The death of the forest is the end of our life.” ~ Sister Dorothy Stang

Today is national Arbor Day. So take a deep breath. Hold it, and take a moment to think about where that life-giving oxygen came from. Then as you exhale carbon dioxide, give thanks for the forests of the world.

Forests are responsible for approximately 35% of the oxygen we breathe. Along with the oceans of the world, forests are referred to as ‘lungs of the earth’ because they take in enormous amounts of carbon dioxide that circulate in the biosphere while returning copious amounts of oxygen. According to One Tree Planted, a mature oak tree, for example, can produce, on average, 100,000 liters of oxygen a year or about 274 liters of oxygen a day. That is nearly half of what the average human needs in a day. There is nothing more essential to human life than oxygen. Four to six minutes without it spells death.

With each breath we take, there is a critical lesson to be learned. If we care about preserving life on Mother Earth far into the future, one of the more important things we can do now is to stop cutting out and burning out her lungs. Or, in other words, it’s time for all humanity to open our eyes and start ‘seeing the forest for the trees.’

According to the Tree Foundation, half of the forests that originally covered 48 percent of the Earth’s land surface are gone. Only one-fifth of the Earth’s original forests remain pristine and undisturbed. A study published in the science journal Nature a decade ago estimated that there were then three trillion trees on the planet. The study predicted that with a net annual loss of 10 billion trees, we could expect Earth to be without trees in around 300 years. While that may seem unimaginable, the track that we are on in this new Anthropocene epoch of human domination of the planet is leading us to a head-on collision with the foolishness of our wanton and profligate behavior.

While mature forests hold a major part of the answer to slowing the pace of climate change, preserving biodiversity and supporting over 8 billion people on a planet with finite resources, we continue to sacrifice the long-term benefits of mature forests for short-term gain of fuel, farming, grazing and materials for manufacturing and construction. Farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling combined account for more than half of all deforestation. Forestry practices, wildfires and urbanization (development) account for the rest according to the World Resources Institute. These are the five main drivers of deforestation according to their research: Commodity driven Deforestation: 27 % – Shifting Agriculture: 24 % – Urbanization: 0.6 % – Wildfire: 23 % – Forestry: 26 %.

Citizens of Chatham, one of the fastest growing counties in the state, should know that under the Urbanization category, the research noted that more than two thirds of this deforestation occurs in the eastern United States: The report states, “Suburbanization is projected to clear much more of the United States’ rich southern forests in the coming years. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 12.4 million hectares (31 million acres) of southern forest will be lost to development between 1992 and 2040, an area roughly equal to the size of North Carolina. This will mean the loss of some of the most bio-diverse forests in the United States, which provide hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of timber, water purification, erosion control, and recreational opportunities.”

It is critical that humanity sees the ‘big picture’ value of the entire forest in addition to its individual parts. For the forest is truly greater than the sum of its parts. A tree, as wondrous as it is, is but a tree. A forest is an entire ecosystem, a community or group of living organisms that live in and interact with each other in that specific environment.

With your next breath remember that we depend on forests for our very survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. Forests provide not only for our life and livelihood, but also prevent soil erosion, provide watershed protection, provide habitat for wildlife and mitigate climate change. And the list goes on.

If, as Sister Dorothy Stang so often said and the words emblazoned on her T-shirt proclaimed, “the death of the forest is the end of our life,” then the preservation of the forest is integral to living life to its fullest. Remember on this Arbor Day and every other day that sound preservation of the planet’s forests today means the world can breath easier for generations to come.