SANTA FE, N.M. — There are about a trillion trees on Earth and they cover 30% of the world’s land. We know this because we have counted them using satellite technology.
Researchers believe the Earth used to have 3 trillion trees. Tom Crowther of the Swiss University ETH in Zurich led much of this research. He believes there is room for another trillion.
We have a net loss of over 10 billion trees a year. Crowther’s research is based on measurement of tree cover and was assisted by hundreds of people using 80,000 high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth combined with AI computing of key soil topography and climate factors to map where trees could grow. The team identified areas not currently used for agriculture and not already forested. The world’s six biggest countries: Russia, Canada, China, the United States and Brazil, have the most potential as forest restoration sites.
We lose about 1,729,376 acres of forest a year in the U.S. That was before the recent fires and the western mega-drought. We plant about 1.6 billion trees a year, but half are planted in plantations by forest product companies. In contrast, other countries are way ahead of us. The Bonn Challenge was backed by some 48 nations and plans to restore some 864 million acres of deforested land by 2030, and billions of new trees are re-greening parts of the planet.
We know that re-greening the planet can reduce emissions. Trees alone in the U.S. cut our annual emissions by 11-13%. But we have multiple complex problems that tree-planting alone will not solve, especially here in the West. Many of our forests are overgrown and disease ridden. Climate change means that hotter and more arid conditions may be the norm in the West. Our wet cycles will be shorter and less moist.
The fierce fires that tore through New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains in the late 1990s wiped out a lot of seeds. The continual drought has made it harder for seedlings to grow and forests to regenerate. Instead, some former forest land is filled with grass and shrubs, such as locust. Forest Service ecologist, Sean Parks, says, “in some cases, we are seeing recovery back to the pre-fire forest conditions. But, in some cases, we are not.” After touring the Jemez burn area, he recalled his surprise. “I’d be, like, are you sure there was a forest here before. Because there is no evidence of it.”
Sofia Jeremias writing for deseret.com cited research that estimated that the Southwest will lose 30% of its forests due to wildfire-induced conversion.
There are some 200,000 square miles of land in the U.S. that could be reforested, but we do not have enough seedlings to make a dent in that goal.
Owen Burney, an associate professor at the Forestry Research Center in Mora, says, “We are at a pivotal moment in time where we can make a huge impact on the battle against climate change. Sadly, the greatest tool we have to fight this battle is incomplete.”
Burney runs a nursery that produces seedlings. He can grow up to 300,000 a year, “which is nothing,” he says. “That hardly covers 2000 acres.” Burney estimates a billion seedlings would be needed to reforest the four million acres recently lost in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado. Seedling production nationally would need to increase by 250-300% to even begin to reforest the U.S.
While we may not be able to save all of our amazing Southwest forests, or meet our nation’s reforestation potential any time soon, we can save individual trees, especially those in urban areas. Several initiatives may help. Santa Fe County is installing straw-filled tubes near some piñons to catch and hold run-off … if there is any run-off, that is. Arborists suggest techniques for aerating soil around roots. Santa Fe has announced the TreeSmart Santa Fe initiative. The Santa Fe Municipal Tree Board works with Master Gardeners and forestry specialists to improve the health and care of the city’s trees. The Town of Taos recently completed a comprehensive plan to sustain and maintain the community’s urban forests.
What about your backyard? Most of us have a tree or two. We have a responsibility, especially in a dry year, to keep our trees healthy. They need water all year long, not just in a drought. You can find guidelines for how often and how much in “A Waterwise Guide to Trees,” available from the state Office of the State Engineer – https://www.ose.state.nm.us/WUC/PDF/TreeBrochure.pdf – or contact your state extension office.
Judith Polich, a longtime New Mexico resident, is a retired attorney with a background in environmental studies and a student of climate change. Reach her at: