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Forests and the Environment

image of stream through a forest
Forests provide critical ecosystem
services such as clean water

New York is one of the most heavily forested states in the Northeast. Nearly 63% of the State, about 18.9 million acres, is now forest land. It wasn't always so; at the end of the 19th century, forested land had shrunk to less than 25% primarily from expansion of agriculture and, to some degree, over-logging. Yet today New York has more forest than it has had in the past 150 years. New Yorkers enjoy many benefits from this forested land, benefits which have improved the lives of all residents, even those living in cities far away from large tracts of forests. These benefits, collectively known as ecosystem services, include clean water and clean air, fish and wildlife habitat, flood protection, open space and reduction of greenhouse gases. Other forest benefits include recreational opportunities, scenic beauty and economic benefits from forest products.

chart showing change in New York's forest land area as described in the text under the enlarged image
Changes in New York's Forest Land Area
Click here to view enlarged chart

The history of New York's forests is intertwined with the social and economic history of the State. Forests were viewed as an inexhaustible resource until the late 19th century when people realized that there would be a lumber shortage if unregulated logging continued. The recognition of forests as a limited resource that needed to be managed for future sustainability was the beginning of the modern conservation movement. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot were among the leaders of the new ethic and started land use practices that we take for granted today, such as conserving open space and restoring forest land.

cross country ski trail through a forest
Beginning in the 1930's millions of
trees were planted in State
Reforestation Areas by the
Department of Environmental
Conservation and the CCC
photo courtesy of Susan L. Shafer

With the advent of scientific forest management and the planting of millions of trees, the State's battered forest lands began to recover. In the 1930s, years of drought resulted in the national climate crisis known as the dustbowl - which coincided with the Great Depression. Even in New York, farms failed from drought, and millions of agricultural acres were abandoned. Some of this land was so poor that literally nothing could grow on it. Many of these abandoned farms, once little more than windblown sand, are now thickly wooded State Forests, transformed by the State Conservation Department (now the Department of Environmental Conservation) and the tree-planting of Franklin D. Roosevelt's remarkable program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which provided employment for millions of young men during the Depression.

person hugging a tree in the forest
Trees fulfill many physical, economic
and emotional needs
photo courtesy of Susan L. Shafer

Today, New York faces the challenges of a changing climate that could have far greater impacts than the 1930s drought. Forests, including urban forests, provide front-line defenses against the many impacts of global warming. Urban trees help shade and cool cities where heat builds up, saving energy that would otherwise be used for air-conditioning. Forests act as sponges during storms; they absorb rainfall and reduce flooding. Trees work as filters to clean the air we breathe; they catch and remove airborne particulate matter which causes respiratory irritation and illness. Trees use carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and give off oxygen, an element essential for animal life. And, in an increasingly technological society, forests can help us reconnect to the natural world. Even a short walk in a forest can be restorative. In the shade of a forest, surrounded by trees and green foliage, we can feel the calming and renewing effect of the natural environment around us.

"The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value." -- Theodore Roosevelt


More about Forests and the Environment: