January 26, 2006

Saving the Trees

Stark facts courtesy of Bill McKibben, writing in 1999: "[John] Terbourgh, a prominent ornithologist with long experience in the Amazon region… writes that the rates of [worldwide] deforestation have increased in the 1990s. Even at the rate of destruction observed between 1980 and 1990, the last tree in the last primary rainforest on the planet would be cut sometime around 2045."

Okay, figures like that get around from time to time, but McKibben's essay looks at what people can actually do to stop it. Most of the clever ideas that have been floated in the past simply won't work. "Ecoprospecting," where drug companies save rainforests in the hopes of finding new medicines within won't work—the trend in molecular biology is towards synthetic compounds. Ecotourism tends to be a bust; customers just complain that it's hot, sweaty, and hard to see anything. And locals can't be convinced to, say, gather and market nuts instead of cutting down trees—it's way too unprofitable.

Really, says McKibben, the best way to save the rainforests is for other countries to follow the stellar and shining environmental example of—wait for it—the United States, whose protected federal lands have actually been quite successful at preserving biodiversity, even after you factor in all our loggers cutting down national forests or the BLM letting farmers overgraze on western lands. Partly this success comes from the fact that federal law prohibits change in land use: a national forest has to remain a forest, a grassland a grassland, and so on. No matter how corrupt the government, publicly-owned lands still fare far better than privately-owned ones. (Another alternative is to give indigenous people legal rights to their land; in the Amazon rainforests, says McKibben, when given a chance, they "can, and do, stop the endless expansion of the cattle ranches.")

Now granted, we've had five years of the Bush administration, and federal lands don't get half the protection they used to, but despite that—or maybe because of it—McKibben's essay is worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 5:26 PM || ||