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Nevermind the Politics, Forests Can Help Cool the Planet

I have received many informed, some not so informed, but some real heartfelt responses to my first blog post for MOTHER EARTH NEWS: Forestry, Global Warming, and the Multi-Billion-Dollar Carbon-Credit Grab.

Forestry and global warming are complex and emotional issues. In this follow-up article, I’d like to focus on the forests themselves and how they can contribute if forest management practices can be adjusted through the incentives in the multi-billion dollar carbon credit programs being formed.

I’ve seen too many politically motivated reports from all spectrums of the debate claiming that the kind of forestry I’ve described and advocate — called "Restoration Forestry" — is irrelevant or cannot be done because of much supposed science.

But, I stand behind the main points in the article. Let me discuss several issues  that were not fully mentioned in my prior blog post.

The Pacific Northwest is the Key

First, I reviewed an alarming report showing that significant acreage of boreal and other lower volume forestlands may not contribute as much to the global cooling equation in the coming decades and beyond as prior expectations and studies have shown:

Although the facts are sad and not reversible in the short-term, these relatively low volume per acre forests are not the large forest carbon sinks of the world and their distress is not a strong argument to discount what greater forests can contribute.

The studies also do not take into account the tremendous capacity that exists to multiply the carbon held by the more carbon-dense forests if an economic incentive is set to do so.

The number one carbon sink on the planet, measured by capacity per acre to retain carbon, is located on the west coast of the United States and Canada. The same North American forest report mentions that these forests may actually contribute more than prior reports suggested. And, this note does not take into account the incentives that can multiply this contribution.

Considering this, the headline must be adjusted to say that the marginal forests in all probability will make a smaller contribution to the solution but the more important forests may actually make a much greater one.

The Redwood, Cedar, and Douglas-Fir forests of the Pacific Northwest have a capacity to retain carbon (think board feet per acre) that is wildly greater than the boreal forests mentioned in the article or the still expansive rainforests of South America and Africa. The average stand in the Pacific Northwest has a carbon carrying capacity that is a factor of 5 to 7 times greater than the Amazonian rainforest or the typical boreal forest. They are not in the same league. The trees can grow to enormous height and girth like nowhere else on earth if allowed to do so.

No other forest in the world can retain anywhere near as much carbon per acre as the forests that stretch from Big Sur in California into British Columbia. It is THE forest carbon sink of the earth. However, it is not alone. Some other forests have the capacity to contribute significantly per acre also.

For example, the Alerce Forests in Chile and others. But, the Redwoods, Cedar and Douglas-fir forests of Northern California and Oregon that stretch north to Alaska are the kings of carbon per acre sequestration capacity on the planet hands down. No other forest comes close. 

While the forests of the tropics are the biodiversity fountains of the world, the Pacific Northwest, on its own — if managed to multiply standing timber volumes on all the working forests of the area — will contribute enormously to carbon sequestration. Receiving news that more marginal stands are being slowed and in some cases killed off by the effects of changing climate is a sad and alarming consequence of the issue at hand.

But, it is no reason to neglect the help that the large carbon-sequestering forests of the world can and should contribute if managed differently using the carbon credits being developed.

The great majority of the forests in the Pacific Northwest are managed for timber production, either privately or by government. The U.S. Forest Service under option 9 in 1994, significantly reduced the rate of cut on most of the Pacific Northwest lands under their management.

The public lands have been adding volume consistently since then. Problems of fire danger still exist from a lack of thinning these relatively young stands in recent decades, which should be addressed, but the overall curve in terms of carbon sequestration on public lands is positive.

Where dramatic improvements can still be made is with the privately owned lands or the lands owned by the crown and other public agencies in Canada that are being more aggressively managed. Their stands are more depleted in general and have levels of standing trees volume per acre that is many times below the forest’s natural capacity.

Triple the Volume of Sequestered Carbon in Working Forests in a Century

Second, the bottom line is that we can at least triple the carbon removed from the atmosphere and held in the form of trees just in the Pacific Northwest over the next 100 years if we choose to. This alone will make a huge contribution in the global cooling equation despite losing growth rates in the less carbon dense stands. This can be done while still managing these lands for timber production and healthy employment.  

