Save our mature forests for climate, wildlife, water

“Working Forests” do little for our climate

Editorial by John Talberth, Center for Sustainable Economy

Everett Herald, April 8, 2023

Mature fir tree with undergrowth around it

A recent commentary (“Keep state’s working forests in climate change fight,” The Herald, March 18) gets it dead wrong: Forests that are left to grow, big, tall, and old capture and store far more carbon and emit much less than those repeatedly hammered by clearcutting, logging roads, chemicals and slash burning and replanted with monoculture tree plantations.

In fact, research published by scientists at Oregon State University and the University of Idaho has repeatedly found that industrial logging activities are a leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in Oregon and Washington state and that intensive logging leaves the landscape far more vulnerable to wildfires, floods, heat waves and water shortages than natural forests.

No amount of spin by timber industry lobbyists can change this scientific reality. Washington’s Department of Natural Resources needs more, not less authority to allow our public forestlands to be put in service of fighting the climate crisis while still producing revenue streams and economic benefits enjoyed by all Washingtonians.

Managed as real forests, and not tree farms, Washington forestlands can pull in and store carbon from the atmosphere better than any terrestrial ecosystem on the planet. Freely available forest carbon data shows that unlogged forestlands in Western Washington can pull in many times more carbon than they release from mortality, including wildfires. In contrast, heavily logged DNR and corporate lands barely break even, if that. This dramatic loss of natural carbon sequestration capacity means that carbon once being taken out of the atmosphere is now being left there, helping to drive an increasingly catastrophic climate crisis.

But leaving more of the forest off limits to clearcutting generates many more benefits than just climate stability. Diverse, natural forests provide effective shading for streams that bear salmon and other commercially valuable species. They provide sites for high quality recreational experiences that get people out in the woods while leaving their money circulating in nearby towns. They control flooding, reduce wildfire risk, and maintain water flow during increasingly hot and dry summers. And they can keep producing timber while doing all this with techniques like variable density thinning and selective logging that leave the forest canopy intact.

Modern foresters know how to manage a forest to do all this work. But the the March 18 commentary authors’ version of working forests — the one favored by the logging corporations they represent — the work is reduced down to a single task about as sophisticated as growing corn. Moreover, tree farms on both state DNR and corporate lands are kept behind locked gates that make sure public access, and oversight, is at a minimum. Ironically, the timber industry likes to accuse conservationists of locking up land, but their lands are the only ones that are literally locked up and devoted to a single, harmful use that precludes most other uses. This is the current state of most of our DNR lands: tree farms, not real forests. Leaving the status quo is climate suicide and bad economics.

To combat the climate crisis and give our rural towns the natural resources they need to diversify and prosper, things need to change fast. Legislators in Olympia should not only grant the Department of Natural Resources the latitude to forgo harmful logging projects to promote climate stability but make it a priority.

John Talberth, who holds a doctorate in international and environmental economics, is president and senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy. He also is co-director of the Forest Carbon Coalition.

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