Forest Restoration

Spring 2014

Toki Oshima illustration.

By Céline Caron

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” – John Muir (Printed on Merve Wilkinson’s in memoriam card)

Jean Giono’s 1953 novel The Man Who Planted Trees continues to inspire people, communities and villages worldwide to reforest degraded lands.

Reforestation projects in Provence and in Canada refer to this book – an appeal to save our ecological heritage.

We can leave no better legacy for future generations than a thriving natural forest and natural ecosystems. A forest renews itself constantly and increases in value over time. An individual, a family or a community can plant trees, reaping benefits for hundreds of years.

We don’t need to suffer from Titanic Syndrome (continuing to dance while the ship sinks) before regenerating our forests. Instead we can follow examples of contemporary heroes – organizations and individuals – who led the way. Here are some of their stories of hope.

The Billion Tree Campaign, originally part of the United Nations Environment Programme and now run by Plant for the Planet Foundation (, was inspired by Giono’s novel and prompted the planting of almost 13 billion trees worldwide. And since 1989, Trees for the Future ( has planted more than 65 million trees in 30 countries and empowered rural groups to restore tree cover to their lands.

John D. Liu, director of the Environmental Education Media Project (, shows in his video “Hope in a Changing Climate” that ecosystem functions in damaged areas can be restored to sequester carbon naturally and to improve the lives of people who have been trapped in poverty for generations. His video depicts large-scale reforestation begun in 1995 on the Loess Plateau, the highland area spanning some 640,000 square km in north central China. Today, a once-degraded ecosystem of more than 35,000 square km there teems with life and supports the sustainable economic, social and agricultural activities of its people. And in “Green Gold,” Liu documents large-scale ecosystem restoration projects in China, Africa, South America and the Middle East that can help resist climate change.

Willie Smits ( has devoted his life to saving the forest habitat of orangutans, the “thinkers of the jungle.” As towns, farms and wars encroach on native forests, Smits works at the intersection of humans, wild animals and the planet to save what is left, believing that, “In nature, animals and people can live together and do not need to exclude one another.” In his early work as a forester in Indonesia, he developed a deep understanding of that triple relationship as he watched the growing Sulawesi population move into the forest homes of orangutans. Trees were burned for fuel, and these intelligent animals were killed for food, traded as pets or failed to thrive in the degraded forests.

Smits believes that rebuilding orangutan populations requires first rebuilding their forest habitat. “A natural forest is multilayered. Both in the ground and above the ground it can make better use of the available light, it can store more carbon in the system, it can provide more functions,” helping local people find options other than the short-term fix of harvesting forests. Since 2001 the land where he has worked in Indonesia has been planted with more than 1 million trees of more than 1,000 species. No simple recipe exists for such restoration. Solutions must support the forest, must be socially accepted and must benefit the local people.

Smits’ Samboja Lestari project addressed the poorest district in East Kalimantan, Borneo, a biological desert where local people spent 22 percent of their income to buy water. Using agroforestry, Smits turned the forest into a rain machine. He says the area has substantially increased cloud cover and has 30 percent more rainfall. Amory Lovins, renewable energy advocate and chief scientist at Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute, called Samboja Lestari possibly “the finest example of ecological and economic restoration in the Tropics.”

Wangari Muta Maathai, who died in 2011, was a planetary visionary affectionately called the “tree woman.” She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 by planting seven trees in Kenya on Earth Day and continued to pair environmental with feminist rights actions. Since 1977, a Kenya-wide women’s movement has planted more than 30 million trees to honor the country’s female environmental leaders.

Donald Leigh Chapple spent the last 12 years of his life reforesting the hillside of Matiatia Bay on Waiheke (in the Pacific Ocean), inspired, it seems, by Elzéard Bouffier, the main character in The Man Who Planted Trees.

Bhausaheb Thorat, a farm leader and legislator in the Indian National Congress, launched a campaign in 2006 to turn a drought-stricken region into a lush forest by planting 45 million seeds and saplings annually in villages 200 km from Mumbai.

Abdul Kareem created a forest out of 35 acres of rock in the Kerala region of India, beginning in the early ‘70s. Water returned in the third year. The biodiverse forest now produces increased water levels in a 19-km area, and once-arid hillsides are now sponges for rainfall, while rabbits, birds, bees and other small animals have returned.

Canadian Merve Wilkinson, who died in 2011, managed a forest for multiple tree ages, heights and species – in sharp contrast to the even-age, industrial model prevailing in British Columbia. “Rows of trees are not forests,” said Wilkinson. “They represent blind stupidity and a one-track mind … The forester has a legitimate role when he’s working with nature. He’s an illegitimate bum when he’s trying to kill nature.” Wilkinson compared raising trees to garnering interest on a bank account without touching the principal – the biomass of roots, trunks, canopy and soil, and the myriad organisms that make up the forest. “Harvesting of the trees can be done in cycles or continuously as long as the proper percentage is taken.” He left 8 to 10 percent of his cut as coarse woody debris on the forest floor. “A forest which is utilized economically cannot be sustained without being selective,” he said. “The two are interdependent … It is not necessary to destroy the forest to extract timber. It is a matter of method.”

