Conservation news

Deforestation has been occurring continuously in New England since the 1980s

  • New England, which includes the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, is often considered a prime example of a so-called “forest transition,” in which forest regions recover from widespread historical deforestation as economic development activities, especially farming and forestry operations, diminish.
  • Researchers found that, while New England did undergo a forest transition phase prior to 1985, it has been in a secondary phase of deforestation ever since.
  • Their results showed that more than 385,000 hectares (more than 950,000 acres) of forest has been lost since 1985 — five percent of New England’s total forest area.

Illegal logging and cattle ranching in the Amazon, oil palm plantations in Indonesia, and other drivers of tropical deforestation may get all the press, but forest destruction is not limited to the tropics.

A study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters finds that the expansion of affluent suburbs in the New England region of the northeastern United States is a significant, if less newsworthy, driver of deforestation — and possibly indicative of trends in temperate regions across the Western world.

New England, which includes the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont, is often considered a prime example of a so-called “forest transition,” in which forest regions recover from widespread historical deforestation as economic development activities, especially farming and forestry operations, diminish.

Since 1990, surveys have suggested that such transitions have led to forest stocks stabilizing or even increasing, sometimes by as much as 30 percent, in North America and Western Europe. There has been speculation that the developing world could see a similar development, and that a “global forest transition” might then lead to the end of the era of deforestation.

But data collected by Pontus Olofsson of Boston University and his colleagues reveals that forest area has declined across the New England region throughout the entire study period, from 1985 to 2011.

Small-scale deforestation, such as cutting down a woodland copse to create a parking lot, is not typically captured by traditional forest inventories. In order to assess whether small-scale land-use change has had a significant impact in New England, Olofsson and team used a dense time series of high-resolution satellite data together with probability sampling.

They found that, while New England did undergo a forest transition phase prior to 1985, it has been in a secondary phase of deforestation ever since. Their results showed that more than 385,000 hectares (more than 950,000 acres) of forest has been lost since 1985 — five percent of New England’s total forest area.

“In this case it’s almost exclusively driven by residential and commercial development,” Olofsson said in a statement. “As affluence and commerce increase, more people are looking for secondary homes, single family homes and larger homes.”

Despite willingness to plant trees in affluent areas, Olofsson added, at some point there are no more abandoned pastures or farmland for forests to expand into. Over the past 30 years in New England, according to the study, “The rates of forest expansion on previously non-forested lands were found to not be significantly different from zero.”

Small-scale deforestation may seem insignificant compared to the vast tracts of rainforest cut down every year, but the cumulative loss of several small pockets of forest adds up, especially in the absence of forest expansion.

“With no forest expansion to counter the deforestation, it turns out that even a small-scale rate of deforestation will have a large impact over time,” Olofsson said.

Deforestation is most often related to economic activity, and while it accelerated in New England during the 1990s, it plateaued in 2007 due to the 2007–08 financial crisis. But the damage had already been done. Low-density residential development has reversed the forest transition of New England, Olofsson and team said, and has likely transformed the region from a land-use carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions.

Other regions of the developed world are likely to be following similar trajectories, Olofsson and team concluded, suggesting that “forest transition” is unlikely to bring about an end to global deforestation.

In other words, with so much at stake — especially given forests’ critical role in regulating the global climate — we can’t afford to ignore even small-scale deforestation, Olofsson said:

“I think we need to understand that it’s not just the tropics that are experiencing a net loss of forest but also parts of the Western world, and that the kind of patterns that we are witnessing have a negative impact on the terrestrial carbon balance in the long run.”

Fall foliage as seen from Hogback Mountain in Vermont. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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