Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed — chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.
–John Muir, Our National Parks
There are few safe places in the world for trees: few places where they may stand unmolested, in the company of their fellows, leading full lives, concluded only by a natural death, and a return to the forest floor.
A recently published study in Nature Communications found that “human impacts have resulted in a global tendency for tree cover to be constrained to sloped terrain and losses to be concentrated on ﬂat terrain.” Researchers suggested that “steep ground may act as a refuge for trees in human-dominated landscapes…because sloped terrain is more difﬁcult to clear, beneﬁts obtained by clearing are lower or the incentives to abandon cleared land are greater.”
Like the homeless men and women who seeks refuge in the most marginal spaces of the city so as to go unnoticed by cops and thugs, trees are compelled to seek out terrain that is difficult for their mammal predators to reach. If the ground in which they have taken root is coveted, if it is commercially viable, they will be removed.
Furthermore, what is marginal today may not be deemed marginal tomorrow meaning that safe spaces are conditional and temporary; as the researchers say population increase “increases incentives to clear and utilize marginal land.” Trees exist at the discretion of people and the decision to grant them space is always able to be re-negotiated. Over 2.8 billion hectares of forest have been lost due to agriculture since 1850 and yet it is those who object to continued cutting who are deemed inflexible and unreasonable. The goalposts of environmental destruction are always being moved; negotiations never take into account all that has already been lost or, more accurately, all who have already been killed, converted to board feet, and sent through chippers.
In a very real sense, trees are fleeing. They are running for their lives. But humanity is in hot pursuit.