By Katrina Marland

Grand Teton National Park (Credit: Flickr/JeffGunn)

You may not have realized it, but Sunday was an important day. December 11 was International Mountain Day. Yes, I know, just about everything from waffles to pirate lingo seems to have its own day, but this is actually one to take note of.

I’ve always been exceptionally fond of mountains. I grew up in the Sierra Nevada, and today I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic view of the Rockies out my window. Part of why I like them so much is that they are so intertwined with forests — you rarely see one without the other, and so you end up with these incredibly massive formations that are literally teeming with life; you just can’t help but be impressed. And since this year’s theme for International Mountain Day was mountain forests, it seems I’m not the only one who thinks so.

All forests are important, but few have the potential to affect so many people as mountain forests. These ecosystems are directly responsible for the health of innumerable watersheds. The rivers and streams that we pull from to supply our cities and towns with water — they all start in the mountains. As the water flows from mountaintop to faucet, mountain forests protect rivers from runoff, erosion and pollution. Most of us owe the water we drink to mountains and forests we’ve never seen, and natural processes we’ve never even heard of.

This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations released a new report entitled Mountain Forests In A Changing World, which explains why mountain forests are so vital to populations around the globe, and how we can work to protect them. The report is detailed, and goes into many benefits in addition to watersheds, but here are just a few key points worth knowing:

  • Although mountains cover only 24 percent of the planet’s surface, they provide 60 percent of the world’s freshwater.
  • The entire state of California (that’s more than 37 million people) relies on mountain ecosystems for its water supply.
  • About half the population of New York State, including New York City, gets its water from the Catskill Mountains — more than 1 billion gallons every day.

A changing climate is affecting mountain forests around the world, leading to floods and droughts, allowing once-manageable pests to become dangerous, and causing some tree species to shift or die out. Here in the U.S. alone we have lost millions of acres of forest over the last decade, much of it in mountain ecosystems, particularly out west.

If you don’t live near mountains, it’s easy to dismiss them as something far off and unimportant. But as climate change continues to interfere with the natural processes in those ecosystems, we may not need reports to tell us that something is going wrong. We may see more clearly than ever that mountains, and mountain forests in particular, are vitally important to all of us, no matter where we live.