Oregon has faced severe climate impacts in recent years, from deadly heat waves to ice storms that left thousands of people without power for days.
Persistent drought, wildfires and changing rainfall patterns have also put our most vulnerable communities at risk. Given the gravity of the situation, it is essential that we use all the tools in the toolbox to prevent future climate impacts from worsening.
Although Oregon has made real progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, emissions reductions alone are not enough. We also need to extract a significant amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and there is currently no technology capable of doing this on the scale necessary. Fortunately, our oldest, simplest and most cost-effective climate solutions – forests – have yet to be fully utilized to combat climate change.
Forests on US public lands have been heavily logged over the past century, and natural and historic levels of carbon in the landscape have been severely depleted. While trees can live for centuries, most wood products only last a few decades and much of that carbon ends up in the atmosphere.
Experts estimate that up to 95% of primary forests (those that have never been logged) have been lost in the United States. Globally, 26% of man-made emissions since 1870 are due to deforestation.
Scientists widely agree that we should focus on maintaining the carbon stored in trees and soils across the landscape, especially in mature and old-growth forests. When we cut down trees that have been extracting carbon from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds of years, very little of the carbon that once made up these ancient giants is actually stored in long-lived wood products.
Moreover, it takes decades for even a small fraction of the lost carbon to be recovered in a replacement sapling – time we don’t have. A study found that 65% of carbon from Oregon forests logged over the past 115 years remains in the atmosphere, and only 19% is stored in products.
The good news is that we have already begun the process of recovering carbon stores in the forests through better management under the North West Forest Plan, which has helped slow logging and enabled our public forests in the Pacific Northwest to go from a source of carbon emissions to a carbon sin.kbut these practices alone are no longer enough.
Many mature and old-growth forests (which store the most carbon) are still on the chopping block at a time when we cannot afford to lose them. These forests on federal lands are the true climate champions in the landscape. While young tree plantations grow rapidly and recover some of the carbon lost during clear-cutting, there is no comparison between the amount of carbon stored in an ancient giant and a spindly 20-year-old tree.
In the temperate rainforest region of western Oregon, older forests can have a higher carbon density per acre than even the Amazon.
In addition to protecting watersheds, taller, older trees tend to be naturally more fire resistant – they have fire-resistant bark and their high canopies help maintain a cool, moist understory. Keeping the largest and oldest trees on the landscape and protecting them from logging does not conflict with the need to protect communities from the threat of fire.
Agencies like the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must do better to actively advance climate solutions. The Forest Service recently released a Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan and a 10-Year Wildfire Strategy, but neither document articulated a plan to also conserve mature and old-growth forests and the carbon they hold. store.
In response, most members of the Oregon congressional delegation, led by U.S. Ron Wyden and U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer, rightly called on these agencies to protect the oldest and largest trees. as part of their climate strategy.
We need to think big when it comes to climate solutions. After all, we need it to deal with the magnitude of the threat we face.
Establishing a strong and lasting rule on federal public lands that protects our remaining mature and old-growth forests from logging and allows more of these giants to grow is a no-brainer. President Joe Biden was right to pledge to lead by example when it comes to protecting forests. Now he has to order the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to do it.