The Great Carbon Sink Next Door

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More than a hundred leaders at the Glasgow climate-change summit last month quickly agreed to halt deforestation by 2030. This would maintain the forests’ ability to pull massive amounts of carbon from the air. It would also bolster the fantasy that we don’t have to stop burning fossil fuels — we can just plant trees. The “trillion tree challenge” was popular at Davos last year, and that kind of thinking remains seductive. But nations have agreed to halt deforestation before. They haven’t done it. Has anything changed?

Brazil, which sent a large delegation — but not its president, Jair Bolsanaro — to Glasgow, pledged to end illegal deforestation by 2030. This was a bold statement but one that many outsiders found implausible. The Bolsonaro government “has won little credibility with local environmental advocates,” CNN reported, “after previously dismantling federal legislation and environmental agencies intended to combat deforestation, and promoting increased mining and oil extraction in indigenous territories and publicly protected lands.”

Illegal destruction of the rainforest isn’t hard to find. The New York Times recently described an international trade in leather for luxury car seats, obtained from cattle ranched on illegally-cleared rainforest land. The cattle provide beef for international markets — laundered, basically, through middlemen to conceal its origins — and hides for car seats. The land is legally protected, but the laws are not enforced. This is not a case of impoverished locals slashing and burning the forest so they have space to grow subsistence crops. It is more like a business run by the Mafia. Brazil’s pledge to halt illegal deforestation by 2030? Think about it: within nine years, the country hopes to be enforcing its laws.

There’s big money – or dreams of big money – involved. Indonesian officials have made it clear that they will stop deforestation but only if stopping it doesn’t interfere with economic gain. “Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister for Indonesia, which is home to the world’s third-biggest rainforest, said recently that “forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,” The Guardian reported. “She said that there were multiple ways to define deforestation, and that any deal could not halt economic growth. ‘The massive development of [the current president’s] era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation.’”

The Pacific Northwest manages its forests a good deal better than the international norm. In this region, says Bernard Bormann, a University of Washington professor of forest resources and director of the Olympic Natural Resources Center, “current forest practices . . . are clearly more sustainable than practices used on most other forests in the world.” Local advantages include the facts that “we do not have significant land conversion to agriculture” and that “forests are growing well.” In other words, “forests with old-growth character are increasing rapidly and few existing old-growth stands are being cut.”

These factors matter. “If we were serious about using forests to sequester more carbon,” says University of Washington professor of forestry emeritus Jerry Franklin, “the Pacific Northwest is the place which has the greatest potential to do that kind of thing,” First thing on the agenda, he argues, should be, “don’t cut any more of the mature and old forests.” In fact, “we shouldn’t cut any more of our natural forests.” Instead, there should be “a strong push toward preserving all naturally-regenerating mature and old forests.” Not that today’s forests are as good as it gets – or rather, as good as it has gotten in the past: “Historic forests contained, on average, a pool of stored carbon “that was at least hundreds of times greater than it is now,” Franklin says.

Now, Congress is at least contemplating making significant investments in old forests and their ability to store carbon. Politico has reported that possibly-undead portions of the Build Back Better bill include “[o]ver $28 billion for conservation programs and $27 billion to maintain forests, reduce fire risks and capture carbon in trees   This evidently, stands a good chance of slipping through the Manchin filter.  Spending on forests has been lumped into “climate-smart agriculture” — the Forest Service resides in the Department of Agriculture — and “Manchin’s opposition to the bill’s climate provisions have largely ignored the agriculture policies.”  The version of the bill that the House passed in November includes serious money for forest projects in National Forest land. In addition to billions for reducing fire danger, there’s $350 million for planning that prioritizes carbon storage and maintaining ecological conditions for the survival of at-risk species, and $50 million apiece to protect old and mature forests, to maintain and restore habitat conditions for at-risk species, and post-fire recovery that emphasizes native plants and excludes salvage logging.

Back in the days of forest abundance, no one cared much about preserving old growth, much less about storing carbon, and the Northwest has an appalling history of take-no-prisoners logging. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited the Olympic Peninsula in 1937, the year before he signed the law creating Olympic National Park, he remarked on the “criminal devastation” of the peninsula’s logged-off land. Despite those factors, management of Northwest forests has arguably become a rare good example for the world. We still have plenty of room for improvement but – thanks to the bitter and largely successful fight to save old-growth habitat for the Northern Spotted Owl — much of the remaining old forest has been protected, albeit tenuously, from future logging. Those old trees represent a vast storehouse of carbon. The really old ones aren’t adding new carbon absorption very quickly, but they aren’t losing what they already have.

A big tree doesn’t stay a carbon “sink” – absorbing more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases from decay – forever. When a Douglas fir gets really old, it eventually becomes a carbon source rather than a carbon sink, explains Indroneil Ganguly, associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, and associate director of the University’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products (CINTRAFOR). At any age, a forest has a balance between growth and decay, between carbon sequestration and carbon release, explains Abby Swann, a University of Washington associate professor in the departments of atmospheric sciences and biology. As climate change alters plant communities, just where that balance will lie seems uncertain. Looking to the future, “the other big wild card.” Swann says, “is fire.” That does not mean it’s time to rev up the chainsaws. Not at all, Ganguly says. If the tree comes down, a great deal of its stored carbon will wind up back in the atmosphere. There’s no way the world comes out ahead.

