Tale of the Trees

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

– Dr. Suess, The Lorax

My son decided that this imaginative play structure at the Franconia Sculpture Garden looked just like the "Onceler's House."
My son decided that this imaginative play structure at the Franconia Sculpture Garden looked just like the “Onceler’s House.”

Stomping angrily around the room, my three-year old looked up at me. “If someone tries to cut down a tree,” he declared, “I will tell them ‘No! Trees are good. They give us oxygen.’ Someone who cuts down a tree…I will NOT be their friend.” He had just read Dr. Suess’s The Lorax earlier that day with my mom, then twice again with me that night, and his sense of justice was righteous. I tried to tell him that we do sometimes have to cut down trees – to build houses like ours or make paper for books – and that the important thing is to take good care of our forests so that trees regrow and animals can still live there. Unimpressed, he insisted, “I am going to plant a tree. And tell everyone else not to cut them down.”

By chance, the arrival of The Lorax in our house happened to coincide with me reading Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond, which is more or less a longer, more complicated and more depressing, adult version of The Lorax. After detailing the rise and fall of nearly a dozen human societies – Easter Island, Greenland Norse, Anasazi – he comes to the conclusion that deforestation was either the primary cause, or a strong contributing factor to every one of the doomed society’s eventual collapse. In modern times, countries like Haiti bear witness to the devastating impacts of deforestation.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, more than 50% of our nation’s freshwater supply originates in forests. Forested watersheds reduce stormwater runoff, stabilize streambanks, shade surface water, cycle nutrients, and filter pollutants. Some scientists predict that forests will become even more critical in the future. In a technical paper for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of researchers argue that, “Forests are key determinants of water supply, quality, and quantity, in both developing and developed countries. The importance of forests as watersheds may increase substantially in the next few decades, as freshwater resources become increasingly scarce (Bates et al., 2008, Climate Change and Water).”

In addition to supplying us humans with drinking water and recreation opportunities, rivers, lakes and streams within forests provide habitat for plants and wildlife as well, including many rare and endangered species. We may not have Brown Bar-ba-loots or Swomee-Swans in Minnesota, but we do have eastern spotted skunks (also known as civet cats) and cerulean warblers, both of which are forest-dependent species of special concern that live right here in Washington County.

Forests protect the health of the St. Croix River.
Forests protect the health of the St. Croix River.

Though the St. Croix River Basin still contains many healthy forests in its northern reaches, local scientists know that we have lost many acres of forest since pre-settlement times; added together the amount of forestland lost comprises 20% of the 7,700 square mile basin. One of the resulting impacts of this change has been a decline in water quality in the St. Croix River as excess nutrients and sediment in the water cause more frequent algae blooms and poorer habitat for aquatic life. According to the St. Croix River Basin – State of the Forest Report, “As human expansion has pushed upstream, change from low phosphorus export cover types such as forest, shrub, and grassland to high phosphorus export cover types such as cultivated crops and developed land has been the result… Failure to preserve these low phosphorus export land cover types could mean failure to meet water quality goals in the SCRB (US Forest Service, 2013).”

For children like mine, inspired by the tale of The Lorax, it turns out that there is an entire website full of activities and extensions at www.seussville.com/loraxproject. For adults, useful resources include My Minnesota Woods, a service of the University of Minnesota, or the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Additionally, Washington County landowners can schedule a free site visit with the Washington Conservation District to get advice about managing their woodland habitat, and the Conservation District offers a low-cost tree sale every year in the spring.

In the words of Dr. Seuss, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”