An Arbor Day Interview with The Wilderness Society

By Amy Skeeters-Behrens, Executive Director, Docusign IMPACT

The Wilderness Society is a nonprofit whose mission is to protect wilderness and inspire Americans to care for our wild places. The Wilderness Society was one of the first grantees to receive funds through Docusign for Forests, our signature initiative to protect and preserve the world’s forests.  In honor of Arbor Day, I spoke to Jamie Williams, President of The Wilderness Society about the organization’s work to protect US National Forests.

To start, tell me about The Wilderness Society

The Wilderness Society was founded in 1935 to preserve the United States’ fast-disappearing wilderness. Since then, we have worked with local communities to protect the wild places people love. We’re proud to have contributed to the passage of almost every major conservation law in the United States. The Wilderness Society is the only national organization focused solely on conserving federal public lands, such as national monuments, forests, and wildlife refuges. Today The Wilderness Society works to protect these lands as a critical part of the climate solution, and strives to ensure that all people can benefit equitably from these places that belong to us all.

Why are forests so important?

Forests are the lungs of the planet. They provide the clean air we breathe, and they are essential to human health and the health of our environment. Protecting forests is also one of the most important things we can do to address the climate challenge, because they naturally clean the air of carbon and provide wildlife a safe haven in a warming world.

Here in the U.S., our national forests are the single most important source of water. More than 60 million Americans rely on national forests for drinking water in 3,400 communities, including large cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Describe the deforestation crisis.

The world is losing forested areas at an alarming rate. Between 1990 and 2016, the world lost more than 500,000 square miles of forest – an area larger than South Africa. The record-breaking fires last year in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest brought a spotlight on the seriousness of global deforestation. The Amazon is one of the world’s most effective tools for mitigating global warming temperatures. Yet the Amazon experienced three times the number of forest fires in 2019 than the year before. With lax environmental enforcement, and at its continued deforestation rate, scientists predict 40 percent of the Amazon will be lost by 2050. Here in the United States, our forests face similar threats from logging, mining and other extractive industries. We need to stand up for our forests, both at home and abroad.

Tell me more about The Wilderness Society’s work on forests.

The UN’s recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points to curbing deforestation and forest degradation as one of the world’s best chances for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, failing to protect forests will actually cause harm, adding to the climate crisis. Cutting all of the world’s forests would release 3 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – more than the amount identified in global reserves of oil, coal and gas. It is essential to protect our forests. 

The Wilderness Society is working to protect national forests across the country, including Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is one of the largest temperate rainforests in the world and its old-growth trees have been trapping harmful carbon emissions for nearly a millennium. The Tongass absorbs about 8 percent of the United States’ annual carbon emissions. Protecting places like this is one of the best tools the United States has for helping to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

With Docusign’s help, The Wilderness Society is researching how forests can help fight climate change; defending the laws that keep development out of forests; and working with communities to keep their forests healthy and intact.

How has the current global health crisis impacted your work?

First and foremost, the health and safety of our staff are paramount. In early March we closed all our offices, moved our entire staff to remote work, and imposed an organization-wide pause on travel and on hosting events. 

With respect to our mission, at this unprecedented time, we are working as hard as ever to protect public lands and wild places, fight climate change, and live our values by supporting partners at the front lines in our communities. We’re encouraging everyone to respect local and state guidance around social distancing when visiting parks. Getting outdoors is a great way to deal with stress, but it’s important to not put undue strain on parks or the communities around them. 

We’re still pushing forward on global issues like climate change, and send our gratitude to everyone else doing the same. The truth is we are fighting for the future of humanity on multiple fronts; the same interconnectedness that is driving our overall strength is also creating existential challenges … and what that means is that all of us, working together, will need to do even more…more for our neighbors and more for the world at large. At The Wilderness Society, we are no stranger to taking on big challenges, and we are ready to step up and do even more.

What else can we do to stand up for our forests?

There is a new initiative called 30x30, which seeks to protect 30 percent of both U.S. lands and oceans by 2030. Right now, roughly 12 percent of U.S. lands and about 26 percent of U.S. oceans are permanently protected. Achieving the 30 percent benchmark for each is a crucial next step for conserving nature, tackling climate change, slowing the loss of irreplaceable wildlife and protecting our clean air and water in a rapidly changing world. Protecting national forests can help us reach the 30X30 target in the U.S.. But we can’t achieve anything without the public’s support. We encourage folks to get involved and learn more about the 30x30 goal, talk to their neighbors about the importance of our national forests and let your Congressional representatives know that preserving 30 percent of both U.S. lands and oceans by 2030 is critical to the health and well-being of all people.

What keeps you motivated to keep fighting for the world’s forests and other wild places?

There are so many reasons. It begins with a love of being outdoors and feeling connected to the rest of nature. We have this incredible abundance of wild places, from parks and national forests, to monuments and wilderness, in the U.S. But we can do so much more to make time in nature available to everyone and protect and take care of wildlands to help us slow the rates of climate change and extinction. It’s not too late. If we act now and work together, we can restore a healthier world to our children, to everyone’s children. I just want to be a part of that.  

So do we. Read more about the Docusign for Forests initiative to see what we’re doing to help protect and replant trees.

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