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For Dec. 5, which was Forest Day at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico, two of The Nature Conservancy’s leading forest experts, Jeff Fiedler and Frank Lowenstein, sat down to brainstorm their list of top 10 reasons why forests matter (in no particular order).

1.Absorbing and storing carbon

Because trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into wood, where the carbon stays bound up for hundreds or even thousands of years, living forests are an important part of the earth’s climate system. Growing trees soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, roots, leaves, and forest soils.

2.Home to people

Three hundred million people around the world actively live in forests and depend on them directly as sources of food, medicine and livelihoods. 

3.Source of jobs and livelihoods

More than 1.6 billion people around the world depend on forests to some extent for their livelihood, according to the FAO. Some 60 million indigenous people are completely dependent on forests for all aspects of their survival. And about 10 million people are employed in forest management and conservation around the world.

4.Wood for furniture, lumber, firewood and other products

In the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, many local communities sustainably harvest mahogany and other wood, as well as chicle, which is used to make chewing gum. Panama hats are actually made from an understory palm from the coastal dry forests of Ecuador. In total, about 30 percent of the world’s forests are used for production of wood and non-wood products (such as food, resins, medicines, etc.).

5.Habitat for mammals, birds, insects

Forests are home to almost half of the world’s species, with some of the richest biodiversity found in tropical forests. Insects and worms help cycle nutrients through the soil. Many rare and endangered species, such as orangutans, gorillas and pandas, depend on dense patches of isolated forest.

6.Preventing flooding

During times of heavy rainfall, lowland forests such as those in floodplains help to absorb water and slow flood flows, preventing damage to soil, property and buildings. Lowland forests such as the blackwater swamps of the Southeast are also spectacularly beautiful habitat for a wide range of wildlife.

7.Conserving soil and water

Trees are an important part of the water cycle. By helping slow runoff and allowing water to filter into the soil, they can preserve groundwater supplies that are important both to people as drinking water and to fish and other aquatic life in nearby streams. Trees also help hold soil in place, reducing erosion by both water and wind. Deforestation in Inner Mongolia plays a role in dust storms that afflict Beijing and other East Asian cities. China has embarked on an ambitious reforestation effort in part to alleviate these problems.

8.Regulating regional climate

When trees are planted in cities, they can help to ease the “heat island” effect and provide cooling shade for homes and buildings, reducing energy usage for air conditioning in the summer. When planted strategically, they can provide effective wind barriers. Large forests also play a role in weather and rainfall patterns and micro-climates. For example, the Amazon rainforest creates conditions that result in regular precipitation for lands to the south that are productive agricultural areas and are thought to even enhance rainfall in the Great Plains of the United States.

9.Natural beauty

Trees and forests are sources of human inspiration and enjoyment – even from afar. Trees are a symbol of life, and in our modern times, of a movement to sustain the environment that all people depend upon. Polling by The Nature Conservancy shows that more than 90 percent of Americans report that trees give them a feeling of peace and tranquility.

10.So we can put trail blazes on something

The establishment of protected areas and parks often allow for development of trails for hiking, snow sports, and bird-watching, providing people who live outside of forests with a refuge for recreation, tourism, and educational activities. Walking in a forest can be a source of spiritual renewal for many (stillness broken by the whispering of pines, the call of an owl or the rustling of a small animal through brush and dried leaves).

Do you have your own reasons why forests matter? Please tell us in the “comments” section below.
— Text by Lisa Hayden, Cool Green Science Blog

Jeff Fiedler is senior policy advisor for climate and forests, and Frank Lowenstein is climate adaptation strategy leader at the Nature Conservancy.