Forests and Climate Change, Not Clearcut

“If you don’t have the law, you argue the facts; if you don’t have the facts, you argue the law; if you have neither the facts nor the law, then you argue the Constitution” – John Adams

Poster from The Green Chain used by permission

It’s not clearcut

At Issue: Clearcutting and Climate Change

On January 27, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a Tucson-based environmental advocacy group, filed suit against my former employer.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) regulates harvesting on California’s non-federal forests. Oddly, CBD isn’t claiming clearcutting 5,000 acres (none of harvest areas are greater than 40 acres[1]) disrupts habitat and thus endangers plants and animals. No, they’ve filed suit because clearcutting, ostensibly, increases global warming. “A clearcut is about as beneficial to the climate as a new coal-fired power plant,” says Brian Nowicki, CBD’s California climate policy director. At issue is whether Cal Fire “failed to carry out any project-specific analysis of the (greenhouse gas) emissions that would come from clearcutting projects it approved.”

“A clearcut is about as beneficial to the climate as a new coal-fired power plant “– Brian” Nowicki, CBD’s California climate policy director

Forests do a good job of soaking up carbon dioxide (CO2), a “greenhouse gas.” When harvesting removes the trees, some of the carbon in the soil, branches, litter, and leaves, escapes back into the atmosphere. It may be more than normal but it’s normal. Forests constantly exchange carbon, pulling CO2 from the air and putting it back through respiration. One textbook I consulted said of a normal forest, “Measurements have shown as much as 20 pounds [of CO2] per acre per hour being liberated from soil.”

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) estimates 80% of the terrestrially exchanged carbon is done by forests. California’s forests pull more than 14 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 annually from the atmosphere. “Most foresters I talk to feel the 14 million metric tons gross sequestration [the incorporation of carbon into the tree] rate is an underestimate,” said Gary Nakamura, Forestry Specialist for University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Forestry and a member of the California Board of Forestry.

Fires, harvesting, insect kill, disease, and the decomposition of forest products in landfills and composting facilities, return about 10 MMT back to the atmosphere. The numbers squish when squeezed. “The uncertainty in this estimate is roughly ± 38%,” Nakamura said in an email.

While the numbers aren’t certain, CBD is. They’ve defeated others before on this issue. They may win again, despite the science, the facts, or the law; never mind the constitution. “It’s part of an ongoing philosophical struggle between the forces of preservation and the forces of conservation,” Bill Keye, Government Affairs Specialist for the California Licensed Foresters Association (CLFA) told me. “They’ve shut down national forests, now they’ve branched out to private ownerships. They don’t like even-aged management [i.e. clearcutting] and they don’t like us [the forest industry].”

“It’s part of an ongoing philosophical struggle between the forces of preservation and the forces of conservation. They’ve shut down national forests, now they’ve branched out to private ownerships. They don’t like even-aged management and they don’t like us.” – Bill Keye, Government Affairs Specialist for the California Licensed Foresters Association

“Clear-cutting is an abysmal practice that should have been banned long ago due to its impacts on wildlife and water quality,” CBD’s Senior Counsel, Brendan Cummings said in a statement. “Now, in an era where all land-management decisions need to be fully carbon-conscious, there is simply no excuse to continue to allow clear-cutting in California.”

“Now, in an era where all land-management decisions need to be fully carbon-conscious, there is simply no excuse to continue to allow clear-cutting in California.” – CBD Senior Counsel, Brendan Cummings

Different Trees, Different Needs

Yet if we want to keep a healthy mix of trees, there’s not only an excuse to allow clearcutting, there’s a place for clearcutting. Every gardener knows some plants work best in shade and some thrive in full sunlight. The same holds for trees. Some trees, such as ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir, do best in full sunlight. Other trees grow in shaded conditions.

Foresters prescribe clearcutting in order to be able to plant trees that are intolerant to shade. Selection cutting shifts the species mix toward shade-tolerant trees because the ones needing full sunlight won’t be able to compete and will get crowded out. Without major stand disturbance such as fire, logging, or extensive windthrow to create those openings, trees such as ponderosa and Douglas-fir won’t have the conditions they need to survive and will be shaded out.

So, if the desired future is to have ponderosa pines or Douglas-firs in our forests, clearcuts beat selection harvests. The only argument should be over the size of the openings allowed, and after the biological needs of a species are met, it’s a matter of policy. California’s regulations restrict clearcut size to 20-40 acres, the smallest openings allowed in the western United States.

A CBD Win Won’t Help the Environment

However well-intentioned lawsuits such as CBD’s latest against Cal Fire are, they have the power to cause unintended consequences. If Bill Keye is right and CBD’s goal is to end all harvesting, the result is far more pollution, not simply more CO2; results CBD contends they are trying to prevent.

“When the search for truth is confused with political advocacy, the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power.”“- Alston Chase, author of “Playing God in Yellowstone.”

Such lawsuits hold the power to shift people away from California’s renewable second-growth forests, and the wood they provide, to non-renewable resources and their more energy-intensive requirements; or perhaps worse, shifting to sources where environmental policies carry little regard. “When the search for truth is confused with political advocacy,” said Alston Chase, author and former philosophy professor, “the pursuit of knowledge is reduced to the quest for power.”

Never mind the metaphorical coal-fired power plant, real coal-fired power plants will be running harder to create products from substitutes, such as concrete, steel and aluminum. These substitutes require more energy to explore, excavate, smelt, and manufacture.

Our California forests have the capacity to produce all the wood we need and export some as well, yet we import 75% of our wood. And, when we do buy wood, it may not be from places that carefully scrutinize harvests. It’s Kabuki environmentalism and the “zero-cut,” illusion of preservation, getting wood from countries with lax environmental enforcement.

The lawsuit seems to be classic NIMBYism: “think locally, pollute globally.”

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[1] 40 acres is the maximum clearcut size allowed by the Forest Practice Rules

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