This August, as I went outside to walk the dog, my throat got tight, my eyes began to itch and I started to have trouble breathing. Smoke and ash had descended on Portland, making me feel like I was living inside a campfire. This summer, someone decided it would be fun to light off a firework in the middle of the Columbia Gorge – one of the most beautiful scenic areas in the Pacific Northwest. The forest was dry, thanks to another hot summer (we seem to be having a lot of those….). The fire from the smoldering firework eventually burned over 48,000 acres of forest in the Gorge, including forested areas by Multnomah Falls and my favorite hike along Eagle Creek.
The Columbia Gorge fire was just one of many wildfires throughout the West Coast this summer that destroyed trees, homes and in a few cases, killed people. As this summer of fire unfolded, it made me think more about forests—how connected we are to them and how surprisingly vulnerable these large communities of trees really are.
Forests are incredibly important to life on this planet. They produce oxygen, hold 45% of the earth’s terrestrial carbon, provide habitat for as much as 80% of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity and offer us many products such as wood, paper, rubber, fruit, cinnamon and chocolate. While from a distance, they may look like stable places, forests are actually incredibly dynamic and changing. Different tree species compete for space, sunlight and nutrients creating a multi-layered environment – one that provides an ideal habitat for a wide variety of living creatures. The largest, most complex forests, such as those in Africa and South America, have entire communities of animals that never touch the ground and single trees that host thousands of species.
Forests are valuable to God as well. A quick read through the Old Testament shows that trees and forests were very important to people in the ancient Near East. God gave them trees as a valuable source of food (Genesis 2:16, Leviticus 26:4). The first sin was taking something from the wrong tree (Genesis 3). God instructed the Israelites to build His ark and tabernacle out of wood (Exodus 26). The cedars of Lebanon that Solomon used to build his temple represented the wealth of Tyre and helped to connect that nation to the kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 5) and instructed the Israelites to not destroy fruit trees when they lay siege to enemy cities (Deuteronomy 20:19). Beyond providing products, forests serve other purposes in God’s creation. They are homes for wild animals (Joel 2:22) and most importantly, they bring glory to God as they “sing” to their Creator (1 Chronicles 16:33, Psalm 96:12).
Humans have used trees for millennia, but in the last few hundred years the pace of forest removal has dramatically increased. In Western Europe, most large forested areas were cleared by the 1700s. Through the 1700s and 1800s, the United States harvested nearly two thirds of its old growth forests. Much of America’s early economy was built by harvesting trees and clearing of land for agriculture. This changed entire ecosystems and forced many forest dwelling animals like wolves, moose and lynx out of large parts of their original habitat.
Today a similar story can be found in the rainforests of the developing world. Countries throughout Latin America, Africa and SE Asia are cutting down forests at a rate of 70 square miles per day. While some of this can be simply attributed to population growth, often forests are being destroyed to meet consumer demand from wealthier nations. Tropical hardwoods are harvested and sent to be processed into furniture and other goods sold in the US, Europe or China. Rare metals such as coltan, critical for today’s electronic gadgets, are mined in remote forested regions of Africa. As mining and logging roads are put in, locals looking for cheap land follow the loggers and set up illegal farms, sometimes in the middle of national forests and parks. This leads to increased habitat loss and the poaching of local wildlife, including chimpanzees and gorillas that rely on old growth rainforest for food and shelter.
One of the fastest growing drivers of rainforest loss is palm oil – a versatile product used all over the world in thousands of products from makeup to candy bars. Palm oil is obtained from the fruit of oil palm trees which are grown in large monoculture plantations often created by removing primary forests. The subsequent destruction forces out orangutans, sun bears, clouded leopards, elephants and many other species who can’t live well in the new plantations.
As Christians, how should we respond? God clearly intended for humans to use trees to help meet our needs. Yet some of the ways we use forests eliminate so many trees that we impact these forests’ ability to provide for people and wildlife in the ways God intended. How do we know when we’ve gone too far?
God calls us to be good stewards of all the resources he has given us—including trees. When we choose to make or purchase something made of wood we should ask ourselves if it is a “wise use” of God’s gift of a tree. Building a home, for instance, from trees grown in sustainably managed forests could be a wise use, but toilet papering your neighbor’s house, while funny, may not be the best use of this God-given resource.
We also must not, through ignorance, abdicate our responsibility to be good stewards. Frankly, most U.S. consumers (and most Christians) have no clue where their wood, paper and other forest products come from or how they are produced. We turn a blind eye to the fact that our consumer habits are driving excessive forest loss around the world.
No, God won’t allow us to get away with pretending our consumer habits don’t have consequences any more than he let the lazy servant in the parable of talents get away with burying the resources entrusted to him, (Matthew 25). God has given us the precious gift of His forests, the lungs of His creation, the cradle of millions of living creatures. Should He return to find a barren treeless land, soil eroding away, devoid of life, I believe we can expect to hear the same words from Him that the wicked servant did.
Take some time this week to look around your house and grocery cart and think about where the items come from. Is the paper in your home printer “Forest Stewardship Council” certified? Do you know whether the company that produces the cosmetics you use is a member of the “Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil”? Should you buy the table made from local hardwood like oak and pine or a rare tropical hardwood like mahogany or teak? Do you really need to rush out and get the latest iPhone or could you defer the purchase for another year? How you answer these types of questions can help you become a better steward of God’s forests.
While cleaning ash from the Columbia Gorge fire out of my gutters this summer I learned that forests are surprisingly fragile. We must work together to care for them so that they can continue to care for us and for the wildlife that depends on them. Their song must not be allowed to disappear from the creation chorus!
Grant Spickelmier is the education curator at the Oregon Zoo and head of the Education division. Grant has worked for over 20 years in the field of conservation education inspiring individual and community action to protect threatened wildlife. A lifelong Christian, Grant is interested in helping followers of Jesus rediscover their God given role as stewards of creation. Grant holds B.A. degrees in both Biology and Education and a M.S. in Conservation Biology from the University of Minnesota. Grant is a member of Village Baptist Church in Beaverton, Oregon.