Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Nations need to act fast to repair damaged ecosystems

Cattle in a pasture.
Conservation agriculture practices such as rotating the pastures where cows graze can improve soil health. Photo courtesy USDA.


—Unsustainable land use has long threatened habitats around the world. Now more than ever, the devastating impacts of agriculture, deforestation, urbanization, and pollution are impossible to ignore. Shifts in climate only make matters worse, with changes in temperature, precipitation and extreme weather events pushing already-stressed lands to the brink. And forests and other ecosystems are not just shrinking in size—the variety of life within them is diminishing as well. This biodiversity loss could have dire global consequences in coming decades if left unchecked. However, proven techniques can be employed to restore degraded lands and, better yet, prevent further degradation.

“I have no choice but to be optimistic—but very cautiously,” says Forest Service researcher John Parrotta. “Dealing effectively with this very pervasive problem requires thoughtful and coordinated work on many fronts to educate the public and decision-makers.”

Parrotta is a lead author on a team of over 100 experts from 45 countries that conducted the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services assessment on land degradation and restoration. Their work examines the global costs and dangers of land degradation as well as restoration strategies. Forest Service researcher Eileen Helmer is a lead author on a separate regional assessment that analyzed biodiversity and benefits provided by ecosystems in the Americas, while three other regional assessments looked at Asia and the Pacific, Africa, and Europe and Central Asia.

Close-up of stump, one of several in a valley.
Stumps in a valley caused by deforestation and slash-and-burn types of agriculture in Madagascar. Photo courtesy Dudarev Mikhail/

The loss of benefits from forest ecosystems around the world would have a staggering cost—about $1,180 trillion in services including wood, non-wood products, carbon sequestration and recreation between 2000 and 2050. If measures are not taken to reverse current land degradation patterns, the global assessment shows increasing numbers of people around the world could soon face disaster. An estimated 50–700 million people globally will be forced to migrate from their homes, undoubtedly leading to social instability and the spread of violent conflict.

While the assessment paints a bleak picture of a future in which global land degradation continues to worsen, it also finds hope in the use of many existing management strategies. Agro-ecology, conservation agriculture, agroforestry and sustainable forest management can all be used to prevent and reverse land degradation.

The study points out that prevention is better (and far more cost-effective) than restoration after damage has already taken place, but restoring damaged land is still well worth the effort. In the U.S., for example, restoration projects employ 126,000 people and generate $9.5 billion annually, indirectly creating 95,000 additional jobs. Ultimately, the assessment emphasizes that while the stakes are high, nations can avoid dire outcomes and bolster their economies if land degradation is addressed head-on.

“The challenge lies in providing the right mix of incentives and disincentives at many levels to motivate producers and consumers and ultimately shift the momentum towards a more environmentally sustainable economy and society,” says Parrotta.