By Andrew Bell, Policy Intern

Forest in West Virginia
Forests provided a the perfect playground for policy intern Andrew Bell near his home in West Virginia. Photo by Andrew Bell

As the fall semester policy intern, I think a fitting introduction would express how I arrived at this destination and how protecting and restoring American forests has become our shared mission. I was born and raised in northeastern West Virginia. The state is affectionately referred to as “Wild, Wonderful” and for good reason, with the Blue Ridge Mountains and crisp whitewater rapids cascading with similar grandeur. I humbly thank my home state for its large contribution to the young man that I am today.

But, my experience with the great outdoors has not come without its fair share of heartbreaks, with the most recent of these being perhaps the single greatest reason that I’ve strived for this opportunity at American Forests.

I’m sure many of you had “your spot” growing up, and may still have one today. Whether it’s a secret swimming hole, a stump for reading on or even a garden-getaway in a big city, we have heard nature’s inexplicable call and found solace and respite there.

A small clearing atop a grand limestone cliff was my spot. Its unparalleled vista and brilliant sunsets made for the most awe-inspiring gallery for miles. While my pursuit of higher education took me to Arizona, where the desert wilderness is undeniably sublime, the majesty of the Appalachians and that cliff always welcomed me home as family.

But, one fall’s return home was marred by unfamiliar loss and a confrontation with a now-inescapable trend. The top of that cliff (and most of what led to it) had been cleared entirely, with its treasures being replaced by the foundation of what appeared to be something of a mansion.

I traversed what I thought to be the path I had hiked so many times before, but its bareness was blinding. I searched with pitiful fervor for something of a landmark, but that once-welcoming sanctuary was cold and silent.

One man built his mansion while unknowingly destroying another’s. Tragically so, I’m more than aware that I am not alone in having such a story. It is one of many truths embodying our troubled relationship with nature, and one that is virtually inescapable in our rapidly developing country. According to the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) Forests on the Edge reports from 2005 and 2009,  my slice of West Virginia  graduated from the “less than 50th percentile” to the upper end of the “90th percentile” in terms of private forests bound to experience increased housing development over a 30-year span. In just four short years, their estimate had skyrocketed in the ballpark of 25 percent.

And, West Virginia is not alone: Its Eastern counterparts, such as Florida, the Carolinas and Maryland, are all suffering from a comparable fate. And, in some cases, states along the West Coast, like California, are looking at numbers twice as large. Factoring in the 10 million acres of forest lost to development since 1982, alongside the projected 26 million more lost by 2030, the grand total will be comparable in size to the state of Georgia.

But, my opportunity here at American Forests has afforded me the chance to see it in black and white (Or, in this case, according to the USFS’ map detailing private forests susceptible to increased housing density, an alarming amount of red). And, equally so, it breaks my heart to see what were once pockets of heat on the map shoot up the coast like a wildfire.

They say all good things come to an end. This account is seemingly a reluctant endorsement of that sentiment. But, more so, I think it inspires the necessity of just the opposite in me, the necessity of being thankful for what we have left and taking the individual action to conserve all of our natural “mansions.”

My story brought me here, to our nation’s capital, and the wonderfully exciting organization of American Forests. Whatever your story may be, something brought you here as well. Whether this is your first or 100th time reading this blog, you want to do something, too. While that something will be different for everyone, I firmly believe we’ve found the right place.

To find out how you can get involved too, visit our Action Center.