U.S. Forests Are Pivotal in Efforts to Slow Climate Change

For Immediate Release on June 18, 2014

Contacts: Dr. Dominick DellaSala, Geos Institute (541-482-4459 x 302; 541-621-7223); Dr. Olga Krankina, Oregon State University (541-737-1780) 

Ashland, OR – Scientists today called on the Obama Administration to do more to protect the nation’s mature “high-biomass” forests because of their unique climate change benefits. While the President has taken bold steps to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from coal and other fossil fuels, he has sidestepped efforts to protect productive older forests that store massive amounts of carbon and are key to helping stabilize runaway climate change. The study of high-biomass forests was published in the July 2014 issue of Environmental Management

Older forests (mature and old growth) are a critical part of the global biological carbon cycle that contribute to climate stabilization by uptake and storage of atmospheric carbon in live and dead trees, foliage and soils. The oldest and most productive forests are where the trees are providing a long-term “sink” for atmospheric carbon, absorbing and holding on to it like a sponge for centuries.  Those forests are the primary target for logging and when they are cut down up to half of their stored carbon is released into the atmosphere as a carbon dioxide pollutant within just a few years. This loss is not made up for by planting trees or storing carbon in wood products as forest products have a short “shelf life” compared to mature forest that sequesters (absorbs) and stores carbon for centuries.

According to lead author Dr. Olga Krankina, Oregon State University faculty and a member of the Nobel-prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), our findings demonstrate that “high-biomass forests occur on less than 3% of the nation’s forest base but the Pacific Northwest holds over half these forests. The new study shows that  68% of BLM forests in the Pacific Northwest are high-biomass; only National Parks have higher proportion of high-biomass forest in their forest area.” 

Krankina led a team of scientists that assembled multiple data sources on forest carbon using remote sensing from the Space Shuttle, Landsat, and USDA Forest Service forest inventory plots to map the location of high-biomass forests. Over an 8-year period (2000-2008) for which data were readily available, losses to these forests were greatest on private lands where logging was the primary cause. In comparison, loss of high-biomass forests to fire on public lands was ~30% lower than logging-related losses.

The study concluded that the level of protection for older productive forests in the Pacific Northwest is inadequate to help stabilize the climate and ranges from 31% in Washington to only 9% in Oregon, meaning that the vast majority of these climate-critical forests are vulnerable to logging.  Planned revisions to the Northwest Forest Plan would greatly undermine the existing limited protection of older forests. New federal climate change initiatives also fail to recognize the value of forests as stores of carbon and the need to protect them from logging to prevent the release of stored carbon into the atmosphere as CO2. 

Dr. Dominick A. DellaSala, Chief Scientist of Geos Institute and co-author, stated “While the President has taken bold steps to draw attention to the growing climate change crisis, he has done very little to enlist forests in the climate change solution. From the massive Coast Redwoods of California to the towering spruce trees of the Tongass rainforest in Alaska, older forests help stabilize the climate, clean our air, give us drinking water, and support the region’s outdoor economies. Protecting them would be a flagship accomplishment of the President’s efforts to stem runaway climate change.”

DellaSala used these and related findings to show older forests in Oregon store more carbon per acre than nearly any forest on Earth while providing life-giving ecosystem benefits that will be in short supply in a changing climate such as clean water. Older forest benefits will become increasingly important as a refuge for climate-forced wildlife migrations in search of suitable climate. However, these same forests are now on the chopping block as Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has introduced legislation to double logging levels on BLM lands in western Oregon. Such logging would result in carbon dioxide pollution that rivals Oregon’s dirtiest coal-fired power plant. Similarly, in Alaska, old-growth rainforests are still being logged on the Tongass and these forests are among the most stable carbon stores on the planet. 

High biomass Forests of the Contiguous United States

US biomass

 

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