As a forest ecologist, I have argued for decades that public forests need to be protected as our irreplaceable natural legacy. New studies from Oregon State University and Oregon’s Global Warming Commission Task Force on Forest Carbon show that there are critically important climate benefits to be added that could make Oregon the nation’s first carbon-neutral state if forestry practices are improved.
It turns out that Oregon’s forests are nature’s cooling towers. Through the process of photosynthesis, forests absorb atmospheric carbon and use it to make their food (sugar), storing excess carbon in tree trunks, plants and soils for centuries. When forests are cut down, most of this stored carbon is released to the atmosphere as a global warming pollutant from decomposing logging slash and the transport and manufacture of wood products. Forest loss globally accounts for some 17 percent of these pollutants. Clearcutting, mainly on private lands, and the sell-off of 320,000 acres of family-owned forests since 1974, is limiting the capacity of forests in Oregon to provide climate savings.
The good news is that new forest inventory data show enormous potential to increase theamount of forest carbon currently being absorbed, which is roughly equivalent to half of the state’s global warming emissions. Oregon can build on these climate gains by protecting all of the remaining older carbon-rich forests on public lands and extending the time between timber harvests on private lands from every few decades to 80 years or longer, thereby storing even more carbon.
For this to work on private lands, competitive carbon pricing will need to be established to level the economic playing field for climate-smart forestry. State legislators can also help by taxing clearcut logging practices and providing revenue to landowners who forgo climate-damaging practices. Restoring clearcut forests and planting trees on agricultural lands that were previously forested, would save even more carbon.
Researchers also found that wildfires emit far less global warming pollution than thinning over large landscapes. Burning woody biomass (logging residues) as fuel is also being dubbed the “new coal” for its substantial emissions. Using wood to build skyscrapers also stores far less carbon than if that wood was stored in older forests, as most buildings last for decades while forests can hold carbon for centuries.
Keeping Oregon’s climate from overheating will take a swift transition to clean renewable energy. However, forests can provide an important bridge that’s not currently considered in the state’s emissions reduction targets. Climate-smart forestry also provides clean water, which will become increasingly scarce in dry regions, and flood protection in wet areas. The public also gains with higher quality fish and wildlife habitat for the outdoor recreation economy.
Legislators can jump-start the process of making Oregon carbon neutral by passing the Clean Energy and Jobs bill and including science-based climate-smart forestry along with much needed financial incentives. Without that, Oregon will fail to meet its emissions targets, contributing to runaway climate change and further degradation of the state’s forest-climate legacy.
— Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D, is chief scientist at the Geos Institute and a member of Oregon’s Task Forest on Carbon. These views are his own.