Coalition provides roadmap for Executive Order implementation on Oregon forestlands

In light of Governor Brown’s recent Executive Order 20-04, organizations across Oregon are asking whether our forest management bodies will take seriously their obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make the landscape more resilient to climate change. On May 6th, the Center for Sustainable Economy and Forest Carbon Coalition joined 25 Oregon partners including forest and watershed conversation organizations, grassroots climate groups and scientists calling for an end to destructive industrial forest practices and outlining clear recommendations for adopting climate-smart forest management for the future. The letter was sent in conjunction with a second coalition sign-on comment to the Oregon Department of Forestry on their 2021 Annual Operating Plan, which proposes to clearcut 5,932 acres of state forest across Oregon and commercially thin thousands more. Signatories to the coalition letters call for a moratorium on all commercial state land logging in the absence of an honest analysis of total GHG emissions and other environmental, social and economic consequences of ongoing industrial logging practices.

Despite its obligations to reducing carbon emissions and managing for the greatest permanent value of state lands, the Oregon Department of Forestry plans to continue emphasizing clearcutting, short rotation timber plantations and other industrial forest practices that generate significant GHG emissions, reduce carbon storage and sequestration, make the landscape more vulnerable to climate change and externalize all of the costs to the taxpayers. By continuing this management emphasis, responsible management bodies are creating a landscape that minimizes, rather than maximizes, its permanent value.

Both coalition letters call for a three-pronged approach to: a) immediately halt the ongoing destabilization of our forest-carbon stores, b) restore and repair existing forests and plantation lands, and c) fund this critical work through programs that place the cost of pollution back on the polluter.

Immediately halt the ongoing destabilization of our forest-carbon stores

Industrial forest practices are actively undercutting Oregon’s natural climate solution.

Although never counted in Oregon’s official GHG inventory, it is widely understood that the logging and wood products sector is Oregon’s number one source of GHG emissions, contributing fifty percent more pollution than the transportation and energy sectors combined.[1]  Every part of the industrial logging process is carbon intensive, from on-site emissions to transportation, manufacturing and long-term decay of slash piles and woody debris. Despite what the logging industry may tell you, when trees are logged, only part of the carbon ends up stored in wood products, and that amount reduces over time. A common rule of thumb is for industrial logging is that 65% of the carbon removed from the forest as logs while the remaining 35% is released immediately on-site. After that point, only 75% of the carbon in those logs is stored in the finished wood product, meaning that more than one-half of the carbon allegedly stored by logging ends up right back in the atmosphere. Because of industrial forest practices, carbon sequestration dead zones now exist where highly productive carbon sinks once stood. Recent clearcuts in fact are net emitters of CO2 for ten to fifteen years after logging.[2]

In addition to being the greatest carbon polluter, industrial logging practices also undermine forests’ natural carbon storage capacity.  The forests of the Pacific Northwest are incredible for their ability to efficiently sequester carbon and store it safely in the soil. Recent studies out of OSU indicate that Cascadia’s temperate rainforests are unmatched in their ability to sequester carbon, pulling it out of the atmosphere at a faster rate than any other forest ecosystem in the world[3].  The catch is that these forests can only be a real climate solution if they are protected from industrial logging.

dominant form of management on the landscape, short-rotation industrial forestry undermines the forests’ natural sequestration and storage ability, interrupting the balanced carbon cycle and creating a carbon-debt that we cannot repay unless we halt destructive practices. In 1990, forest scientists estimated that the conversion of over 5 million hectares of old growth forests into tree plantations in western Oregon and Washington has added up to 1.8 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. This is a carbon deficit that represents 104 years of Oregon’s current GHG emissions.[4] The loss of native and old growth forests continues today, in part due to ODF’s failure to take action to stop it. As a result, old growth forests now exist in mere fragments, estimated by Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife at roughly ten percent of their original extent.

As EO 20-04 is implemented, Oregon must halt the ongoing destruction of native forests, our natural carbon stores, and break free from the limited framework of its existing GHG inventory for an honestly account for all aspects of the logging and wood products sector emissions. An true accounting of the total cost of industrial logging would no doubt demonstrate the urgent need for a shift in forest management—a responsibility that, in light of EO 20-04, we believe our management bodies are now obligated to undertake.

Restore and repair existing forests and plantation lands

If ODF is to responsible implement GHG reductions on forest lands, it must not only halt the ongoing destruction of healthy forests but also restore unhealthy forests. According to the most recent Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) data, average carbon densities on western Oregon forestlands range between 108 tons per acre on industrial forestlands to 157 tons per acre on national forests. These values are far below the natural capacity of old growth forests, which can store more than 320 tons carbon per acre![5] Indeed, most forests on both private lands and commercially logged state lands are never allowed to reach their full carbon storage potential.

