September should be a calming month where we eagerly wait to see the leaves change colors and get ready for everything pumpkin spice. However, for many individuals, especially in my home state of California, we no longer welcome the end of summer for those reasons alone.
This summer, the Dixie fire raged as California’s largest fire in the state’s history. Instead of blue skies and red leaves being the most exciting part of September, it’s that once September ends, so does fire season. And the end of waking up each morning to a bright red sun, hearing about devastating loss of life, and gray particles landing on your skin as you look up to see if maybe today there is a spot of blue opening above. In September, it feels like our forests — and all of us — can breathe again.
While fires do have astonishing impacts on primary forests and cause significant acreage loss, something else is causing mass global deforestation. Media constantly pushes the idea that we are losing most of the planet’s trees due to forest fires, but is it true?
Industrial agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, accounting for around 85% of deforestation worldwide. Most can be attributed to the need for land to support livestock. Around 50% of habitable land is used for agriculture, and a whopping 80% of agricultural land is used for livestock, with beef being the largest contributor. In comparison, only 37% of habitable land is forests, 11% is shrub, and 1% is freshwater. Soy and palm oil plantations are next in line. This makes sense considering that 80% of soybean crops are used to feed pigs, cattle, and poultry. Our global demand for meat production is causing the most significant deforestation impact and only aiding in the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Timber logging leads to the loss of 380,000 hectares of land each year to meet global demand for wood and charcoal, accounting for 85% of forest degradation. In the logging industry, clearcutting allows for easier access to untouched areas, which can later be used for agriculture, mining, and settlements. Clearcutting is destructive to the water cycle and topsoil. Trees transpire large volumes of water and retain additional rainfall; without trees, there is no shade for riverbeds, causing a rise in water temperature and evaporation that contributes to the extinction of fish and amphibians. Tree roots help hold down soil along riverbeds; without them, erosion increases, and rivers and streams can even dry up. Due to current demand for medicines, technology, and household items, mining is also on the rise, further contributing to degradation because of the clearcut space required for large infrastructure to operate.
Lastly, infrastructure, expansion, and climate change are major causes of deforestation. Human population growth can be seen on every continent. We replace forests with settlements and cities to inhabit. We take over ecosystems with bridges, roads, dams, airports, and harbors and displace plant and wildlife species in the process. We exhibit complete disregard for other living beings because we selfishly “need” more space.
Wildfires are responsible for an estimated 10% of forest degradation annually, a number that is only increasing due to global warming and intensity of extreme weather patterns. And that destruction can hit very close to home. Forest degradation occurs when a forest is so damaged that the ecosystem loses its capacity to provide important goods and services to organisms and other natural processes. The biological wealth of these forests are permanently damaged.
Many individuals don’t put significant effort into making change until it directly impacts them or their loved ones. The Dixie Fire I mentioned destroyed the place I loved as a child. I went every year to play in Lake Almanor and hike through the woods to the railroad where I left pennies on the tracks to find them flattened in the morning. This is also the place where my great grandma’s ashes were spread, and photos of our family’s pets were taken. I will never forget the memories I’ve made, but it hurts knowing I can never go back to relive what I did when I was younger — because a place that once felt so magical will be filled with nothing but ash.
We cannot wait until a natural disaster affects each of us before we begin to fight for green policy to be enacted. We should reform what we do on a daily basis that contributes to deforestation. We should take a look at the foods we eat, unnecessary products we buy, and legislation we support. We must demand that legal action to protect our world’s forest be a top priority — for without them, we couldn’t even take a breath.