How much deforestation is there?

I mentioned the other day in “What Killed the environmental Movement, that generally environmental organizations tell you how bad things are but will never say anything improved? Check this out:

[Illegal logging and unsustainable forest practices] lead to the loss of nearly 36 million acres of natural forests each year, an area roughly the size of New York state. The world’s poorest people often bear the brunt… – World Wildlife Fund

Now I crosschecked with the 2005 Global Forest Resources Assessment compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO):

Deforestation, mainly due to conversion of forests to agricultural land, continues at an alarmingly high rate – some 13 million hectares [32.1 million acres] per year. – 2005 FAO report

Now, that’s close enough that I wouldn’t quibble, but the FAO adds that due to reforestation the number is less.

At the same time, forest planting, landscape restoration and natural expansion of forests have significantly reduced the net loss of forest area.

And is the culprit illegal logging and poor forest management? Sometimes. From this FAO graphic it looks like it fuelwood gathering.

In fact, it’s an improvement. An improvement of over a million and a half hectares (4 million acres) per year:

Net global change in forest area in the period 2000–2005 is estimated at -7.3 million hectares per year (an area about the size of Panama or Sierra Leone), down from -8.9 million hectares per year in the period 1990–2000.

I know, I know, we’re still losing acreage and I agree with the WWF that “The world’s poorest people often bear the brunt…” but much of that is due to the United States desire not to harvest in its own forests.

Consider California ability to grow trees and its demand for wood. It has 40 million acres of forest with 313 billion board feet (BBF) of timber In 2000, 2 BBF were harvested.

California has 40 million acres of forest with 313 billion board feet (BBF) of timber. In 2000, 2 BBF were harvested from California and we consumed 8.5 BBF, a difference of 6.5 Billion board feet had to be imported from somewhere else.
(Source: McKillop, William. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.”)

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Hot Air Cuts California Forests Out of Carbon Offset Program

In order for California’s proposed cap and trade system to be anything but a mockery we need to rip down the “Do Not Disturb” signs on much of California’s forests and commit ourselves to harvesting in California’s forests, even (gasp) clearcutting. Foresters and forest landowners aren’t the only ones who feel this way; the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) agrees.

Last month, an out-of-state special interest group derailed the forestry portion of a provisional carbon cap and trade system aimed at lowering California greenhouse gas emissions.  You might guess that an oil company that pressured the California Air Resources Board to fold, but it was in fact a Tucson-based environmental lobby, the “Center for Biological Diversity” (CBD).

“We commend the Air Resources Board for its commitment to addressing the critical environmental questions related to forest carbon credits,” crowed a CBD spokesperson. “It’s crucial that the state not give incentives to business-as-usual clearcutting and other destructive logging practices that hurt our forests and do nothing to address the immediate impacts of climate change.”

It’s a case of the wrongheaded politically spinning a regulator, who should know better. Once again, spin consumes science, and those putatively for a healthy environment have obfuscated for their own gains. “Crisis, real or not, is a commodity,” Tom Knudson wrote in his 2001 series, Environment, Inc., “And slogans and sound bites masquerade as scientific fact.”

For California to be part of the climate change solution, it must remove the “Do Not Disturb” sign currently on its forests. When we don’t cut here, we cut “over there,” contributing to deforestation and environmental degradation elsewhere while also increasing greenhouse emissions. (For more, see “The Illusion of Preservation.”) And it isn’t just foresters like me who think this way. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends that we cut more wood, and use wood in place of concrete, steel, and other wood substitutes. By cutting forests, our forests, not someone else’s forest, we can contribute to saving the world.

For many of us the climate change debate borders on incomprehensible. I’m not saying I understand it all; but some context might be helpful for discerning how forests relate to global warming.

In 1895, Svante August Arrhenius, presented a paper to the Stockholm Physical Society titled, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground.” In it, he argued that thermal radiation from the sun warmed the earth’s surface during the day and as the surface cooler at night, certain gases which included CO2 and water vapor, acted as a blanket retarding the escape of heat. The idea of plates of glass in a greenhouse allowing sunlight in and trapping the heat inside worked as a metaphor for the process, hence the ‘greenhouse effect.’

The worry now is that through our use of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels; we have added too much CO2 as a result could the earth may be over-heating.

In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess scientific information concerning human-induced climate change and the options for adaptation and minimizing its effects. In 1997, representatives from around the world met in Kyoto. They passed the Kyoto Protocol which sets binding targets for 63 industrialized countries to create five per cent less of their 1990 greenhouse gas (water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ozone) emissions.

In 2006, California passed a law similar to Kyoto, pegging our CO2 output to 1990 levels. Now I am skeptical that reducing our CO2 output will have any meaningful results. I think planting trees in urban settings and painting roads and rooftops white are better uses for our taxes. And we need to reduce tropical deforestation by cutting more trees in temperate forests such as California. All of these actions increase the albedo, the reflectivity of objects, which is part of the models used to predict global warming.

Nevertheless, because trees soak up CO2, the California Air Resources Board adopted a program that included allowing forest management activities for which CO2 emitters could buy carbon credits. The Center for Biological Diversity contends logging practices hurt our forests and do nothing to slow climate change. As I said before, the United Nations’ IPCC disagrees.

