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Earth Day reminds us to think globally, act locally

Many of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws came about in the tumultuous ’60s, including the first Earth Day celebration in 1970.

Back then, pesticides were in our food, the air was choked with smog, and our national symbol, the bald eagle, was nearing extinction. President Richard Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency jumpstarted its mission to “protect human health and the environment.”

We all have benefited from the heroic activism and bipartisan leadership of that era. But we have a long way to go to a safe climate and thriving planet.

In 1992, I spoke at the United Nations Earth Summit, as one of 1,000 scientists that sent a letter to U.N. delegates warning of an extinction crisis. In 2011, I led a team of scientists in calling on U.N .delegates to protect forests as a natural climate solution at the climate summit in Durban, South Africa. More recently, a letter was organized by my colleague, Dr. William Ripple of Oregon State University, signed by over 25,000 of the world’s top climate scientists. We warned humanity about the consequences of rapidly dwindling natural areas and an overheating planet. Responding to unprecedented greenhouse gas emissions, last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its most dire climate projections yet. This prompted U.N. Secretary General António Guterres to issue a code red emergency.

Despite multiple warnings, an ice sheet the size of Nevada in western Antarctica will soon collapse into the warming sea, which will eventually inundate California’s coastline. Native villages in Alaska are fleeing ancestral grounds as permafrost melts. Oregon’s Labor Day 2020 fires, driven by extreme fire weather, forced thousands to evacuate with over 2,700 structures destroyed in our area alone. Most of Oregon is currently in another drought. Climate chaos is now intertwined with the unraveling of the natural world globally and locally.

We must do three things while there is precious time remaining: (1) end our addiction to fossil fuels and the corporations and unjust governments that profit from them (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela); (2) protect older forests and big trees as natural climate solutions while we drastically cut carbon emissions from clearcut logging hillsides and polluting our streams; and (3) adapt to wildfires by hardening homes and creating defensible space rather than spending billions of infrastructure dollars on subsidized logging that will only make matters worse.

During the November 2021 Climate Summit in Glasgow, 140 world leaders, including President Joe Biden, pledged to end global forest destruction by 2030. We already have lost a third of the world’s primary (unlogged) forests — including nearly all old growth in our region. Every minute of every day the equivalent of 18 soccer fields of forests are chopped down. Most forest destruction is in the tropics, but for a birds-eye view of our region’s losses, simply look out the plane window while flying over the sea of clearcuts.

The president can lead by example by protecting mature forests and large trees on federal lands. Our older forests are nature’s best climate solution because they absorb and store massive amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide while purifying our drinking water. Fortunately, the Tongass rainforest in Alaska is transitioning out of old-growth logging and into previously logged but reforested areas to meet timber needs. This needs to happen nationally.

Last month myself and singer-songwriter and activist Carol King testified in the U.S. House Committee on Government Oversight at a hearing on wildfires. At the hearing, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced a plan to quadruple logging as part of a “wildfire paradigm shift.” King and I warned about how this will only worsen the fire and climate crises. We showed how the combined effects of extreme fire weather from climate change and industrial logging that leaves piles of flammable logging slash and densely packed young trees is priming the fire pump. Logging also produces up to 10 times the carbon emissions of wildfires and insect outbreaks combined, creating a dangerous feedback loop for even more fires.

Building fire-safe communities means retrofitting structures for fire safety and removing flammable vegetation within 100 feet of structures. Surgically applied thinning can play a role in reducing fire risk in timber plantations. Most fires affecting towns tend to spill over from heavily logged private lands, and that should be the priority along with ending clearcut logging practices.

We all need to think globally by acting locally to solve the extinction and climate crises that otherwise will increasingly affect everyone, especially future generations. The path forward is clear — clean renewable energy and protection of natural climate solutions.

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D, chief scientist for Wild Heritage, is an award-winning scientist with 300 peer-reviewed publications and books, including his latest, “Conservation Science & Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.”