Federal agencies must press ahead with climate-saving choices for mature forests

Science has made clear the value of public forests in capturing carbon, helping the environment

March 7, 2022 5:30 am

A Ponderosa pine stand in the Malheur National Forest of eastern Oregon. (U.S. Forest Service)

Oregon has had to contend with some serious climate impacts in recent years, from life threatening heat waves to ice storms that left thousands without power for days.

Persistent drought, wildfires, and changing precipitation patterns have also placed our most vulnerable communities at risk. Given how dire the situation is becoming, it is critical that we use every tool in the toolbox to prevent future climate impacts from becoming worse.

While Oregon has made real progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, emissions reductions alone are not enough. We must also pull a significant amount carbon dioxide from of the atmosphere and there is currently no technology that can do this at the scale that is needed. Luckily, our oldest, simplest, and most-cost effective climate solutions – forests – have yet to be fully utilized to combat climate change.

Forests on America’s public lands have been logged extensively over the past century and the natural, historic levels of carbon on the landscape have been severely depleted. While trees can live for centuries, most wood products only last a few decades, and much of this carbon ends up in the atmosphere.

Experts estimate that as much as 95% of primary forests (those that have never been logged) have been lost in the United States. Globally, 26 percent of human-caused emissions since 1870 are due to deforestation.

Scientists widely agree that we should focus on keeping carbon stored in trees and soils on the landscape, particularly in mature and old-growth forests. When we log trees that have been pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it for hundreds of years, very little of the carbon that once made up those ancient giants actually gets stored in long-lived wood products.

Further, it takes decades for even a small fraction of lost carbon to be recovered in a young replacement sapling – time we do not have. One study found that 65% of the carbon from Oregon forests logged over the past 115 years remains in the atmosphere, and just 19% is stored in products.

The good news is we’ve already started the process of recovering carbon stores in forests through better management under the Northwest Forest Plan, which helped slow logging and allowed our Pacific Northwest public forests to switch from a carbon emissions source to a carbon sink, but these practices alone are no longer enough.

Numerous 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 on the landscape. While young tree plantations grow quickly and recover some of the carbon lost from clearcutting, there is no comparison between the amount of carbon stored in an ancient giant and a spindly 20-year-old tree.

In western Oregon’s temperate rainforest region, the older forests can have higher carbon density per acre than even the Amazon.

In addition to protecting watersheds, bigger, older trees tend to be naturally more resistant to fire – they have fire-resistant bark, and their high canopies help maintain a cool, moist understory. Keeping the biggest and oldest trees on the landscape and protected from logging is not in conflict with the need to protect communities from the threat of fire.

Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and 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 for also conserving mature and old-growth forests and the carbon they store.

In response, most members of Oregon’s congressional delegation, led by U.S. Ron Wyden and U.S. Rep Earl Blumenauer, rightly called on these agencies to protect the oldest, biggest trees as a part of their climate strategy.

We need to think big when it comes to climate solutions. After all, we need them to match the magnitude of the threat we face.

Establishing a strong, lasting rule across federal public lands that protects our remaining mature and old-growth forests from logging, and lets more of these giants grow, is a no-brainer.  President Joe Biden was right to commit to leading by example on protecting forests. Now he needs to direct the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to actually do it.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Lauren Anderson

Lauren Anderson is the forest climate policy coordinator for Oregon Wild. She leads the organization's climate work to promote new ways of using Oregon's forests to fight climate change. She spends her free time exploring, hiking and camping.