The IPCC says deforestation and severely degrading forests accounts for 20-25% of greenhouse gas emissions (IPCC is not talking about timber harvesting regarding deforestation and degradation). It also says the best strategies to prevent degradation and deforestation are: 1) “carbon conservation,” which includes both preventing forest conversion to agricultural uses, subdivisions or other non-forest uses, as well as controlling major fires; 2) “carbon sequestration and storage,” which means expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests; and 3) “carbon substitution,” which broadly means using wood products instead of non-wood products, all of which require more fossil fuel-based energy and materials. According to the IPCC, carbon substitution (wood products over cement, steel, aluminum, plastic, to name a few) has “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.”

I’m a subject matter expert on growing wood; frankly it’s my passion. The growth and yield of forests is what forestry revolves around. 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. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practice Rules requiring Timber Harvesting Plans that consider water, wildlife, and other concerns.

We need to stop trying to preserve everything and pretending that it doesn’t cause a mess elsewhere just because we can’t see it. The “not in my backyard” (Nimby) mentality outsources the mess: to Brazil, to Siberia, to countries not willing to enforce environmental regulations the way California can and will.

There has been a concerted effort to restrict logging by many environmental groups, from the Sierra Club to the Center for Biological Diversity. If green organizations truly cared about reducing CO2, they would embrace forest management in California. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. And they would insist that we begin using wood instead of concrete, aluminum, steel, and other wood substitutes.

What can you do? Start buying sustainable California wood. At least, buy wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Write congress and tell them to push for harvesting in the national forests, rather than letting wildfires send more CO2 into the air (the California wildfires of 2001 – 2007 reportedly equaled 30 million cars on the road for a year).

Let’s stop pretending wood comes from the lumberyard.


Berlik, Mary M., David B. Kittredge, and David R. Foster. “The illusion of preservation: a global environmental argument for the local production of natural resources.” Journal of Biogeography, 29, 1557–1568

Center for Biological Diversity Media Release, “California Withdraws Harmful ‘Carbon Credits for Clearcuts’ Forest Policy.” ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

Dekker-Robertson, Donna L. and William J. Libby. “American Forest Policy: Some Global Ethical Tradeoffs.” BioScience, Volume 48 No. 6

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,  Technical Paper I: Forest Sector ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

McKillop, William. George Goldman, and Susanna Laaksonen-Craig. “Forestry, Forest Industry, and Forest Products Consumption in California.” UC Berkeley, Publication 8070  ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

NASA, Earth Observatory Biography. Svante Arrhenius ( accessed 14 March, 2010)

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Clearcutting, Climate Change, and the Center for Biological Diversity

“A clearcut is about as beneficial to the climate as a new coal-fired power plant.”

– spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity

Spin consumes science

Such a sound bite is ‘spin;’ and we should not confuse such political posturing with fact. Perception trumps truth and the California Air Resources Board has caved to political pressure from CBD and its ilk, reversing its earlier decisions on carbon protocols. We should not be skipping and shouting yippee! The result runs counter to the goals and the scientific truths CBD professes to hold.

The Science of Carbon Sequestration

In the section on the Forest Sector the IPCC uses peer-reviewed science to back its priorities for using trees to reduce the affect of carbon-based fuels. These methods are:

1) carbon conservation,

2) carbon sequestration and storage,

3) carbon substitution.

Carbon conservation practices include preventing the conversion of forests to other land uses e.g., agricultural uses or subdivisions; and controlling major fires and pest outbreaks.

Carbon sequestration and storage practices include expanding forest area and/or biomass of natural and plantation forests.

Carbon substitution in general means substituting wood products for non-wood building materials, i.e., cement-based and metal-based products, rather than using fossil fuel-based energy and products.

Because forests are “renewable resources,” displacing fossil fuels for low energy-intensive wood products has, according to the IPCC, “the greatest mitigation potential in the long term.

Clearcutting is not the bogyman

If the CBD and other green organizations cared about human-caused global warming they would embrace forest management, including even-aged. They would promote using California forests for the wood products that store carbon. They would demand that the national forests begin harvesting timber in greater quantities. 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. You can bet the wood we import wasn’t harvested under restrictions as comprehensive as those within California’s Forest Practices Act. Did any of the harvests have a Timber Harvesting Plan that took water and wildlife into consideration?

Logging in California does not equal deforestation. As a forester, I have seen the before-and-after of tree cutting and I have watched forests over decades. I support conserving trees. I also support harvesting trees responsibly. We need to grow more trees.

We must use the wood we grow as a substitute for metal, concrete, and plastics wherever possible. As Greenpeace co-founder and another environmental heretic, Patrick Moore, points out, “Wood is the most renewable and sustainable of the major building materials. On all measures comparing the environmental effects of common building materials, wood has the least impact on total energy use, greenhouse gases, air and water pollution, solid waste and ecological resource use.” Don’t believe him or me? Read this peer-reviewed paper “Carbon dioxide balance of wood substitution: comparing concrete- and wood-framed buildings,” by Leif Gustavsson, Kim Pingoud, and Roger Sathre. Their research indicates “wood-framed construction requires less energy, and emits less CO2 to the atmosphere, than concrete-framed construction.”

CBD and their ilk promote Kabuki environmentalism with the “zero-cut” illusion of preservation, getting wood from countries with lax environmental enforcement. It’s unadulterated NIMBYism.

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