THE IMPORTANCE OF WILD SPACES
How much is a patch of forest worth? How much is a wetland worth? If you do not think that wild spaces are essential to the well being of humanity, then the burning of a forest to create cow pasture or the draining of a wetland to construct a mall might seem as more profitable uses of the land. You might also think that the loss of wild spaces in distant countries, particularly those of developing nations in the tropics, has little impact on the quality of your life.
If we are going to measure value, there are a number of questions which should then be asked. What is the value of the oxygen you breathe? What is the value of the wild spaces which determine local weather patterns? What would be the cost of accelerated global warming which would result in stronger and more frequent hurricanes, more frequent episodes of extreme weather which would impact cropland and human communities, and rising sea levels which may ultimately force millions of people to move? What is the value of a wetland which prevents downstream regions from flooding after a heavy storm? What is the value of a forest hundreds to thousands of miles away if you consider that some of the wildlife you hope to see next summer must spend its winter there? If you honestly consider all of the contributions that wild spaces make to maintaining the quality of your life, you might actually conclude that keeping a forest or a wetland in its natural state is a more profitable use of the land than turning it into cow pasture or a mall.
LIVING THINGS DEPEND ON ONE ANOTHER
Living things do not exist in isolation and many of the inter-relationships which exist between organisms are profound. For example, the organic carbon molecules that compose the bodies of animals and the oxygen animals breathe originated from plants performing photosynthesis.
About 30% of the earth’s land surface (3592 million hectares) is forested. The wild spaces of the earth exert both a local and a global influence on climate. Plants take carbon dioxide from the air which helps to protect the earth from climate change caused by global warming. The water which leaves plants through transpiration helps to determine the amount of rainfall the area receives.
Although an area which has been deforested does contains plants (often the grass of cow pastures in the deforested lands in the images from South America below), the area will neither be able to absorb as much carbon dioxide nor produce as water as a mature forest. Local climate can change and deforestation is a contributing factor to the problem of global warming.
Between 2000 and 2005, deforestation resulted in the lost of 7.3 million hectares per year (which is a decrease from the 8.9 million hectare per year loss during the period of 1990-2000). South America and Africa represent the greatest sites of deforestation. Between 2000 and 2005, South America deforested 4.4 million hectares per year and Africa deforested 4.0 million hectares per year. North America and Central America deforested 0.3 million hectares (with the greatest loss in Central America) and Oceana deforested 0.4 million hectares during this period. The amount of forest increased in Asia (by one million hectares) and Europe (by 0.7 million hectares) during this period (IPCC, Document III, 2007).
As of 2007, the greatest source of carbon dioxide emissions and the most rapidly increasing source was the generation of electricity. After electrical supply, the next three greatest sources of carbon dioxide were deforestation, industry, and road transport, in that order. Deforestation is responsible for carbon dioxide emissions which are 11 to 28% the amount produced by fossil fuel combustion (IPCC, Document III, 2007).
Global warming will change rainfall patterns and increase the number of severe storms. The frequency of severe storms has been increasing and many areas of the U.S., such as the eastern states, has received an increased amount of rainfall (Blatt, 2005). An increase in the number and severity of floods are expected. Many areas of the Northeast United States have experienced record flooding in recent years. By the end of the 21st century, the rise in sea level is expected to impact the lives of millions of people. In the 21st century, the global temperature is predicted to increase between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees Celsius which would increase sea level somewhere between 9 and 88 centimeters (IPCC, 2001). An increase of 25 cm would have serious consequences on the delta regions of the Nile, Ganges, and Yangtze Rivers and would require the evacuation of many small island nations of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. A one meter rise in sea level increase would flood many coastal areas, such as the beaches of the eastern United States. Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina would be most affected; the Louisiana coast could lie 30 miles inland of its present location. A number of cities such as Venice, Bangkok, and Taipei would be threatened. Eighty percent of the Marshall Islands would be underwater. A one meter increase would flood up to 15% of the arable land in Egypt, 11% of the land of Bangladesh (where the floods of 1987-8 displaced millions of people), and require the raising of most of Miami's bridges and reconstruction costs to 1/3 of Miami's area. More than 100 million people would be displaced. Some coastal areas depend on underground freshwater aquifers (such Miami) which would be threatened by saltwater intrusion (IPCC, 1990; Mizra, 2002).
PROTECTION FROM FLOODING
Considerable amounts of water can be held in the wetlands of the earth. In an area which contains wetlands, the water from a heavy rain does not rush suddenly into surrounding areas and water levels change gradually. The following images depict a wetland after a heavy rain. If this wetland were developed commercially, all of this water would rush downstream quickly after a storm and downstream areas would be much more likely to flood.
In the U.S., flooding causes $6 billion in damages annually. The floods throughout the Midwest in the summer of 1993 cost $16 billion in damages. During this time the Mississippi (pictured below) rose 46 feet over its normal level and three feet over its record level (Blatt, 2005).
HABITATS FOR WILDLIFE
The great diversity of life that exists on earth depends on diverse habitats. About half of all species of life on earth inhabit tropical rainforests.
In addition to the animals which inhabit an area year-round, many parts of the world are critical for migratory paths. For example, many of the birds that inhabit North America during the summer inhabit Latin American tropical and subtropical forests during the winter. The birds returning to Canada for the summer rely on wild spaces in the United States during their migration. Deforestation and the destruction of wetlands hundreds and even thousands of miles away from an area can decrease the number and diversity of summer birds.
How much is this
wetland worth? It would be impossible to consider its worth
without taking into consideration its importance for the migrant birds
which breed in northern areas. Migrating
birds could not reach their final destinations without areas in which
they can stop and feed along the way.
Given the importance of
Of course, most
of our summer birds migrate as well—some to the