is pointing out a few more you may not have realized.

Did you know, for instance, that forests are natural aqueducts? Most of the world’s population lives downstream of forested watersheds. A 2003 survey of 100 of the world’s most populous cities revealed a clear link between forests and the quality of water provided by catchments. They reduce the number of pollutants entering headwaters, reducing the need for treatment and reducing the supply cost. There’s also evidence that forests help maintain water flow. Many forests are managed to prioritize water supply. 

Forests also help provide a livelihood for 86 million people around the world. Often, that’s through jobs related to recreation, conservation or the forest products industry – foresters, geologists, biologists, technicians, equipment operators and even high tech jobs like drone pilots. But sometimes it’s as simple as a nearby forest providing shelter for a farmer’s free range flock.

Of course, they give us material things, too: shelter, furniture, paper, fuel and byproducts that go into everyday items like medicine and detergents. More than 1 billion people around the world also rely on wild foods like meat, insects, plants and mushrooms foraged from forests. 

FOA notes that forests nurture the soil. They’re host to vast unseen worlds of microorganisms involved in the cycling of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, helping in the decomposition of dead plant mass and animals, and supporting the incredible biodiversity of forest species. Forest soil also traps and stores 1.4 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, keeping it out of the atmosphere. 

You may associate all of these benefits with nature preserves where trees go untouched for many decades or even centuries, but they apply to working forests, too. As commercial timberlands cycle through different phases of growth and re-growth, they play different roles in the local ecosystem. 

An estimated 420 million hectares (about 1.6 million square miles) of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses since 1990, even though the rate of deforestation has decreased. Large-scale agricultural expansion, mostly for cattle ranching and the cultivation of mono crops like soybeans and oil palm, is responsible for 40 percent of tropical deforestation. In other places, smaller forests are often lost incrementally to development. Once a forest is turned into a neighborhood, it’s unlikely to ever return to its original state.

Learn more about how sustainably managed working forests support rural families, keep our water sources healthy and play a crucial role in the fight against climate change.

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