by Martha Walden for 11th Hour
We live with awesome forces of nature here in Humboldt County. Ocean, wind, and forest are wild, but they also have potential for stabilizing the climate. Ocean and wind have energy to spare, so we may host wind turbines and tidal or wave energy turbines sometime coming up. Forest is a little different. Forest can be converted into energy by burning forest products, but the resulting carbon emissions exceed those of all other fuels, including coal.
Forests have more important roles to play, so the more we can let them grow, the better. Trees are arguably the most important lifeforms on the planet. They clean the air, produce oxygen, store water, protect streams and fish, lower temperatures, slow down the wind, and provide homes to creatures big and small. Trees also emit beauty and calm, provide privacy, and inspire poetry. AND they sequester carbon.
Worldwide, forests sequester 30% of the world’s carbon. They could sequester much more if we treated them wisely. Reducing fuel loads by composting woody residues and returning them to the soil — which stores half of the forest’s carbon — is by far healthier, all the way around, than burning.
Who are the world champs of carbon sequestration? Redwoods, of course! Old-growth forests, whether redwoods or other compositions, gorge on carbon. Contrary to popular timber-company wisdom from not that long ago, trees actually store more carbon per year as they grow older than when they were young. Old-growth forests are also the least fire-prone. The foolishness of logging old-growth at this date doesn’t say much for our IQ as a species.
Requiring varying levels of management and conservation, second and third growth forests are prized for a variety of reasons, including timber, which provides lumber for our houses and millions of useful, beautiful artifacts. But forests logged too hastily and too heavily emit carbon. It can take twenty years for a logged forest to become a carbon sink again, and a hundred years for it to sequester as much as it did before the logging.
This might surprise you, but most forest-land in the United States is not owned by timber companies or by the public. Regular people own the majority. Many of them are asking what they can do with their forests to combat climate change. One answer is to enroll in a land trust. Pacific Forest Trust is a conservation land trust that manages, most notably, the Van Eck forests here in Humboldt and on the Oregon coast. Their goal is to re-achieve the ecological qualities of an old-growth forest even while harvesting trees for timber. Conservation is actually the basis of everything we need — from lumber to the many public benefits I’ve already described. The profits are less only in the short term.
Another option for some private forest owners is to sell carbon credits, so they can earn money and protect their trees at the same time. Unfortunately, enrolling in the program is prohibitively expensive for most small landowners mainly because of the inventorying costs. Programs operating on the East Coast have figured out how to aggregate small holdings and share the benefits. Let’s hope we’ll see something similar here before long.