My Turn: Forests and the climate crisis

  • The Presidential Range in the White Mountain National Forest in a photo taken from Hart’s Location in 2013. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 1/23/2020 7:00:18 AM

The ongoing fires in the Australian bush (their term for forests) and the earlier attention on increasing fires in the Amazon have once again focused our attention on the importance of forests to human civilization and its future.

Certainly, the value of forests in sequestering carbon is an important part of any calculation on how we solve the climate crisis. Worldwide forests capture and hold almost half of the carbon stored on land. One recent study suggested that one important part of a multi-faceted climate solution involves planting a trillion trees around the world.

Despite Donald Trump’s disingenuous statement at Davos committing the United States to participate in the trillion trees initiative, his administration is moving exactly in the wrong direction.

President Trump is seeking to open up our largest temperate rain forest in Alaska, the Tongass National Forest, to massive clear-cutting of old-growth forests. This proposal is both an insult to climate change efforts but also an affront to a years-long process of negotiations among timber interests, fishermen, Native tribes, recreation interests and many others that produced a Tongass forest plan focused on protecting old growth, and emphasizing harvest in younger, second-growth forests. A key goal is to protect the 25% of the nation’s commercial salmon harvest that depends on these old forests. The new collaboratively approved plan emphasized management of younger second-growth forests.

The Tongass can and should be managed to both sequester carbon and produce sustainable harvests of timber and wood products, but building hundreds to thousands of miles of new roads to enable old growth timber to be cut is both bad for the climate and turns out to be a massive money loser. The Forest Service has said that it will take $20 million a year in government subsidies to make this harvesting possible. Why Trump would go against this carefully negotiated, scientifically based plan can only be interpreted as a blatant political payback to a select few industrial forestry interests.

Saving old growth is important but we should not interpret the myriad studies about the importance of forests to imply that we should “lock them up” and not take advantage of the other benefits forests provide. Carbon sequestration is a function of the growth of trees, and most scientists would agree that while we should preserve, intact, the old “virgin” forests that contain huge stores of carbon in trees, including their roots and the soil, we need to recognize that younger forests actually take more CO2 out of the air on an annual basis. We need both.

Consider this: The carbon stored in tropical rain forests is primarily in the woody parts of the trees and their roots. Leaves that fall to the forest floor in this constantly warm, humid environment are quickly decomposed into nutrients and recycled. On the other hand, the temperate forests of New England and other northern latitudes store carbon not only in trees but in the accumulated organic matter of the forest floor. We know that at least half of the carbon in our northern forests is stored below ground in roots, humus, fungi and bacteria. Our northern forests are no less important to the planet than our tropical forests.

When we harvest trees from our local forests, especially in the winter, and leave partial tree cover to keep the soil intact and shaded from summer heat, we have the opportunity to retain the carbon benefits and enjoy a renewable resource of values including water retention, wildlife diversity, recreation and scenic beauty.

Most of our state’s forest is responsibly managed and produces high-quality fiber for furniture, construction and other uses that keep the carbon stored for decades if not centuries. Some goes into less durable goods like paper, and a fair amount into wood fuels, including to generate electricity. Some have argued that burning wood biomass for energy is detrimental to our efforts to curb carbon pollution, but others point out that managing our forests requires markets for low-grade wood that would not exist without the biomass plants.

Further, wood energy is a long-term sustainable process that in net results in healthier forests that sequester more carbon in older, larger trees that can then be manufactured into durable goods that hold carbon for decades, if not centuries.

The ultimate challenge is not exactly which uses we put the forest to but keeping the forest as forest. Our state, at 84% forested, is the second most forested in the nation. But we are slowly losing it. Rural land converted to large house lots, commercial developments, etc., slowly erodes our forests.

Many years ago, compelling science in hand, we decided we needed to protect wetlands in our state. Over the years, we have essentially adopted a policy of “no net loss” of wetland functions in our landscape. The benefits are many. What we need to do now is consider adopting a “no net loss of forests” policy. That doesn’t mean no cutting trees.

What it does mean is that we need to manage our forests well, as we mostly have been doing. But it means that when new development fragments the forest and eliminates its myriad benefits, we compensate for that by restoring forests on other lands. It’s not particularly difficult. Trees grow here whenever we give them a decent opportunity, and on abandoned or unproductive farmland or other lands eventually those trees become a forest.

When a wetland must be destroyed in our state these days, we require mitigation with the creation of new wetlands, or if that’s not possible the protection and restoration of other high-quality wetlands. Forests deserve the same consideration.

And this idea should go national. It might if science had any influence on the current administration.

It’s clear to many that there are forests in America that can and should be managed to produce economic and other benefits. It should also be clear that some of our forests deserve protection as wild lands, especially the now-rare forests that have never been managed and represent our natural heritage of original forests. Forests, both managed and “preserved,” are a critical part of the solution to climate change, and it’s time we decided not to lose any more of them.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare. Before retirement he was vice president for land conservation at the Society for the Protection of N.H. Forests.)

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