Future of the Americas’ Threatened Forests

A new study led by scientists from NatureServe network programs assessing the state of forests in the Americas found that even in areas as remote as the Amazon, little forest remains unthreatened by human activity. Although the cumulative impact of timber extraction, poaching, wildlife trade, and agricultural expansion compounded by climate change is vast and devastating, the study provides a clear path forward for countries to reverse this disheartening trend. There is still a short window of time remaining to change the fate of the forests we rely on.

Deforestation in Santa Cruz, Bolivia from 2001 (left) to 2015 (right). Source: Google Maps

Tropical and temperate forests, the types analyzed in the study, are rich in value both tangible and intangible. Not only do they host an immense share of terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, they also play a critical role in global climate regulation and provide indispensable services to humans by affording us medicinal, commercial, and cultural resources, and perhaps most importantly, clean water. These forests are at risk, and losing the services they provide is not a tenable option.

Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio is an Associate Researcher of Bolivia’s National Herbarium Associate, Vice President at EcoHealth Alliance, and a NatureServe Board Member.The study, published in the journal Conservation Letters, found that 80% of forest types evaluated and 85% of current forest area in the Western Hemisphere are threatened. “It was our intention to provide a realistic picture of the serious threat the Western Hemisphere faces,” said Dr. Carlos Zambrana-Torrelio, a co-author of the paper and a NatureServe board member. In light of the daunting findings, the paper offers strategies and solutions forward. “While the threat of deforestation is clear and present,” Dr. Zambrana-Torrelio adds, “it’s often more difficult to conceptualize an effective solution. This analysis—the first of its kind—will provide governments and other stakeholders with clear guidance as to where to focus their efforts.”

The study used an unparalleled dataset, an international ecosystem classification developed by NatureServe ecologists, to categorize forests across the Americas. Using NatureServe’s baseline classification standard not only allowed an evaluation of all forest ecosystems in the hemisphere, but also enabled researchers to compare trends over time and across ecosystem, political, and geographic boundaries. With this dataset, the team then used the flagship Red List of Ecosystems criteria developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and partners including NatureServe to assess risks and threats to forest types. Having identified the ecosystems most at risk, the study proposes national investment strategies for forest conservation, reforestation, and restoration that focus on the most critical and cost-effective measures.

This map shows the optimal combination of conservation strategies for each country analyzed in the paper. Source: Conservation LettersContinental-scale studies like this one demonstrate that the NatureServe network is uniquely well positioned to lead the future of strategic conservation in the Americas. Dr. Miguel Fernandez, Director of NatureServe’s Latin America and the Caribbean Programs, believes this groundbreaking study will pave the way for national initiatives to define conservation priorities. “This is just the beginning. With the continental-scale groundwork laid, we now call on national initiatives to conduct risk assessments at the country level. NatureServe scientists and the research team behind this study are fully available to guide and assist in that process.” The ecosystem classification data are freely available and cover many terrestrial ecosystem types beyond forests.

Contact NatureServe to access the data and learn more.

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