I agree that the climate situation is going to deteriorate significantly in the short term. I also agree with the critics who say that offsetting and other carbon trading schemes are partial or inadequate solutions. But, the politics is beyond the scope of what I’m addressing in these posts. Let’s establish the baseline reality first, then deal with the politics.

The public in general is not aware that the forests of the world today hold a small fraction of the carbon they once held. The studies to quantify this are numerous and our prior blog post mentioned some of the main statistics. The working forests of the world represent the bulk of the earth’s forest. Most of them are well below 30% of their carrying capacity. Some are below 10%.

Yet the carbon credits are being defined now and the market is huge. Whether we like it or not, this is going to happen. Big money is lined up for this and so are the politics and international agreements. What is not lined up is the will to tie these carbon credits to substantial permanent carbon sequestration, which can best happen by targeting the major forests of the Pacific Northwest. This area represents our biggest leverage point, a golden opportunity for maximum global cooling results.

On average, the great majority of the forestland of the planet can be at least tripled in terms of volume in less than a century. There is a large percentage of overcut and severely understocked forestlands that can be substantially restored to mature trees. All is needed is an incentive to do so.

Trees are mostly carbon. Multiplying standing inventories as a primary goal for granting carbon credits will encourage private landowners to do the right thing for climate and their pocketbooks. But, if they don’t have to, they won’t. The forest products industry and politicians are writing these rules. If the public does not demand significant and permanent sequestration, only minor improvements will occur and the main point will be obfuscated for short-term economic gain.

We can go on endless tangents about how larger forest inventories will be purchased by polluters to keep up the status quo, etc. But, let’s keep our eye on the ball. Those of us that know this basic reality need to raise our voices and let everyone know. If the public is aware that the great carbon sinks of the world are mostly not being utilized and that no plan exists to change this in any dramatic form, the debate may finally change.

The typical stand in the working forests of northern California, for example, has on average less than 10,000 board feet to the acre today when most averaged well over 40,000 prior to being cut. The most productive acreage in the area holds hundreds of thousands of board feet per acre still today in parks. There is room to grow dramatically.

The lands we manage have doubled their volume in 22 years and will double again in the coming decades despite several conservative and careful timber harvests. They are average quality Redwood and Douglas-Fir stands in the southern end of the Pacific Northwest forest. If we can achieve a 4 fold increase in less than 60 years, a 3 fold increase in less than 100 years forestwide is a reasonable goal that will also protect and create additional jobs in the industry.

I have received straight faced responses that say that collecting and permanently storing enormous quantities of carbon permanently will make no difference because of trade offs with huge polluters, etc. Yes, if the sequestered carbon is used to allow huge polluting interests to buy offsets, it is a wash, but this consideration cannot be a zero sum game.

The science says we must lower the amount of carbon in the atmosphere substantially, not just get to no net more carbon added to the atmosphere. If the goal then is to quickly stop the accumulation and begin to lower the amount, the forests are key to making this happen. They are willing and able now. They can triple their contribution in less than a century if we go about this in a constructive manner.

Give the forestland owners the incentives in the carbon market for volume increases. The more volume increases, the more carbon credit dollars. The increases must be permanent. You just need to lower the rate of cut permanently. Less wood quantity will be harvested, but better quality. The credits will bridge the gap financially in the first few decades until the forests are transformed from low volume stands that produce quantities of low quality lumber to high volume forests that will produce ever higher quality lumber at a premium.

Get involved. If you are in the industry and understand this to be true, please spread the word. Insist on huge and permanent standing inventory increases as a requirement for the carbon credits and no substitutes or half measures. It is the proven technology and like a factory sitting mostly unused, we have huge manufacturing capacity sitting idle. The forests can sequester a lot more carbon if we let them and in and of itself, this is big step in the right direction. Stay informed and spread this news!

Raul D. Hernandez founded Forever Redwood in 1995 by purchasing 41 acres of logged forestland and now manages over 700 acres of redwood forest with a focus on hands-on restoration. He incorporated the business in 1999, serves as its CEO, and wrote the manual "Old-Growth Again: Restoring Logged Forests One Tree at a Time." Raul spends his time between the Redwood forests of Annapolis, Ca., and the Forever Redwood woodworking shop in Ensenada, Baja California. Connect with him on the Forever Redwood Blog, Facebook, and Twitter. Read all of Raul's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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