Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net 202/628-6500
A bill proposed in Congress that would increase logging activities in Oregon jeopardizes the Pacific Northwest’s forests’ ability to capture and store carbon dioxide, scientists argue in a new study.
The bill in question, proposed last year by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), significantly increases logging levels on Bureau of Land Management’s O&C lands while imposing new protections for approximately 1 million acres of forest, including stands of carbon-rich, old-growth forests (Greenwire, Nov. 26, 2013).
Dominick DellaSala, one of the study’s authors and chief scientist at the Geos Institute in Ashland, Ore., said that despite the added protections, the legislation would make Oregon’s forests a net carbon source rather than a carbon sink. DellaSala has been a frequent critic of Wyden’s bill since it was introduced.
“If that bill goes forward and legislation becomes the law of the land, then the BLM is mandated to increase its logging level by doubling the logging affecting those high biomass forests,” DellaSala said. “If you run the calculations using our data on high biomass forests and you convert that to carbon dioxide releases based on known studies, you come up with the equivalent of a release of carbon dioxide that would be on the order of Oregon’s dirtiest coal fired power plant.”
The study, published in the July 2014 edition of the journal Environmental Management, calls Oregon and Washington’s forests “among the most [carbon] dense in the world.”
While high-biomass forest covers less than 3 percent of the contiguous United States, 56.8 percent of this forest is located in the Pacific Northwest. The study also found that 68 percent of BLM forests in Oregon and Washington are high-biomass.
The researchers used satellite imagery, ground-level data and publicly available data sets to locate forests with high carbon storage abilities in the Pacific Northwest. It then analyzed how these forests were disturbed between 2000 and 2008 and mapped their protection status.
It found that 9 percent of Oregon’s high-biomass forests are under as strict levels of protection as in national parks, while 31 percent of Washington’s high-biomass forests were strictly protected. However, a larger percentage of these forests are managed as late-successional reserves under the Northwest Forest Plan, a management designation that does offer some level of protection.
In total, the study states, 26 percent of the region’s high-biomass forests are not protected from logging at all.
DellaSala said that the old-growth areas where harvesting would be prohibited in Wyden’s bill aren’t enough to maintain the forests’ carbon capture value.
“From a CO2 standpoint, as you get closer to the coast of Oregon, you get into forest that has some of the highest biomass estimates on a per-acre basis in the world,” he said. “The kind of logging in those forests, it’s disproportional in terms of the release of CO2 because they’re so dense in carbon to begin with, and those are the ones that are vulnerable in Wyden’s legislation.”
A spokesman for Wyden declined to comment on the study.
Like DellaSala, some environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and American Bird Conservancy oppose the bill. However, a handful of other conservation group leaders support it (E&ENews PM, Nov. 26, 2013).
Among them is Laurie Wayburn, president of the nonprofit the Pacific Forest Trust. She said in an interview that DellaSala’s claim that the legislation would result in more emissions than a power plant “would appear to be some hyperbole” because of the slow permitting process that would take place before the O&C lands could be harvested.
Wayburn agreed that the Pacific Northwest’s old-growth forests are valuable carbon sinks and merit high levels of protection.
“That said, we also have a number of forests in the Pacific Northwest which are heavily overcrowded with young trees that are there because of fire suppression, they’re there because when replanting was done, way too many stems per acre were put in,” Wayburn said, adding that these management practices have led to higher fuel loads and higher carbon emissions when wildfires do happen.
“I think we have to recognize Mr. Wyden’s bill is focused on helping to try to correct the latter situation — we have to recognize that walking away from those forests is not a solution,” Wayburn said.
“I think it’s challenging for people to get beyond the cut, no-cut paradigm,” she added. “But really, we have to get beyond that, particularly with climate change.”
DellaSala responded that he does support restoration thinning in flammable tree plantations. But, he added, “clearcut logging removes far more carbon from a forest than wildfires. Wyden’s legislation also overturns current protections in the Northwest Forest Plan and would accelerate logging.”