Nevertheless, UW Professor Bormann argues, “there is plenty of room for improvement.” He suggests limiting wildfire, and in some cases, looking (short-term) beyond conifers. If you’re starting new forests after recent logging or fire, and you want to sequester as much carbon as possible by 2050, he says, maybe you should think about a short-term focus on planting alder. Bormann says he and his colleagues are “currently looking into increasing red alder plantations to speed carbon sequestration.” He mentions a 92-year study, not yet completed, which indicates that in the wake of a big fire, alders able to fix nitrogen and enrich the soil significantly speeds the eventual growth of Douglas fir. And Bormann suggests that facing the uncertainties of climate change, “increasing [the] heterogeneity of practices and conditions [and thereby] reducing the all-eggs-in-one-basket risks” seems like a good idea. As well, he says, does addressing the lack of early serial forests — i.e., the scruffy early stages of forest development, which provide habitat for lots of birds, mammals and insects.

That’s not a carbon consideration. But carbon shouldn’t be the only consideration, Franklin suggests. However obsessed we are now with sequestering carbon, “we don’t want that to be the sole objective out there,” Franklin says. “We don’t want to adversely affect other forest values.” As a rule, “we never want to focus on a single objective. Whenever you try to manage forests for a single outcome, it tends to mean you ignore other values.” There’s ”a tendency,” he says, “of lurching from one singular goal to another.”

Franklin and Bormann also both point to the lousy economic conditions of rural communities. Logging and milling once provided jobs and taxes in many of those communities, but the mills and the logging jobs are mostly gone. Politicians have long talked about helping — and have even tried to help — traditional timber towns, but they haven’t accomplished much. In 1985, when Booth Gardner began his first term as Washington’s governor, he talked bravely and sincerely about reviving the economies of Washington’s timber towns. He had no idea of how to do that. And he didn’t do it.

In the early 1990s, when the Clinton administration decided to shield large areas of old growth and potential old growth to protect the Northern Spotted Owl and a host of other species, protesters drove a fleet of logging trucks into downtown Olympia, and some people predicted a big economic blow to the Northwest. Clinton officials talked about bringing new opportunities and economic prosperity to the mill towns — rather like current Democratic politicians and climate activists talk about bringing new opportunities to Appalachian coal towns. But they didn’t really know how to do it. And they didn’t do it. As for the predictions of economic catastrophe — some towns and counties did suffer, but in the larger state and regional economies, the loss of old-growth logging was hardly a blip. Many of those communities — unless they’re in or within commuting range of the I-5 corridor — now seem more-or-less permanently depressed. What could change that?

In some cases, the nearby forests that once drove their economies are largely gone. Is that the result of “deforestation”? Not necessarily.  Bormann wants to stress that logging per se isn’t “deforestation.” If you can cut trees and as long as new ones will grow on the land, you haven’t deforested it. But if you change the underlying land use — say, made a forest into a pasture or a shopping mall — that’s deforestation. We’re definitely cutting trees in commercial forests, but by and large, we’re not changing the underlying use.

Could the industrial forests that have been cut but not converted become bigger carbon sinks? Both Bormann and Franklin suggest that if we want trees to store carbon, industrial forests on private land should be managed on longer rotations — that is, they should be allowed to grow older before they’re logged. You can grow harvestable trees on relatively short rotations,” Bormann says, “and come out well if you’re starting from a managed forest condition.” But “I haven’t heard a credible argument that if you’re starting with an older forest” it makes sense. And even in a managed forest, long rotations “are obviously better.” In fact, “shifting from a short 40-year rotation to a 60- or 70-year. rotation is a clear plus.” Ganguly agrees that longer rotations would enable an industrial forest to store more carbon.

Ganguly cites some important caveats. He stresses the difference between an industrial forest and a natural one. They’re both forests, he says, but kind of like tuna and tilapia are both fish. In an industrial forest – tilapia, if you will – he argues that when a longer rotation drives up the price of lumber, that may encourage the use of alternate building materials that will put a lot more carbon into the atmosphere by the time these substitutes reach construction sites. Also, if longer cycles drive down the forest owners’ profits, that may encourage a land-use conversion from forestry to residential development. “We have to make sure,” he says, that “there’s an economic reason” to keep the land growing trees

What’s the main takeaway? “The lesson from the Northwest,” says Conservation Northwest science director Dave Werntz, “is protect old forests, and store carbon long term.” UW’s Abby Swann says much the same thing. Old growth is the key. “”The best thing,” she says, “is to leave it there.” Franklin and and Ganguly concur. Cutting old growth, Ganguly warns, is “a horrible idea. In fact, it’s “the worst possible idea.”

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1 COMMENT

  1. I am troubled by recent announcements by large corporations in search of carbon credits who are purchasing large parcels of forest land in areas with no other significant commercial value.
    To me this is nothing but an environmental Ponzi Scheme. The world does not gain from such activity and required stewardship of these forest may be largely ignored with fire and disease becoming an increasing threat.

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