Léonard Otis was a living treasure in Quebec, a sylviculturist, an early ecologist and a forest preservation activist. He fought courageously against harvesting methods that destroyed forest capital and regional development, and he helped save several villages in eastern Quebec.

Jim and Margaret Drescher co-direct Windhorse Farm in Nova Scotia, the longest standing demonstration of forest sustainability in Canada. Settled in 1840 by the Conrad Wentzell family, the woodlot has been harvested annually for the last 170 years yet has the same volume of standing timber today as in 1840 when the first ax struck.

Advantages of Natural Forests

Deforestation means desertification, poverty, famine, floods, droughts, dust storms and environmental degradation. Natural forests mean natural abundance, and functioning ecosystems are sources of wealth. In restored natural ecosystems, timber stock increases and the structure and functions of forests gradually improve. Truly sustainable forest management means all values of the woodlands – ecological, social, cultural and economic – are preserved for future generations.

A lack of water is the major limiting factor for forest recovery, but vegetative cover created by planting indigenous trees enables streams to emerge. Rain slowly sinks through the vegetation and subsoil, replenishing the water supply. This same principle holds for hillsides and ravines.

Without healthy soil, there is no healthy forest. Intensive farming, farming on hillsides, removing dead wood (and its associated microbial life, and its ability to hold moisture) from the forest floor, and a growing population all contribute to soil erosion and degradation. By setting land aside for vegetation to return and building small dams in ravines that became fed by underground springs, water returned in two Ethiopian dry valleys, in Kerala, Mumbai and other places.

John Liu catalogs the benefits of reforesting the Loess Plateau: Significantly less soil rushes down the river; nutrients are recycled in the presence of water, enabling generation of new life; organic material from vegetation and animal manures mixes with the loose geological soil to increase the moisture and carbon content, supporting yet more life; vegetation removes carbon from the atmosphere.

From the hilltops to the valleys of the Loess Plateau, vegetation changed, as did people’s lives. The people themselves did this by changing their behavior: They terraced fields, improved soil and protected marginal areas. This led to greater abundance and variety at local markets, and increased incomes. Conditions continue to improve as trees return: Food security increases; children can go to school; communities continue to prosper despite droughts; and wild animals return.

While the forest grows and expands, revenues come from thinning trees. The profit is neither miraculous nor immediate; reforestation is a long-term investment, but one that is better than money in the bank or a retirement income plan. A well-tended forest brings security and prosperity to communities by creating jobs and boosting soil fertility and biodiversity. A mature deciduous forest can bring four times more income than a coniferous forest grown for paper production. Forest yields can triple over 10 years of management and selection, taking care to leave the best specimens for regeneration. Many trees grow fastest between 30 and 50 years of age, so we should favor development of quality trees. If we help the forest and cherish the best trees, we will avoid the human poverty and soil sterility lurking on the horizon. As Liu says, “If people are the problem they can also be the solution. Human action can destroy but can also protect.”

What Can We Do Now?

• Protect the soil. That is where the carbon is!

• Improve croplands by using sustainable cultivation methods.

• Encourage people to grow trees and shrubs to capture rain.

• Restore ecosystems.

As much as one-quarter of the world’s land mass has been degraded, but much can be rehabilitated. We are just beginning to realize the real value of natural capital – of trees, soils, biodiversity, photosynthesis, biomass, carbon sequestration, flood and famine mitigation.

“Investing in restoring damaged environments is a cost effective way of solving many of the problems we face today,” says Liu. “It takes a disposition to work with nature rather than against her, and observation. Why don’t we do this now on a global scale?”

“Climate change is better understood with trees,” says Professor Legesse Negash of Addis Ababa University, founder and head of the Center for Indigenous Trees in Ethiopia. “We have not yet understood the miracles performed by trees.”


Giono, Jean, The Man Who Planted Trees, 1953

Liu, John, Green Gold, 2012

Liu, John, Hope in a Changing Climate, 2012

Loomis, Ruth, with Merv Wilkinson, Wildwood: A Forest for the Future, Reflections, 2001

Otis, Léonard, and Richard Desjardins, Une forêt pour vivre, 2001

Peng, Shao-Lin et al., Vegetation Restoration and Its Effects on Carbon Balance in Guangdong Province, China. Restoration Ecology, 2008.

Ren, Hai et al., Forest Restoration in China: Advances, Obstacles, and Perspectives, Tree and Forestry Science Biotechnology 6(1):7-16, 2012

Smits, Willie, How to Restore a Rainforest, TED Talk, Feb. 2009 rainforest.html

Windhorse Farm, New Germany, Nova Scotia,

About the author: Céline Caron, an evolutionary ecologist living in Quebec, has written several articles about forestry, pedogenesis and soil fertility using ramial chipped wood for The MOF&G.


Maine’s Heroes

Maine has its own heroes of forest preservation and restoration, including Mitch Lansky, author of Beyond the Beauty Strip and Low Impact Forestry: Forestry as if the Future Mattered; MOFGA’s Low-Impact Forestry Committee; and John Bunker, who is heading the reclamation of an abandoned gravel pit on MOFGA’s land by planting heirloom fruit trees and associated plants in a polyculture. For more local examples, see the Forestry entry on MOFGApedia (

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