Forest-to-Faucet Partnership: University of Massachusetts Amherst/U.S. Forest Service

People are a Forest-Dependent Species

The term "forest dependent species" is usually applied to plants or animals with specialized, obligate habitat requirements (e.g., the Hermit thrush, fisher, beaver, etc). There are, for example, more than 1,000 reservoirs and river intakes in New England, New Jersey, and New York that collectively supply 25,000,000 people with drinking water. The rest of the region's population is supplied by municipal wells in small towns and villages or household wells. In virtually every system, large or small, the faucet is ultimately connected to a forest. Although our demand for wood fiber can be met by forests in other parts of the U.S., Canada, and around the world, our forests must supply our water …in perpetuity. This underscores the importance of forest conservation to maintain or enhance water resources and many other benefits and values—wildlife habitat, biological diversity, recreation, wood and other forest products, and aesthetics.

Concerted efforts in forest conservation in the United States began in the early-1900s when the connections between forests, water, and people became plainly evident. Exploitive logging practices, widespread conversion of forests to marginal agricultural use, drastic modifications of streams and rivers, and unchecked water pollution caused serious and costly ecological and public health problems. The loss of forests and degradation of water resources and aquatic ecosystems affected people's lives in substantial and pervasive ways. In retrospect, the societal response to these challenges — in both scope and pace — was nothing short of remarkable. In a few decades, reforestation, erosion control, and water pollution control efforts by state and federal agencies and private landowners led to substantial improvements in forest health, streamflow regimes, and water quality. Economic and social changes contributed to this rapid turnaround.

Raphael Zon
Raphael Zon, circa 1910
U.S. Forest Service file photo

In 1911, at the height of the contentious Weeks Act debate to authorize the establishment of National Forests in the eastern U.S., a young Russian émigré and U.S. Forest Service scientist, Raphael Zon, made this timeless observation …“A national policy which, though considering the direct value of forests as a source of timber, fails to take full account also of their influence upon erosion, the flow of streams, and climate, may easily endanger the well-being of the whole people.”

Forests, water, and people — a new century of challenges and opportunities

At the beginning of the 21st Century we face a new suite of challenges—population growth, urban sprawl and forest conversion, atmospheric deposition, climate change, invasive species, loss of biological diversity, and many conflicting demands placed on forest lands. In some respects these challenges are more daunting and complex than the reforestation and soil erosion problems of the early-1900s.

The emigration of people from rural to urban areas and consequent increases in the area and physical stature of forests during the first half of the 20th century, largely the result of agricultural abandonment, have contributed to the illusion that we are "better off" than in the early-1900s. In fact, increases in population and per capita consumption (of water, wood, and energy) have outpaced increases in forested area. Simply put, in many parts of the United States there are more people per square mile of forest today than there were in 1900.

Table 1

Furthermore, the conversion of forests to residential and commercial land use, coupled with population increases, is repeating a trend last recorded in the 1800s when forests were cleared for agriculture. In contrast to marginal agricultural land in the late-1800s and early-1900s, it is likely that forest land that has been converted to residential and commercial uses has been changed permanently. Therefore, how we guide, manage and ameliorate these changes will have a lasting impact on environmental quality and quality of life.

Urban and suburban residents typically rely on municipal water supply, wastewater treatment, and solid waste management systems as well as sources of energy and natural resources that are often geographically remote and disconnected from their everyday life. (In the early-1900s, water supply engineers and planners deliberately sought "source isolation" by building reservoirs in once remote forested areas.) Hence, in many locales these essential systems and services are "out of sight and out of mind" until adverse cumulative effects, unintended consequences, and chronic ecological stresses lead to costly, sometimes intractable problems. When this happens, pollution mitigation and ecosystem restoration are the only viable management alternatives. If, however, watershed forest managers, policy makers, and the public become aware of more cost-effective and productive ways of avoiding or minimizing environmental problems in a changing forest landscape (when there is still sufficient time for design and implementation) these alternatives usually enjoy broad-based support. Local communities and non-governmental organizations (...ranging from recreational user groups and local land trusts to international conservation and certification consortia) have a particularly important role as agents of change.

Although the Conservation Movement of the early-1900s is often regarded as brainchild of few progressive leaders (e.g., President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, John Weeks, and others), it was as much a "bottom-up" phenomena based on individual, local, and regional efforts as it was a grand "top-down" plan (Judd 1999). More recently the notable success of solid waste recycling and water and energy conservation programs clearly demonstrates that individuals, organizations, and communities can change their "ecological footprint." The Forest-to-Faucet Partnership is working to extend this conservation ethic to the forest ecosystems and water resources upon which we all depend.