In early times the only nonforested areas of the earth were those where the land was either excessively dry (e.g., the plains and deserts) or excessively wet (e.g., the swamps). Where the environment was favorable, forests extended from the equator to the timber line, i.e., as far as those regions in the extreme north or at high altitudes where generally there is perpetual snow. Climatic conditions favor the continued expansion of the forests as the ice cap continues to recede and the timber line to withdraw, since the forests, with their mammal and bird inhabitants, move into formerly glaciated regions. However, the favorable natural conditions are more than countered by forest clearing by humans and through fire. About 30% of the world is forested today, but the ratio between forest and population varies immensely. More than one half of the world's softwood timber (the major forest product) comes from North America and Europe—an area with only a fourth of the world's population. Yet the Mediterranean countries have been cleared of most of their forests for centuries, and the forested area of the United States has shrunk in 300 years from about one half to one third of the total land acreage. The United States and Canada share 16% of the world's forests; the former Soviet Union contains 21%, Africa has 20%, and Latin American has 24%.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.