Public forests = public health

My name is Cameron Brown, and I am volunteering as an intern for Oregon Wild in the Eugene office this summer. I come to Oregon Wild with an academic background in public health and a lifetime of exploring Oregon’s wilderness areas, lakes, trails, and old-growth forests that so many of us appreciate. So, how did I end up in the environmental movement as a public health advocate? Many people associate the public health field with population-level issues like nutrition, housing, access to education, and access to affordable medical care. But there is growing recognition that the natural world plays an important role in keeping populations healthy. We need the outdoors for our collective health: For physical fitness, improved mental health, clean water, flood control, and resilience in the face of climate change. I wanted to intern with Oregon Wild this summer because I believe the places we work to protect- rivers, wilderness area, old-growth forests, and threatened wildlife habitat- are also what keep us healthy, happy, and human.


One of the environmental issues that I care most about is clear-cut logging. Having grown up in Portland, I became accustomed to seeing large swaths of bare hillside in the Cascade and Coast Range foothills outside of town. Rather than the biodiverse open meadows or old forests that made up nearby wilderness areas, these clear-cut hillsides only had a few plant and shrub species, many of which were invasives. The clear-cut hillsides did not inspire awe or create the deep feeling of happiness and appreciation that hiking through a wilderness does for me. However, the impacts of clear-cutting go far beyond my own personal experience of the forest, and impact populations in many ways.


Public health researchers have shown a distinct relationship between the death of trees and human health at the population level. For example, the emerald ash borer killed about 100 million trees between 1990 and 2007 in the Eastern US. Using fixed-effect regression models, researchers showed that over 15,000 people died from cardiovascular disease and over 6,000 died from lower respiratory issues due to the loss of these trees in their surrounding environment (Donovan et al., 2013). Their conclusions were simple, but profound: Loss of trees contributes to human mortality and the natural world holds important public health benefits.


In Oregon, compared to the East, the situation is more complicated and there is little local research about the relationship between tree deaths and human mortality. Clear-cuts are replanted and eventually grow back, though there will always be hillsides that are completely bare of trees, due to the large scale and persistence of clear-cutting across the state. Here in Oregon, we must currently look a little deeper to determine some of the effects clear-cuts have on human health.


A key public health issue as the climate changes is ensuring reliable clean water for urban populations.  Here in Oregon, we know that certain rivers and watersheds produce cleaner drinking water than others. For example, Baker City and Portland do not have to filter their drinking water due to the protected status of their source watersheds, resulting in cheaper distribution for the consumer. Protected rivers also have more water available for Oregon’s growing population during the dry summer months compared to watersheds where intensive logging is allowed. Other regions in Oregon are catching on to the relationship between forest restoration and water accessibility as well. In Southern Oregon, watershed managers and collaboratives are examining the best areas of forest to restore to reduce erosion. When erosion and sedimentation are reduced, the amount of filtering needed for clean drinking water is also reduced. While most Americans rank clean drinking water as a top environmental priority, making the connection between ecosystem restoration, water management and consumption, and public health is not a simple process.


The relationship between humans and the natural world is complex; however we live in an exciting time, where public health and environmental researchers are offering us glimpses of the many benefits that come to populations when we protect wild lands. The big challenge for all of us will be communicating about these complex relationships in a way that resonates with people of different backgrounds. Whether you care about clean water or spending less time in the doctor’s office, we can all find great benefit from spending time in the outdoors, growing to appreciate wild lands at a deep level, and becoming an advocate for their protection. People, wildlife, and entire ecosystems will all benefit when we make smart decisions and investments in the conservation of wild lands.