Protecting Forests Good For Climate

Logging, conducted ostensibly to “thin the forest”, “reduce fuels” or for so-called “restoration”, causes a net loss of carbon from forest ecosystems.


One of the best strategies for reducing CO2 levels is by protecting our forests. Yet few environmental groups, even those who focus on climate change, advocate for the reduction of logging on federal lands.


Indeed, there are economic studies that demonstrate that protecting all our federal forests from logging/thinning and subsequent carbon sequestration that occurs is far more valuable than any wood produced.


For instance, one Oregon study found that every timber job resulting from the sale of federal forests costs taxpayers over one million in lost carbon storage opportunities.


Another study concludes that thinning forests costs more than the wildfire suppression costs that “may” be avoided. Not to mention, that most thinned forests will not encounter a fire during the period they might be effective.


Wildfires are not a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the largest blazes,  only a very small percentage of carbon stored in forest stands is actually released into the atmosphere by fire.


Even the remaining burnt trees hold more carbon than thinned/logged forests. In a forest fire, what burns are the fine fuels like needles, cones and small branches. The actual tree trunks seldom burn. So even in a high severity blaze, the bulk of the carbon is left on site, stored in the snags and roots. These carbon storage units last for decades. During that same period, regrowth of vegetation packs even more carbon on to the site.


By contrast, logging forests remove the carbon that would otherwise remain stored on site.  In addition, research shows that 45-60% of the carbon stored in trees that are logged is released as CO2 emissions during processing into wood products.


Policies that are advocated in the latest Farm Bill and elsewhere to speed taxpayer-subsidized logging/thinning on public lands ignores the significant value of these lands for carbon storage.


Not to mention, those advocating more logging ignores the abundant science that finds logging/thinning can’t stop the large fires that burn under extreme fire weather.


Since the bulk of all acreage burned annually occurs during these extreme fire weather periods, it calls into question whether thinning forests is cost-effective, not to mention the multiple ecological impacts associated with logging including soil compaction, spread of weeds, sedimentation into rivers impacting fisheries, loss of biomass from forest stands, changes in stand age, and just the disturbance that occurs with thinning/logging projects.


It also ignores the fact that many wildlife and plant species abhor a green forest. The rich diversity of habitats that results from large wildfires, including high severity burns, is critical to many species who live in mortal fear of green forests. The idea that logging is restoring forests ignores ecological science that demonstrates that our forests require periodic large-scale disturbances to be “healthy.”


If we wish to reverse the continued warming of the planet, which by the way, will only exacerbate wildfires further by creating the extreme fire weather that promotes large blazes, we can begin by putting all federal forests off limits to logging/thinning, except perhaps in the immediate area near communities and homes.




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  1. Patrick Avatar

    For completeness and to counteract the naysayers, it would be helpful to identify the studies you cite. Thanks.

  2. Robert Gillett Avatar

    As you suggest in the final paragraph, forests near homes may benefit from thinning while protecting the homes. My goal is to thin the overly dense canopy around my 1 acre and plant more fruit-bearing trees. Logs are then used to grow mushrooms and make biochar, which is carbon-negative when used as a soil amendment. These are all permaculture measures that homeowners in neglected forest areas can take.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner