Last month in Seattle, President Biden signed an executive order directing the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to inventory mature and old-growth forests nationwide, identify threats to them, and write policies to protect forests that contain some of the biggest and oldest trees in America. Later that month, our state’s Commissioner of Public Lands announced a plan to set aside 10,000 acres, or 0.5 percent of state timber lands, for carbon storage.
While these are positive steps that tie themselves to larger climate protection measures, we desperately need many more and bolder steps. For example, the President’s Order does not ban the logging of mature and old-growth trees. Nor does it cover state, county, tribal, or privately-owned forests, or go as far as proposed bipartisan legislation. It can also be overturned by the next president with the stroke of a pen. Different administrations have whipsawed the public for decades with dueling sets of logging rules. The State Commissioner’s move, while also positive, is in conflict with the state’s plans to log 10,000 acres of similar forest in just two years.
Trees such as California’s giant sequoias and redwoods, and the huge firs, spruces and cedars in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, are massive “carbon sinks,” meaning they absorb and store billions of tons of carbon in their trunks, branches, roots and leaves – and in the soil beneath. In fact, Pacific Northwest forests are one of the largest carbon sinks in the world. A 2020 study of six national forests, mostly in Oregon, found that only 3 percent of the largest trees stored 42 percent of the carbon sequestered by these forests. According to the study, each year from 2009 to 2018, forests around the world removed the equivalent of about 30 percent of global fossil fuel emissions. Temperate forests were responsible for removing nearly half that total. In the United States, temperate forests are the largest category of carbon sinks, and consistently offset 14 percent of U.S. CO2 emissions. Since the U.S. is one of the world’s largest emitters, that’s a lot of carbon.
Forests in the Pacific Northwest contain one of the densest accumulations of carbon in the world – over 600 tons per acre above ground, and 200 tons per acre below – and that’s just in the top meter of soil. Below-ground carbon storage capacity in Pacific Northwest forest soils exceeds that of grassland, cropland, and all other types of forest, leaving it second only to Arctic permafrost.
These large trees also have other significant benefits, such as increasing drought tolerance, reducing flooding, redistributing water in soil, altering wildfire behavior, creating micorrhyzal networks between trees, and creating microclimates that shelter understory species from rising temperatures. They also create critical habitat for a disproportionate number of endangered species, and “mega-corridor” links for migrating species.
Washington is the second largest lumber-producing state in the U.S., with at least 21 million acres of forest covering almost half the state. Two-thirds of forestlands are publicly owned and one-third are privately owned. The federal government manages about 44 percent of Washington’s publicly owned forests, the vast majority by the U.S. Forest Service but also by the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Department of Defense. The State of Washington has about 2.5 million acres, mostly managed by their Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Smaller acreages are owned and managed by county and municipal entities, and some are owned and managed by Tribes. The rest are privately owned, largely by timber companies.
With more than 16 million of Washington’s 21 million acres forest classified as “unreserved timberland,” which means “not withdrawn from use,” that use being growing and harvesting timber, this means 76 percent of our state’s forests are subject to potential harvest.
Under natural conditions, old-growth Douglas Fir forests develop after 175 to 250 years. While 80 is still a relatively young age for fir, cedar and spruce trees, many other types of species need to live in such forests, on the resources that these mixed-age biodiverse habitats provide.
The DNR has a policy to not harvest old-growth stands that date from before 1850, according to the Center for Responsible Forestry. But DNR has issued conflicting statements. On the one hand, they said their Habitat Conservation Plan and Policy for Sustainable Forests require them to conserve biodiversity and protect old growth. That Policy, however, actually says state forest lands are not to be managed for biodiversity, but rather to generate revenue for some beneficiaries to the exclusion of all other interests. This is despite the fact that the Washington State Constitution requires that state forest lands be managed for the benefit of all the people. DNR’s Policy is currently being challenged in the Washington State Supreme Court.
The protection of large trees is hugely controversial. There’s also a debate on what counts as a “mature” tree. While some say harvesting trees at 80 years instead of 40, (known as “long rotations”) can store more carbon and yield more timber, others say we should stop harvesting after 80 years and just let these trees grow, protect water, wildlife and sequester large amounts of carbon–unless exceptional conditions such as crowding render these trees unhealthy without treatments like selective thinning.
There’s intense debate on whether wildfire suppression over the years has led to forests becoming so dense that they need thinning, even though some of the trees are more than 80 years old. In some forest stands where harvest took place 100+ years ago, the trees have regrown so thickly that even the oldest ones don’t have room to develop characteristics of old-growth trees. Would thinning such stands allow the remaining trees to grow better over the next few decades, thus mitigating the initial loss of carbon with more future storage? Or would thinning release too much carbon, or even cut the wrong trees? Or should all 80-year-old trees, no matter where or in what condition, be spared the axe? It’s complicated.
Until recently, no forests anywhere had been formally set aside as carbon reserves for mitigating climate change. The announcement by Washington’s Commissioner of Public Lands (who oversees the DNR) to set aside 10,000 acres, or half of one percent of state timber lands, for carbon storage is a great first step, but not if it’s to merely offset the DNR’s aggressive clear-cutting plans for older forests. More than 5,000 acres similar to the carbon reserve are slated for cutting in the next year alone. Many of these forests are more than 100 years old, and will be gone in a few years if DNR’s plans stand.
The given reason for DNR’s logging of state trust lands is to pay for school construction, but even Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has called for an end to linking the cutting of these “legacy” forests with school construction. This is because less than 5 percent of funding for school construction comes from timber harvest on state land. Could the funding stream for state trust lands be reconfigured? Shouldn’t these lands benefit all the people, as stated in the Constitution? And shouldn’t those benefits contribute to a healthier ecosystem and a sustainable climate?
Washington’s actions, whether on state, federal, county, tribal, or private lands, are not unconnected to the global commons. A United Nations report from 2021 says the countries of the world need to deliver on their collective commitment to restore one billion hectares (2.4 billion acres) of land worldwide in the next decade. Humanity is using about 1.6 times the amount of services that nature can provide sustainably, and conservation efforts alone are not enough. “Degradation [of land and water] is already affecting the well-being of an estimated 3.2 billion people – that is 40 percent of the world’s population,” says the report. “Every single year we lose ecosystem services worth more than 10 percent of our global economic output,” it adds, stressing that “massive gains await us” by reversing these trends.
According to this report, global restoration costs – not including costs of restoring marine ecosystems – are estimated to be at least $200 billion per year by 2030. It suggests that every dollar invested in restoration will create up to $30 in economic benefits. So, public proclamations aren’t enough. We need more, larger, and bolder conservation and restoration measures that can’t be reversed by political whim. We need to collectively focus on a coordinated vision for the future, on a scale that hasn’t been done before.
Near the end of his life the renowned biologist E.O. Wilson advocated for protecting “Half the Earth” – half of all land and sea in order to manage enough habitat to reverse the species extinction crisis and ensure the long-term health of our planet. Everyone knows infinite growth in a finite system is neither rational, smart, nor possible. Our big Pacific Northwest trees have a giant role to play, if we’ll let them.
Headline photo by Adam Nieścioruk