How the Earth Can Recover from Human-induced Land Transformation


By Paul Robbins, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

Large areas of the Earth’s surface have been transformed, and the main drivers of changestate settlement, resource policies, global integration of markets, frontier migration of settlers, consumer demand for products worldwidecontinue unabated, which would give you enough reasons to be concerned. But all hope is not lost. Not all land transformations are one way.

Forest growing after being cleared
Evidence shows that forests can grow again after land transformation has happened. (Image: Dietrich Leppert/Shutterstock)

Forests Always Win 

Evidence from around the world suggests that some areas that were once deforested have, over time, shifted back into forest cover. We may be able to recover or create land covers we’ve previously destroyed and transformed. And this shouldn’t be entirely surprising. 

Walking in the Massachusetts woods, I came across a stone wall, the product of some farmer clearing the rocks out of his land hundreds of years before, and making a cleared field and a big, bounded pasture in the process. Now, this wall is surrounded by thick forest growth. So, what happened?

Trail leading through the woods in Massachusetts
Factors such as rural to urban migration helped Massachusetts’s forests grow back over time. (Image: L.A. Nature Graphics/Shutterstock)

First, the viability of farming on difficult Massachusetts soils made farming uncompetitive there, especially as new, more productive land was cleared in the Midwest. Second, a massive migration of people from the New England countryside to the cities during the industrial revolution occurred in the early 1800s, further encouraging land abandonment. 

So, uncompetitive farming in Massachusetts moving west of the Midwest, and the settlement of people in the cities leads to the opportunity for forests to sprout out of what had been pasture and agricultural land. And all of this together allowed Massachusetts to slowly return to forest on its own.

Recovery Periods Lasting Centuries

Forests now cover approximately 60 percent of the state, and it’s not without new risks from other threats, including suburban development and invasive species, and the forests are not safe for all the time. But nevertheless, Massachusetts is a dramatically wooded environment relative to the landscape of pasture and farm that had dominated there 150 years ago, in any case.

And recoveries like these aren’t unique to North America. Europe lost more than 30 million hectares of forest between 1700 and 1950, only to see this rebound dramatically in the years since, recovering about half of the forest cover that was lost.

It would seem that countries throughout the world have reached a turning point, where forests recover more quickly than they’re lost. Costa Rica has likewise witnessed a recent expansion of its forests after reaching a nadir, a low point, of around 30 percent forest cover.

This article comes directly from content in the video series Understanding Cultural and Human Geography. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Forest Transition: Land Transformation Reversed

There are many common drivers of this turnaround, which geographers refer to as a forest transition. First, rural to urban migration and declining population growth simply leave too few people in the countryside to work the land, and this results in land abandonment, abandonment of farms, and the slow, natural return of forests.

Government policies in many cases can also strongly encourage forest recovery. Forest protection policies worldwide have had some impact, most typically where some kind of economic transition is already occurring. The creation of the U.S. Forest Service around the turn of the 20th century, for example, represented a huge and important intervention. 

Designed originally to maximize economic forest production, the Forest Service also helped design methods for replanting and re-growing forests to sustain the industry. The boon in forest industries throughout the 20th century also created incentives for new forest plantations, especially in the southeastern part of the United States, which is now one of the biggest areas of timber production in the country. It’s a region where a major forestry industry still thrives today.

The Role of International Policies

It’s also possible that international policies might have some positive impact. The UN-REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is an international policy that would actually allow wealthy countries to pay poorer countries if they avoid deforestation. 

Sad brown bear in the middle of a forest with a few trees cut
It’s better to stop deforestation from happening since if a species is lost, there’s no way of getting it back. (Image: WildMedia/Shutterstock)

This would head off deforestation in places where it hasn’t significantly occurred yet at all, places like Gabon and Suriname, where we might predict very soon there will be deforestation. But if we can in front of it, that decreases that possibility.

Needless to say, a policy like that does not rule out the possibility that forest extraction will simply move around to other parts of the world not engaged in REDD programs, but, this innovation does create new incentives to keep forests on the land. Either way, it’s increasingly evident that forest loss isn’t inevitable. Some kind of forest recovery is sometimes possible.

To be clear, of course, landscapes that emerge through forest transition may not be ecologically similar to those that were lost in the first place. So we can deforest a region, lose a great deal of biodiversity, and come back and allow it to recover without necessarily getting new species coming back that were the same as the ones that preceded. They may be less diverse. And they can certainly never reverse species extinction. Once you lose a species, you can never get it back.

Common Questions about How the Earth’s Surface Can Recover from Human-induced Land Transformation

Q: Why is Massachusetts a dramatically wooded environment now compared to 150 years ago?

As more productive land was cleared in the Midwest, the viability of farming on Massachusetts’s difficult soil made farming an uncompetitive business in that region. Large migrations of people to urban areas also left lots of land abandoned. All of this came together to slowly reverse the land transformation that humans had induced there.

Q: What do geographers call a forest transition?

Geographers refer to turnarounds in forest cover growth after a period of decline as a forest transition. For example, forest transition has happened because of people migrating from rural regions to urban areas and abandoning the land and a decline in population growth. This phenomenon has also happened in Europe and North America, where land transformation had destroyed forests in the past.

Q: If forests in a certain region reappear after deforestation has happened, will the new area be the same ecologically?

Not necessarily. Though land transformation such as deforestation can be reversed and is being reversed around the world, the species that live in the forest may not be as diverse as before.

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