Old growth forest along the Salmon River, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner

The Wall Street Journal’s December 21, 2023, editorial board wrote that Biden’s New Forest Plan will “lead to more uncontrolled fires—and won’t help the climate.”

The WSJ is upset that the Biden Administration plans to ban logging of old-growth forests on national forest lands, a proposal they characterize as a “land grab.”

Large tree boles like this old growth Douglas Fir seldom burn up, rather remain as snags after a fire, all the time storing carbon. Photo George Wuerthner

The WSJ disputes the assertion made by the Biden Administration and many scientists that old-growth forests capture and store CO2, thus slowing climate warming.

The editorial is full of the usual timber industry rhetoric that national forests are “overgrown” and need to be logged to be “healthy.” And they quote from none other than “wildfire expert” Senator Steve Daines of Montana that green groups will use the new policy to stop “fire mitigation projects,” i.e., better known as logging projects.

Proponents of fuel reduction seldom count the trees killed by thinning projects. In many cases, far more trees are killed by chainsaws, than would die in a wildfire. Wallowa Whitman NF, Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

Advocates of thinning as a fire prevention measure seldom consider the loss of carbon and trees that result from logging. In many instances, far more trees are killed by “chainsaw medicine” than results from even severe forest fires.

There are problems with the Biden Forest plan, including its failure to do anything about “mature” forests and the loophole to allow logging even in old-growth for “forest health’ and other reasons.

It is a letdown from a report that the Biden administration received last spring, which concluded there were more than 32 million acres of old-growth forests remain on public lands in the United States, representing about 18 percent of all forested land managed by the Forest Service and BLM, plus another 80 million acres of mature forest — about 45 percent of the agencies’ forested land.

High winds on Labor Day weekend 2021 drove the Holiday Farm Fire down the McKenzie River Valley in Oregon. Photo George Wuerthner 

But contrary to the WSJ assertions, the plan isn’t likely to create more “uncontrollable” wildfires.  Climate, not fuel accumulation, is the driving forest in wildfire acreage charred. Thinning forests, for the most part, does not preclude large blazes under extreme fire weather. Since the bulk of acreage charred by wildfire is due to a few huge fires burning under extreme drought, high temperatures, low humidity, and high winds, thinning doesn’t significantly alter those conditions. In 2018, more than 200 scientists signed a letter to Congress opposing significant thinning/logging of forests for this reason.

The real problem with the WSJ piece is its failure to understand forest carbon cycles. Old-growth forests do store a lot of carbon. But logging releases more carbon than occurs when forests burn.

For instance, the timber products industry is responsible for 35% of Oregon’s carbon emissions, more than transportation. By comparison, forest fires in Oregon only account for 4% of emissions.

Wildfire is rare in many ecosystems, often on a fire rotation of centuries. Here a hiker stands by an old growth mountain hemlock. Photo George Wuerthner

However, the WSJ editorial board fails to consider what burns in a forest fire. It’s not the enormous tree boles where the carbon released by wildfire occurs. Instead, it is needles, cones, and small branches, so you get snags even after a high-severity blaze. Carbon remains stored in those tree boles for decades and even longer once they fall to the ground as downwood. In addition, carbon continues to be stored in tree roots and as charcoal in the soil.

Furthermore, old growth contains the bulk of all forest carbon. Logging old-growth forests releases 40–65% of the ecosystem’s carbon to the atmosphere, even when off-site carbon storage in wood products is factored in.

Even if trees are replanted on the site and begin accumulating carbon, it may take up to 200 years for those younger trees to sequester the carbon lost by logging. The scales don’t balance until years after US climate goals need to be met.

Beyond their role in carbon sequestration and storage, old-growth forests serve many other functions. Large trees die from any causes. They are not a “wasted” resource. They are critical to healthy forest ecosystems.

When large trees like these die, they take centuries to completely rot and mold back into the soil, all the time they are storing carbon. Photo George Wuerthner

Large trees take longer to rot and mold back into the soil, providing physical habitat for many other species, such as lichens or mosses, insects, voles, squirrels, and other smaller wildlife.

When large trees fall into a stream, they provide critical habitat for fish and physical structure in waterways that slow erosion.

Old-growth forests also create a cooler, moister micro-climate that resists drying, providing habitat for specific moisture-loving understory species like ferns and mushrooms, not to mention the additional moisture that can slow wildfire spread.

Simply being among large trees has been shown to increase immunity in humans. Photo George Wuerthner 

Immersion in old-growth forests, or what the Japanese call “forest bathing,” has been shown to increase immunity and resistance to disease and reduce stress.

In short, the WSJ editorial board is misguided in opposing old growth protection. Logging releases more carbon into the atmosphere, thus increasing heat-trapping carbon and exacerbating climate warming, which is the main factor contributing to large wildfires.

 
About The Author

George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology

7 Responses to Wall Street Journal Gets Carbon Storage Wrong

  1. Wayne Tyson says:

    Old-growth, especially “virgin” forests resist fire. In 1959, I had to watch one clear-cut, leaving slash behind that later burned with special fury. Twenty-five years later, the area had shown no merchantable timber. The decks took a lightning strike that burned acres of decks of sticks greater than ten feet in diameter ten feet from the ground, leaving an ash bed more than four feet deep.

  2. Jeff Hoffman says:

    It is totally immoral to kill, with the lone exception being to kill what we eat. Humans don’t eat trees, therefore we should never kill them. Carbon shmarbon. If killing humans released CO2 into the atmosphere, would that be the main reason not to kill them?

  3. Mike Higgins says:

    Thanks, George, for calling out the WSJ for their wrong-in-so-many-ways BS. Any entity that publishes such a one-sided crock of crap deserves the public roasting they should get!

    Mike

  4. lou says:

    You may be interested in this time lapse video of redwoods after fire.

    https://www.savetheredwoods.org/press-releases/research-reveals-how-old-growth-coast-redwoods-survive-wildfire

  5. Ida Lupine says:

    Well that’s odd, but I am certainly glad that the Biden administration is doing this. The WSJ couldn’t be more misguided.

    • Jeff Hoffman says:

      They’re only “misguided” spiritually. They’re evil money-grubbers, prioritizing money & business above all else, including life itself. The Wall Street Journal has some excellent articles, but their editorials are literally fascist.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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