Our forested areas are shrinking at an alarming rate. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 40 million acres of private forest could be lost in the next 40 years.
Why is that important to us? As U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “While most Americans live in urban areas, most of us depend on rural lands, particularly forest lands, for clean water and a healthy climate.”
One example of an urban area that depends on forested land for water is New York City. In the late 1990s, New York City leaders balked at a $6 billion water treatment system and instead opted to go with natural landscape management to clean the water it receives from the Catskill/Delaware watershed in upstate New York. The focus is on creating conservation easements along streams and reservoirs, and protecting forest lands to keep sediment and runoff from entering the water supply.
The watershed provides most of New York City’s daily supply of drinking water, more than 1 billion gallons each day. New Yorkers enjoy some of the cleanest, healthiest drinking water in the world.
Millions of Californians rely on crystal-clear water flowing from Plumas and other national forests to quench their thirst. Melting snow and rainwater flow from the Plumas into the Feather River and eventually wind up in the Sacramento River. Water from the Plumas relies on the entire ecosystem, which includes trees, to keep it pristine until it reaches taps throughout central and northern California. This is just one example of how our national forests help clean the water.
These solutions are an alternative to manufactured water treatment systems, and are beneficial in so many ways. Unfortunately, the conventional response is too often to pay for expensive artificial treatment systems rather than rely on natural resources.
One way to protect and clean our water supply is to plant trees, and the need to replant our nation’s forests is vitally important. The U.S. Forest Service has identified a backlog of 1 million acres in national forests alone that are in need of replanting because of damage from recent wildfires, insects and disease. There is no substitute for clean water. Water is a vital resource that we rely on every day. We can’t create something else to take its place.
But we can plant trees.
John Rosenow is founder and chief executive of the Arbor Day Foundation.