Are forests in decline?
Is the forest of the northeast in decline?
These are two broad questions I’ve spent a lot of time building a response to over the last several years. It’s not my primary pre-
occupation but I give some attention to it because of its relevance to my studies and writing involving trout.
I think that for most Americans, the knee-jerk response we’ve been led to is to is that, “yes, of course forests are in decline. They can’t be increasing in this age of industry and urban sprawl can they?”
I think that they are, and you might expect that we could just pull up some statistics quickly on the matter and settle it but it’s really not that simple. Generally speaking, the further back we go, the less reliable data on forestation really is. The federal and state governments were really just beginning to make credible attempts at quantifying land cover in the 1930’s, long after what’s estimated to have been peak deforestation for the country at large. So, the Forest Service (yes, I know they weren’t alone in it) has primarily tracked a recent legacy of recovering forests, particularly in the northeast where their own data confirm that we have more trees than we did a century ago.
I suspect though that the data is only a dim reflection of the vibrant real-world recovery. Some of this suspicion has to do with a look at drastically changing assessment and analysis methodologies through time and regions. Some of this suspicion has to do with what I’ve seen with my own eyes during the long walks of the Solo Adventure. But what gives me greatest pause is this: Don’t the government agencies directed to monitor these things have great incentive to magnify degradation and minimize recovery?
Isn’t this consistent with the pattern of all government bureaus? Don’t they always tend to justify their existence and perpetual funding by magnifying the problems they’re mandated to mitigate? What if, through changing economics, the eastern forests were coming back anyway? What if the original fears of men like Nathaniel Egleston and Gifford Pinchot, fears of near-total, European-scale deforestation, were unjustified? What if our markets, our people and our environment move in ways that don’t fit scholarly models well? What if environmental outcomes are never really certain?
All this is to say that I think the recovery of eastern forests is commonly understated.
And it all comes back to brook trout for me. As I said in a recent talk, as goes his watershed, so goes the brook trout. The brook trout are doing incredibly well right now, following an unforeseeable century of reforestation.