An Overlooked Connection: Clean Water & Forest Products

The role that forests play in the water cycle is widely known and celebrated. Yet, many are unaware of the contributions of forest product markets in the forest/water relationship.

Monday was International Forests Day. Tuesday was World Water Day. In 2016, there will be no better opportunity to discuss the vital role that forests play in the global water cycle and forestry organizations throughout the world are using the two days to draw attention to this important dynamic.

The facts, proliferated in blogs, tweets, webinars and infographics all underscore the same basic message. Forests are the lynch pin of the natural water filtration infrastructure and must be maintained to keep fresh water inventories stable, to say nothing of growing to meet an increased demand from a growing population.

The value of environmental services performed by natural systems can be elusive, but a recent survey shows that as forest coverage increases, the costs of water treatment in the area decreases significantly. Areas with at least 60 percent forest cover require half as much water treatment investment than areas with 30 percent forest cover. This implies that forests then, save municipalities millions of dollars in avoided infrastructure investment and for now, this incredible value of “green infrastructure” that forests deliver to society on a daily basis generates no economic return for the forests or the people who own them.

Instead, the burden of economic return falls to the tangible products forests provide – everyday items that make our lives more comfortable, such as household paper products and lumber to build or improve our homes. This is a crucial point and often missing from the discussions about the non-revenue generating value that forests provide.

Over half of the forests in the Unites States are privately owned, a majority of them by small landowners who maintain those acres as forests in order to provide for their families. While generations of family forests owners have been proud to provide all of us with “green infrastructure” free of charge, without opportunities for an economic return, the maintaining those acres as forest becomes more difficult.

The good news is forest inventories in the United States, and their contributions to the natural water cycle, have been stable for over a century. This stability is the result of growing and diverse markets for wood and wood fiber -- a distinction often overlooked or lost in our increasingly noisy social media landscape.

Private forest landowners plant 4 million trees per day, or 2.5 billion every year. These trees are not planted because forest landowners are being paid for the water filtration services they will provide. They are planted because of their value in other markets, and the environmental services they provide are a free benefit to society.  In this way, forest products markets are the unsung heroes in the natural water cycle and so as we celebrate International Forests Day and World Water Day, they should be recognized for their oft forgotten contribution to global clean water inventories.