Can Forests Save the Planet?
In the 1980s, as chainsaws chewed their way ever deeper into old-growth forests, the movement to save and preserve forests in the United States claimed the national spotlight. The Redwood Summer of 1990 drew hundreds of young people to the giant sequoia groves of northern California in an attempt to stop the destruction of some of the largest trees in the country. At the same time, in the Pacific Northwest, a fight over preserving old-growth forests pitted the timber industryand small town economiesagainst the northern spotted owl, resulting in millions of forested acres on public land being preserved as habitat. From Alaska to Montana, Maine to New Mexico, unchecked logging on national forests ground to a halt as environmental laws were tested and retested in the courts.
The argument for forest preservation centered around both the tangible and intangible benefits which forests providefrom clean water and wildlife habitat to solitude, spiritual solace and magnificent scenery. As researchers uncovered new information about the complex ecosystems that sheltered flora and fauna, recreationistsfrom hikers to rafters to skiersbecame more adamant about wilderness protection. Forests became recognized as an American birthright, valuable for far more than timber and not easily replaced once they were gone.
But in the early 1990s the idea that forests played a vital role in the carbon cycle of the planet was barely on the radar screen for preservationists. A handful of scientists understood the concept, of course, but saving the forests for their carbon-storing ability was hardly center stage in the fight to retain the last of the old growth.
As it turns out, whats been good for the forests has been good for the planet, too. While scientists wrestle with how to mitigate the effects of ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, forests have become a significant factor in the carbon cycle equation. According to the World Resources Institute, forest soils and vegetation store 40 percent of all carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, and deforestation generates about 20 percent of human-caused carbon emissions, second only to fossil fuel combustion.
Climate change has catapulted forests onto the international agenda after years of languishing in the dusty corridors of [the United Nation] meetings, William Jackson, the deputy director general of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stated at the World Forestry Congress in Buenos Aires in October. Jackson was speaking globally; land-use changes worldwide, particularly tropical deforestation, continue to play a significant role in carbon sequestration and release.
But the question of how to manage forests in the United States is challenging both public and private landowners. Scientists at the Pacific Northwest Research Station predict that future public land management will have considerable impact on the carbon balance in the country. For instance, they predict that eliminating harvests on public lands, which represent about 20 percent of the forested area in the country, would result in an increase of 17 to 29 million metric tons of carbon storage annually.
Public land managers dont have a mandate to manage forests for carbon sequestration, but if they do decide to make carbon storage a priority, conflicting information may make that task difficult. Even as this issue goes to press, new science on forest management is emerging.
The use of biomass for energy, long considered an alternative to burning fossil fuels, is hardly carbon neutral, according to a report published in Science. A study from researchers at Oregon State University says that warming global temperatureswidely cited for causing hotter and more severe fires, as well as an increase in insect infestations and disease in forestscould spur tree growth in some areas, allowing them to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere.
In the following section, we tackle some of the issues surrounding forests and carbon sequestration. In To Thin or To Store, Joshua Zaffos examines the vexing decisions facing forest managers as they deal with the tradeoffs between forest health and maximum carbon storage. Late in 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture set up the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets, headed by Sally Collins, the former associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service. In Green Economy, Jennifer Weeks interviews Collins about the goals of the new office and its push to put a market price on clean water and carbon storage.
At the World Forestry Conference, Jackson said halting forest loss has been identified as one of the most cost-effective ways to help the world forestall runaway climate change. Understanding the vital role that forests play in the carbon balance equationand managing timberland to maximize its carbon capabilitieswill be an ongoing challenge, but one that will be well worth meeting.