The true value of trees and forests

Published Tuesday, May 9, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Trees and forests have been in the forefront of the news lately, mainly because of the economic value we attach to them after we cut them down.

But trees and forests have value far beyond pulp, paper and lumber.

Free ecosystem services

In that human-made measure we call economics, all the services we get for free courtesy of the natural world around us are typically overlooked. 

Bees pollinate everything from apples to zucchini.  Bacteria process organic waste and turn it into nutrients other forms of life can use.  Wetlands filter and purify water.  All for free. 

And perhaps the biggest free service of all comes from trees: through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide out of the air and lock it up as wood fibre.  They’re critical in helping rebalance a global carbon cycle thrown out of kilter by the excessive carbon dioxide emissions produced when humans burn oil, coal and natural gas.  In the same process, they produce the oxygen we breathe.

In conventional economics, it’s tough to put a dollar value on the free services trees and forests provide.  But a study done this spring by TD Bank Group and the Nature Conservancy of Canada attempted to do just that – and the results are eye-opening.

Natural capital valuation

The study, titled “Putting a Value on the Ecosystem Services Provided by Forests in Canada”, examined eleven actual blocks of conserved forest across Canada representing the country’s eight distinct forest regions.  Four free services provided by each of those conservation areas – carbon storage, water purification, flood control and air purification – were measured, and a monetary value was calculated, in dollars per hectare per year.

For the Acadian Forest Region, which encompasses most of the Maritimes, the report’s authors examined a 200 hectare conservation area in western Nova Scotia.  They determined it was providing $26,250 in free services per hectare, per year.  Excessive sounding, perhaps – but only until you pause to think just how expensive the typical human-built alternatives for carbon storage, water purification, flood control and air purification are.  

The average natural capital valuation of all eleven forests was found to be $26,000 per hectare per year.

Additional benefits 

The study was limited to ecosystem services that could be accurately calculated – but trees and forests provide other benefits that are harder to measure: 

  • Recreation: the mental and physical benefits of a walk in the woods, a breath of forest air, a night under the stars and complete silence.  Not many people would derive much enjoyment or therapy from a clearcut.
  • Ecotourism: the economic benefits of nature-based experiences, goods and services
  • Biodiversity: intact natural forests are safe havens for our planet’s fragile, complex, interconnected web of life – plant, animal, fungal and microbial.  

What to do

Trees and forests have value far beyond what conventional economics would suggest; they’re worth planting and protecting.  

Here are five easy actions for anyone:

  • Join the Nature Trust of New Brunswick, an organization that acquires special blocks of NB forests and wetlands and sets them aside for conservation in perpetuity.  Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, the NTNB now has 50 preserves comprising 2800 hectares.
  • Join the Nature Conservancy of Canada, an organization with similar objectives but a national scope.
  • Set The Rainforest Site as your web browser default home page.  With a simple click, you can preserve one square meter of rainforest each day – a small amount, but last year, enough people clicked to preserve 3600 hectares of rainforest.
  • Use Ecosia.org as your default internet search engine, because every search helps fund the planting of trees – over 7.5 million so far.
  • Finally, plant (or transplant) a tree yourself; May is the perfect time.  

All seeds and seedlings have promise, but few have more promise than a tree.