Oregon's unlogged forests are nature's climate solution
Every fall, raging hurricanes and urban-wildfires remind us of the inconvenient truth: the climate is getting increasingly weird and dangerous.
Scientists have made it clear that if we hope to avoid escalating climate disruptions, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground while simultaneously drawing down carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere primarily from burning fossil fuels and global forest destruction.
In fact, experts have determined that the most effective strategy to remove carbon from the atmosphere at a meaningful scale is to protect the world’s remaining unlogged forests and replenish what has been lost by replanting trees and letting them grow to maturity. One study estimates that natural carbon solutions can provide more than one-third of the carbon reduction the world needs to meet the Paris Climate Agreements.
This is especially relevant in our region, where scientists have documented some of the most carbon-dense forests on Earth. Unlogged forests generally capture and store 30-50% more carbon than logged forests with most of that capture accomplished by the oldest trees. A recent report by the Oregon Global Warming Commission has both good and bad news. The good news is Oregon’s forests currently are a net carbon warehouse – capturing more carbon then they emit – and that forest fires are not a big source of emissions. However, the capacity to store carbon has been greatly diminished by decades of logging, especially on state and private lands.
Rampant clearcutting in the post-war period replaced much of our carbon-dense and biodiverse old-growth forests with monoculture tree plantations, transferring massive amounts of carbon to the atmosphere where it combined with global emissions now impacting us all through climate chaos. But the regional forestry emissions picture changed dramatically in the mid-90’s with the Northwest Forest Plan that turned National Forests into the current carbon warehouse.
Today, the National Forests of Oregon and Washington accumulate 7 million metric tons of carbon per year, the equivalent of 24% of all fossil fuel emissions in both states! Despite these gains, they still only store 63% of their maximum capacity, which means there is ample room for forestry improvements on public lands. On private lands, as little as 33% of nature’s carbon storage capacity is being achieved because they are clearcut so often under weak forestry laws. Unless private logging laws drastically change, public lands will have to be where the biggest gains in carbon storage are made.
Scientists are beginning to coalesce around a new approach to describe carbon capture by the world’s forests: “Proforestation” – growing forests to their greatest carbon potential. This means letting trees grow to a ripe old age. Research has found that this strategy can help us draw down carbon levels, support imperiled wildlife, maintain clean water, and make communities more resilient to extreme drought and floods.
Proforestation also means working with natural processes – such as wildfire – by focusing suppression on home protection and preparing homes for wildfires instead of logging in the backcountry. Wildfire is an essential and elemental force in dry forests that isn’t going away, no matter how much money we throw at it. Where fire is misbehaving is in the heavily logged landscapes as demonstrated by studies across the West, including Oregon.
Unfortunately, the best available science is being ignored by Governor Kate Brown’s Wildfire Council that is calling for billions of dollars to intensify fire suppression and dramatically increase commercial logging. Such policies will not reduce summer-time smoke or contain large fires that race through logged areas during extreme fire weather events triggered by climate chaos. The money is better spent helping communities directly prepare for wildfires and reforming forestry practices as recently recommended to the Wildfire Response Council by seven conservation groups. Oregon will not meet its ambitious carbon emissions reductions without forests as natural climate solutions.
Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., chief scientist for the Ashland-based Geos Institute, is an award-winning scientist with over 200 peer-reviewed publications and books. He has served on Gov. Kate Brown’s forest carbon advisory committee and the Global Warming Commission’s forest carbon group. John Talberth, Ph.D., is president and senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy and co-director of the Forest Carbon Coalition.