College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Opinion: Thinning trees helps environment

September 25, 2007

By Bill Dennison, Cal Forestry alum & past president of the California Forestry Association

The U.S. Forest Service recently became the first federal agency to register with the California Climate Action Registry, a first step to track greenhouse gas emissions attributable to global climate change from U.S. Forest Service operations.

But it's not nearly enough.

Simply monitoring forest vehicle and facility emissions — a tiny fraction of the overall forest climate picture — will likely result in the unintended side effect of hamstringing maintenance and management programs in our forests and forest facilities.

The agency's plans include choosing vehicles that are more energy-efficient, so that not all vehicles are four-wheel-drive. This is an interesting exercise, but the greenhouse emissions from the four-wheel drive vehicles are minuscule compared with the catastrophic wildfires raging throughout our unmanaged national forests.

It is much more important for Californians to know that properly managed forests can help minimize carbon-dioxide emissions and, conversely, that poorly managed forests contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gas into our air.

So, the public will hear within the next few years how much greenhouse emissions have been coming from the Forest Service vehicles in California. However, the Forest Service hasn't made it a priority to educate people about wildfire carbon emissions from the lands they manage, despite the fact that wildfire has a much greater negative impact on the environment than Forest Service vehicles.

That's because poorly managed forests fuel these types of monster fires — the ones that spew a hundred thousand tons of greenhouse gases into the air in a matter of a few days.

Just recently, Lake Tahoe's 3,100-acre Angora fire discharged an estimated 183,000 tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Add the emissions caused by the decay of trees killed in the area for a total release of 693,000 tons of carbon and it is the same as 125,000 cars driving for a year.

Similarly, in 2006, wildfires in the United States burned nearly 10 million acres. It's estimated that more carbon dioxide was released into the air than the yearly emissions of every car in California combined.

It's the younger forests, properly thinned and harvested as part of a scientific management approach, that have a double benefit on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

First, managed forests reduce the severity of wildfire because excess trees and other bio-mass material are removed, making the forest less dense and less prone to catastrophic wildfire.

Second, by harvesting older trees and planting new ones, which absorb carbon at a faster rate, managed forests lock away carbon permanently in wood products instead of carbon being spewed into the air during wildfires.

In fact, half of every pound of wood is pure carbon.

A 2-by-6-inch-by-8-foot piece of lumber contains about six pounds of carbon. About three-quarters of a pound of carbon are emitted to harvest, process and transport that board. This means eight times more carbon is being pulled from, rather than added to, the atmosphere when wood products are produced.

For the past 30 years, the public has been making emotional choices not to harvest trees based on outcry from environmental groups to "preserve" our forests.

Millions of acres have been locked up in a variety of designations — Wilderness, National Monuments, Roadless Areas and National Parks, to name a few. And, all in the name of preserving the environment. But the real costs of leaving our forests unmanaged are more catastrophic wildfires and greater greenhouse emissions into our atmosphere.

The Forest Service has taken a first step, in joining the California Climate Action Registry. If the agency really wants to do its part to reduce carbon emissions, now is the time to evaluate and track wildfire emission discharges. Then the public will be able to properly evaluate the need for sound forest management, including thinning of trees in our national forests.

The public deserves to know the forestry facts, especially as they relate to catastrophic wildfire's role in climate change. That's far more germane than simply monitoring the impact of emissions from Forest Service vehicles and facilities.

Bill Dennison, a registered professional forester, received his degree from the University of California, Berkeley's School of Forestry. He is a former president of the California Forestry Association and a retired Plumas County supervisor.

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