By Scott Steen, CEO

Scott Steen - American Forests Magazine Autumn 2012Back in July, I spent some time in California visiting with Myra Goodman, the co-founder of Earthbound Farm and a longtime supporter of American Forests, and Jonathan Kusel, an American Forests Science Advisory Board member and the executive director of the Sierra Institute for Community and Environment. Earthbound Farm is headquartered in the prosperous and beautiful community of Carmel Valley, and the Sierra Institute is headquartered in the tiny mountain hamlet of Taylorsville, Calif.

Separated by more than 300 miles, these two rural California communities don’t seem have much in common at first glance. The median home value in Taylorsville is $161,000, while in Carmel Valley, the number jumps to $751,000. The Taylorsville business district probably encompasses a half block; Carmel Valley is home to championship golf courses, wineries, upscale restaurants and inns.

Bennington-Vermont - American Forests Magazine Autumn 2012

Credit: Doug Kerr/Flickr

But still, these communities are connected in a surprising and important way. The mountain forests that surround Taylorsville supply the watershed that feeds the fertile agricultural lands of Monterey County, where Earthbound Farm is located. The health of these mountain forests has a direct connection to our water supply and, as a result, the food we eat. In fact, 80 percent of the nation’s freshwater originates on forestlands, and forests provide a substantial portion of the water used in agricultural food production, along with more than 50 percent of the nation’s drinking water.

During my trip, this idea was also being driven home in a much more dramatic way as radio reports detailed how the nation’s Farm Belt was suffering through one of the most brutal droughts on record. By the end of July, nearly two-thirds of the lower 48 states were experiencing some form of drought, with farm states like Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska being among the hardest hit.

Although it is unclear whether or not climate change is directly to blame for the drought, scientists believe it has significantly exacerbated the problem. 2012 is already looking like a contender for the warmest year on record, with nine of the 10 warmest years on record all occurring in the last decade. So while the drought itself may or may not be a naturally occurring phenomenon, it is occurring within the context of a warmer planet.

Making matters even worse, our country’s forests and related watersheds are also significantly threatened by climate change, affecting both the quantity and quality of what comes from forested watersheds. For example, our very mild winter and high spring and summer temperatures have fueled one of the worst wildfire seasons on record. Shortly after my visit, wildfires began spreading through Northern California, and the area is facing perhaps its most damaging fire season ever.

While all of this may sound pretty dire, there is action being taken to protect these forested watersheds. Organizations like the Sierra Institute conduct social and environmental research to better understand the interrelationship between rural, forested communities and healthy forested watersheds. Cities like Boston, New York and Seattle have comprehensive plans to protect their forested watersheds, saving taxpayers’ money on more expensive water-treatment options. These cities help connect the dots between economic benefits and forests as source-water protectors.

Kayla Herriman - American Forests Magazine Autumn 2012

The U.S. Forest Service's Kayla Herriman examines new growth in a fire-damaged area of Deschutes National Forest. Credit: Trevor Snapp/American Forests

American Forests and dozens of other organizations are working together as part of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) Coalition on a number of projects designed to reduce the incidence of megafires like this year’s Colorado Waldo Canyon Fire. A hallmark of CFLRP and the coalition is bringing diverse groups — including private businesses, communities, counties, tribes, water suppliers, associations, nonprofits and more — together to accomplish work that benefits all: the restoration of healthy forest ecosystems.

Perhaps most importantly, American Forests is engaged in a host of forest-restoration projects designed specifically to aid in watershed protection. For example, we are working with the nonprofit Wild Earth Guardians to restore important watersheds in the mountains of New Mexico and with the U.S. Forest Service to reforest fire-damaged areas within Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest to improve water quality.

As our world continues to heat up, water issues will increasingly become part of our national conversation. One of the most important things we can do right now is to make more people aware of the critical connection between forests and water and begin to do more to protect these vital resources.