We Can’t Say We Didn’t Know

I’ve made this claim often here and elsewhere, having observed the evolution of a half-century of new electronic eyes and ears to better grasp the state of the planet. We can’t say we did not know the extent of change our one species has brought to every single place on Earth, on land and sea and in the very air.

It is the change we bring to forests that holds my attention lately, “forest” being the word we use to describe the wooded areas between cities and crop fields and around interstates.

But we suffer from baseline creep. Today’s global forest–it’s age mix, its amalgam of animals and plants, its microorganisms and microhabitats–is a faint shadow of the forest of five hundred years ago. And many. of course, are entirely gone.

And that’s important because the planet grew up over the past millions of years with yesterday’s definition of forest being an intact regulator of biodiversity, carbon dioxide, oxygen and moisture. To the extent that a forest of today has lost that capacity we stand at risk of lost planetary regulation–homeostasis–that keeps things more or less “normal” and predictable.

Tomorrow’s “forest”: those who live among them may have gone another few notches down on the scale of expectation for what constitutes a “normal, healthy, intact forest.” We are losing even what we have had in very many places across the states and the globe.

FORwarn forestry threats map, discovered fortuitously by guided serendipity among saved links going back to 2014, provides maps that can chart the changes in vegetation from mild to extreme across the continent.

ForWarn provides near-real-time tracking of vegetation changes across landscapes in the United States. Useful for both monitoring disturbance events as well as year-to-year variability, derived products can also be used to develop insights into seasonal and inter-annual dynamics.

Dark blue is essentially undisturbed vegetation. Carvin’s Cove north of Roanoke is one such place you can see on the map. Elsewhere, note the spots and clumps of red. We have only to walk out our back door or down our road less than a mile to see dark red.

How about you? Find your homeplace. What is the nearest extreme alteration to the forest there? Were you aware of it? Can you see it from your roads or is it hidden from view? What streams are drained by that logging and do those streams remain clear?

You shouldn’t claim you couldn’t have known.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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