Walking in a Wooded Wonderland

Can’t see the forest for the trees? Here are 10 reasons to appreciate our trees and forests and all they have to offer

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |

Forests cover 30 percent of the land on Earth, more than the total area of the United States, Canada and Russia combined. The trees in these forests are vital to our existence, but we often take them for granted. 

We shouldn’t, however, because our forests are disappearing. More than 502,000 square miles of forested land were cut down worldwide between 1990 and 2016, and about 17 percent of the rainforests in Amazon has been destroyed in the past 50 years.

Today, 12 percent of Illinois is covered in forests, totaling about 4.4 million acres. However, before Illinois was settled by Europeans, the state was blanketed in 13.8 million acres of forest, which was 40 percent of the state’s land mass, according to the University of Illinois Extension. Those forests of yesteryear have given way to cities and towns, farmland and industrial space.

What remains of our forests does so much to help humanity, but much of it is passive and not always noticed or appreciated. Here are 10 reasons to appreciate the forests that blanket the Earth.

They clean the air

Thorn Creek Woods. (Photo by Chris Cheng)

The trees in our forests are nature’s air purifiers. Trees absorb many pollutants, including carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In fact, a mature tree can remove 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air each year

The ability of trees to clean the air has a measurable effect on human health. In urban areas of the United States, the purifying ability of trees can save $6.8 billions a year in health care costs.

They color our world all year long

Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve. (Photo courtesy of Mandy Bellamy)

Right now, our forests are alive with color. Shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and brown are gradually replacing the lush blanket of green that erupted as spring gave way to summer. Even the more subdued color palette of a forest in winter is a reminder of the season and what is to come.  No matter the season, our forests are filled with color.  

They are a trove of biodiversity

Thorn Creek Woods. (Photo by Chris Cheng)

More than 80 percent of the land-living species on Earth call forests home. That means more than 5 million terrestrial species are depending on a forest to survive and thrive.

In Illinois, 82.5 percent of mammals, 62.8 percent of birds and 79.7 percent of reptiles and amphibians are dependent on a forested habitat for all or part of their life cycle. And that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Thousands of invertebrates and plant species, including mosses, lichens, fungi and even wildflowers, live in forests across our state. 

They help us breathe

Messenger Woods Nature Preserve. (Photo by Chris Cheng)

The trees in our forests don’t just absorb harmful carbon dioxide and other pollutants, they also pump out the oxygen we rely on to breathe. Just one large leafy tree can provide a day’s worth of oxygen for four people. The Amazon rainforest alone produces more than 20 percent of Earth’s oxygen.

They provide shade and shelter

Red-bellied woodpecker. (Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko)

If you’ve ever taken a break from the sun under the canopy of a shade tree, you know how restorative it can be. The shade provided by trees and forests can cool air temperatures by as much as 20 degrees to 45 degrees Fahrenheit compared to areas without shade. Even the evaporation of water from trees can have a cooling effect. 

Trees also provide shelter for all kinds of wildlife, from animals that burrow in holes in tree trunks to those that scurry up a tree to escape being hunted. Plenty of animals use trees for permanent and temporary shelter, including people ducking under a nearby tree to escape a downpour. 

They give us water

McKinley Woods. (Photo courtesy of Michal Fagan)

More than half the drinking water in the United States comes from our forests. This surprising statistic makes sense if you think about it. Trees and their roots work as sponges, absorbing rainfall and then gradually releasing it into rivers and streams. Trees also take up water through their roots that moves its way up all the way to the leaves. During photosynthesis, the leaves then release water vapor and oxygen into the atmosphere.

Forests keep our water cleaner too. The more forested land is in a watershed, the lower the costs are to treat the water to make it safe for humans. 

They are an incredible food source 

Hickory Creek Preserve. (Photo by Chris Cheng)

Forests are nature’s grocery store. Animals of all kinds, from large mammals to tiny invertebrates, feast on forests’ bounty. From caterpillars and beetles munching on tree leaves to squirrels and chipmunks stocking up on nuts and seeds, the trees are a food source for many.  

They help cure us

Red cedar. (Photo via Shutterstock)

More than 120 prescription drugs sold all over the world have been derived from plants found in Earth’s tropical rain forests. A medication used to fight off drug-resistant bacteria comes from a compound in eastern red cedar needles, and the drug theophylline used to treat asthma is derived from cacao trees. In addition, about 70 percent of plants with properties that can fight cancer are found only in rainforests. And the untapped potential is immense, because only 1 percent of the plants in our tropical rainforests have been studied for their medicinal benefits.

They provide jobs

Goodenow Grove Nature Preserve. (Photo by Chris Cheng)

About 10 million people worldwide work in forest management or conservation, but that’s just a small fraction of the 1.2 billion people across the globe that our reliant on forests for some part of their livelihood.

Here in the United States, tens of thousands of jobs across the country are dependent on forests, with people employed as forest rangers, foresters and conservations scientists to name just a few. 

They provide recreational opportunities

(Photo by Chris Cheng)

Forests provide us with countless opportunities to experience the calming benefits of nature, whether it’s taking a hike or stroll or sitting quietly and observing all the wildlife. 

The U.S. is home to 155 national forests comprising 190 million acres. Closer to home, the Will County Forest Preserve District manages more than 21,000 acres, including many acres of forested land. These forests improve our not only our air and water quality, but also our well-being because just being in nature is good for your health.

Want to experience the benefits of being outside in nature? Through November 30, you can check out 10 of Will County’s top-rated trails through the Forest Preserve District’s “Woods Walk” program.  Trail lengths range from 1.5 miles to 4 miles, each offering its own unique experiences.

In addition to “Woods Walk,” the Will County preserves provide plenty of recreational opportunities throughout the year at its preserves and visitors center. Check out our event calendar for programs that may be of interest to you.

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(Lead image courtesy of Dan Moore)

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