Defending forests for Tu BShevat: If not now, when

Beginning tonight, we celebrate Tu B'Shevat, the New Year of the Trees.

During this holiday, we honor the Tree of Life — one of Judaism's most powerful images — symbolizing the interconnected nature of creation, the Torah and the Divine. On Tu B'Shevat we eat a variety of fruits, we plant trees in Israel, and perhaps we participate in a Tu B'Shevat seder.

This year, let us also reflect on the state of the world's forests, and take action to protect them.

Over the last 300 years, the majestic ancient forests that once covered our continent have been reduced to a small remnant. The United States has already lost a stunning 96 percent of its old growth forests. Worldwide, 80 percent of old growth forests have been destroyed, and every year another 40 million acres fall to the ax, torch, bulldozer or chain saw.

In a brief moment in the life of our planet, we have destroyed all but a remnant of Earth's ancient forests.

What is the result? Thousands of creatures are at risk. Worldwide, 25 percent of mammals, 20 percent of reptiles, 25 percent of amphibians, and 34 percent of fish are in danger of extinction.

Destruction of forests is a leading cause. Water around the world is polluted with the soil that washes off bare mountains. The biological inheritance of humankind is being forever diminished, reducing potential sources of medicines, foods and fibers.

The remaining wild forests are refuges for thousands of threatened creatures and plants and are vital to the protection of clean water sources for tens of millions of North Americans. Wild forests also serve as refuges for the human spirit, places where we can witness the Creator's majesty, reflect upon the mystery of life and hear the small, still voice within.

While generations past took these experiences for granted, how many people alive today have ever stood in an ancient forest?

Judaism teaches that we have a sacred obligation to the Creator, to creation and to future generations to safeguard and protect Earth's ecosystems. Before the flood, Noah and his family protected at least two of every animal species, enabling all creatures to make safe passage from one era of human history to the next.

After the flood, God said to Noah: "Behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you, of the birds, of the cattle, and of every wild animal of the earth with you" (Genesis 9:9).

Our heritage calls on us to serve as protectors and defenders of God's magnificent creations, ensuring safe passage of all creatures from one era to the next by protecting their habitats. It is our duty — as people of faith and citizens of our nation, our world and our biosphere — to safeguard and weave together the patchwork of remnant forests as best we can.

Each and every one of us can play a role in protecting, preserving, and even restoring our forests.

The average American consumes 700 pounds of paper products each year (three times as much as in 1970). We can, in our homes and our Jewish institutions, recycle waste paper and buy only those paper products that are made with a high percentage of post-consumer content recycled paper.

And those of us in the business world can take after the Home Depot's owners, Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus (both leaders in the Atlanta Jewish community), who agreed in August to phase out all sales of wood from endangered forests by 2002. The company will give preference to wood certified as sustainably harvested by the Certified Forest Products Council. We can all make a commitment to using only wood that is so certified.

And we can all support governmental action to protect forests.

I was fortunate to join President Clinton on Oct. 13 at the George Washington National Forest in Virginia as he instructed the U.S. Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact statement concerning the preservation of roadless areas in national forests across the nation. Yet only with active citizen support will this initiative succeed.

Increasingly, the organized Jewish community is making its voice heard on these issues.

Through the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, which represents 27 national Jewish organizations spanning the spectrum of Jewish life, the organized Jewish community has resolved that "public lands should be managed to preserve and restore biological diversity, and that government should not subsidize logging, mining, or grazing on public lands. Such activities should be immediately suspended in all old-growth forests and other threatened habitats on public lands."

This Tu B'Shevat, as we eat fruit and celebrate with friends and family, let us consider how we each can tread more lightly on the Earth. Let us ponder how we can help our Jewish institutions to practice more fully Judaism's environmental traditions and how we all together can motivate our government to tend the public lands we all share.