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Forests play a role in fighting climate change

The Earth recently experienced its hottest days on record. The blistering heat waves are yet another ominous indication of climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

The changing climate and extremes of weather pose consequences for our forested landscapes. In recognition of this, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are considering how to better manage forests to enhance their contribution to storing carbon and how to make forests more resilient in an era of climate change. Through next week, until July 20, the agencies are asking the public for ideas about how to accomplish these goals.

It’s part of an all-hands-on deck approach to tackling climate change by pursuing all available means to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

At one end of the spectrum, there are Rube Goldberg schemes to directly extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, an enormously expensive and inefficient technology to date. Others have proposed capturing carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossils fuels at power plants, a still expensive, technology-intensive approach that ignores the rather simpler solution of just creating electricity directly from renewable sources that don’t produce carbon dioxide to begin with.

But even easier in the arsenal of approaches to reducing atmosphere carbon dioxide is fostering the passive uptake of carbon by forests. With 178 million acres under public management, encouraging forest practices that protect existing stores of carbon held by old-growth forests and promoting additional carbon capture can provide significant benefit at little cost.

The Forest Service estimates that more than 10% of U.S. carbon emissions are taken up and stored in America’s forests, including old growth and other wildland and urban forests. Old growth forests tend to have higher carbon density and store more carbon than younger forests. Many old-growth forests also have resilient characteristics like thick bark, high canopies and deep roots.

While old growth forests are best both at storing carbon and preventing wildfires, little old-growth remains across much of the ponderosa pine zone in particular across our region. The agencies have thus created a new descriptive category of “mature” forest, which are forests moving toward old-growth conditions with larger diameter trees. Letting mature forests age further can both diminish carbon dioxide concentrations and mitigate wildfire risks.

The idea behind the new management rules is to require managers consider a forest’s contribution to carbon storage and resilience to climate change impacts as they evaluate forest management projects. It entails a new way of thinking for some managers, to weigh traditional logging approaches against those that emphasize carbon storage or forest resilience.

Our forests are subject to many competing interests. There is a desire to vigorously reduce the density of fuels in areas immediately adjacent to homes and communities, in order to better protect the built infrastructure as fire regimes change and become more unpredictable. In many other places across the landscape, there is a need to consider what forest composition best contributes to long-term carbon storage and uptake of carbon dioxide, and can best withstand greater extremes of climate.

A nationwide rule as contemplated can only require more robust analysis and consideration of options by national forest and BLM managers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work equally well for our Southwest ponderosa pine forests as it does for coastal redwood forests. But managers can in either case evaluate the role of forests in mitigating climate change.

Maneuvering through the bureaucracy to offer feedback can be onerous, but fortunately, groups like the Outdoor Alliance have an easy link to submitting comments on the potential rules, along with references to relevant climate research: www.outdooralliance.org.

Mark Pearson is executive director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.