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How Non-Green Cities Are Rebuilding the American Forests

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How Non-Green Cities Are Rebuilding the American Forests

December 29, 1999
Energy & EnvironmentOther

Anti-sprawl activists hide the resurgence of the continent’s woodlands.

For the United States as a whole, wealth and city overtook poverty and country some time around 1920. Until then, the effects of immigration, increasing life span and rising demand for food outweighed the effects of rising agricultural productivity and declining fertility. As a result, forests contracted.

Around 1920, however, the balance shifted, and forests began to expand once again.The upshot has been a truly remarkable, if little noted, environmental reversal: the steadyreforestation of the North American continent.

When Europeans first arrived—after millenniums of deforestation by fire, promoted by

American Indians—the area now represented by the lower 48 United States had about 950 million acres of forest. That area shrank steadily until about 1920, to a low of 600 million acres. It has been rising ever since. Just how fast is hard to pin down; the continent is large, most of the land is privately owned and definitional debates rage. Yet all analyses show more, not less, forest land in the U.S. And all agree that about 80 million more acres of cropland were harvested 60 years ago than are harvested today. Most of this land is on its way to being reforested too. At least 10 million acres have been reforested since 1987 alone. Thus, for the first time in history, a Western nation has halted and is now rapidly reversing the decline of its woodlands.

Why do so many of us believe just the opposite? We’ve been spun.

Green activists and their political friends publicize only half of the environmental ledger and play a shell game with definitions. They’re engaged in a great, green fraud. The anti-sprawl activists often count as developed land about 90 million acres of farmsteads, field windbreaks, barren land and marshland. This rural land has nothing to do with any reasonable definition of urban sprawl or even of development. Yet the activists need these 90 million acres because, if they admitted that cities and their suburbs covered only a tiny 3% of the continental U.S., who could take their fear of sprawl seriously? That extra 90 million acres makes it seem as if the sprawling cities cover 150 million acres, more than double the real number. This begins to sound like quite a lot, though it is still only 8% of the 48 contiguous states.

“The city” itself is all the more kind to the environment because it has so completely rejected the policies that the green establishment holds dearest. It shuns renewables. The city isn’t animal or vegetable; it’s mineral. Start with construction. The city certainly favors nonrenewable resources here, and about that, at least, the green establishment remains silent, as it should. The U.S. now harvests about 240 million tons of wood each year, almost all of it for construction. The city, however, prefers to build with the three-dimensional resources, steel and concrete. Those materials can hold up a skyscraper; renewable wood can’t.

The way we build things now, a comparatively tiny area of land yields--from far beneath its surface—all the mineral resources that it takes to build a city. You can’t get any greener than that. The energy picture looks much the same. There’s no way the city could ever adopt the green establishment’s “renewable” path to energy. Live on a good-size spread in the country and harvest it aggressively, and you can plausibly imagine living off the renewable sources of energy the greens so strongly favor. Live in the city, and you can’t, not on your own acres. You have no acres. Nevertheless, you have tremendous energy efficiency when your energy comes from an oil well and refinery and gets delivered by tanker. The supplies are highly concentrated to begin with, and it takes relatively little energy to deliver them to a highly concentrated point of use, like a city.

Cities have become environment-friendly by rejecting the greens’ food policies too—the policies that emphasize organic farming, free of bioengineered seeds, man-made fertilizers and pesticides. When food is grown or raised in the agricultural counterpart to the oil well—the mammoth factory farm, outfitted with every high-tech innovation—it takes relatively little land to produce it in the first place, and it takes little additional energy to deliver it to the tightly packed city. The city is green not only because its residents occupy little land, but because its non-green sources of building materials, fuel and food—and their delivery systems—can be frugal with land too.

By building the city up out of nonrenewable resources, by heating and lighting it with nonrenewable fuels and by feeding it with non-organic foods preserved with chemicals or plastic packaging, the city returns acre upon acre of land in the country to wilderness, the greenest accomplishment of all. Nature has enormous power to cleanse and restore; freeing up 95 million acres to be reclaimed by watershed and forest has surely done more to clean water and protect birds than the curtailing of pesticides ever achieved.