Climate smart forestry techniques are those that simultaneously reduce logging related emissions, build carbon stocks on the landscape, maintain or enhance sequestration capacity and improve climate resiliency. Proforestation (allowing a forest to reach its full carbon storage potential), and reforestation (the restoration of industrial plantations into healthy forests) are two examples of such forest practices that maximize carbon storage and also bolster the landscape’s natural resiliency to climate change. Sadly, the short-sighted, 50-year rotation cycle currently dominating both private industrial forest managers and the state of Oregon’s forest practices (as outlined by their 2021 AOP and all historical AOP’s), results in the exact opposite of restoration: further degradation of forestlands.

The work of restoration is not only important for carbon storage, but critically, for future forest resiliency in the face of climate change. If ongoing industrial forest practices occur, we can expect consequences for water quality and water quantity that will be exacerbated by the effects of a changing climate. Industrial forest practices such as those proposed in the state of Oregon’s Annual Operating Plans have been shown to reduce water supplies, with summer streamflow in industrial tree plantations measured at running 50% lower than century old forests[6]. As the climate warms and dries, Oregon’s waterways will also warm, an effect exacerbated significantly by industrial tree plantations. The Department of Forestry’s own modeling concludes that a typical clearcut compliant with the Oregon Forest Practices Act increases water temperature by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and that is on top of any background increase due to climate change.[7]  These effects make the landscape less resilient and more susceptible to the harmful effects of climate change including draught, loss of habitat for temperature-sensitive aquatic species and elevated risk of harmful algal blooms.[8]

Another alarming consequence of industrial logging against the backdrop of climate change is the effects of clearcut-plantation style management on natural fire resiliency. Because they lack the moisture content, structure complexity and fire-resistant legacy trees needed to keep fires in check, plantations burn hotter and faster than natural forests. While fires burning in complex natural forests create a mosaic of intensely burned and relatively untouched areas, allowing the landscape to spring back and recover brilliantly from healthy burns, fires burning in homogenous tree plantations are more likely to be uniformly and severely, like a tinder-box set aflame.[9] To address the fact that industrial plantations worsen fire risk and hazard on the landscape, ODF should expedite the conversion of the highest-risk lands–private industrial forestlands –back into fire resistant forests.

Furthermore, and not of inconsequence during a global pandemic, industrial logging and the ongoing destruction of native forests enhances removes forested barriers that typically keep species in check and opens up pathways for the travel of virus and disease. In many parts of the world, the destruction of native forests into fragmented patches is increasing the likelihood that viruses and other pathogens will jump from wild animals to humans.[10] During the ongoing covid19 pandemic, this fact is a chilling reminder that we must stop intruding on remaining forested habitat.

Given these realities, ODF’s plans for forest management in light of EO 20-04 should reflect a commitment to restoring damaged industrial forests from logging and other human disturbances. ODF must increase the protection of all remaining tracts of native forests as blueprints for climate adaptation and also implement climate-smart logging practices to restore damaged industrial lands to healthy forests that provide a range of ecosystem services of immense value to Oregon’s urban and rural communities.

Place the cost of pollution on the polluter

In Oregon, the cost of pollution is born by us, community members. Each year, industrial clearcutters are subsidized heavily and offered various tax breaks without any sideboards ensuring that these funds will not be used for the very practices outlined above that undermine climate stability and resiliency. A partial tally of these subsidies suggests the level to be over $750 million per year.[11] Instead of bearing the cost of destructive practices, those costs are offloaded onto the taxpayers. In return for financing the cost of industrial logging, taxpayers also bear the environmental and social costs in the form of damaged watersheds, aerial pesticide spray, soil degradation, harmed fisheries, clearcut recreation trails and massive carbon emissions. This system functions at the expense of community members in every way possible, while financially benefitting those responsible for perpetrating all of these issues.

The good news is that there are myriad opportunities to both remedy this imbalance, and answer the question of who will pay for all these climate-smart changes. Polluter-pay programs such as implementing a carbon tax on industrial clearcut-plantation managers is one such way to transfer the cost of destruction onto those responsible. A program like this would penalize forest practices that result in high levels of carbon emissions by instituting a carbon tax on polluters, with revenues generated by the tax going being re-invested in forest practices that increase forest health and the amount of carbon stored in Oregon’s forests.  By taxing the biggest culprits of forest-carbon crimes, we can finance climate-smart alternative practices such as long rotations, alternatives to clearcutting, and forest carbon reserves.

Options like this and the many more we have yet to imagine provide exciting possibilities for funding a future of forestry defined by more than just the value of timber.

Looking Forward

More and more, communities across Oregon are standing up and speaking out for the unaccounted values of Oregon’s forests. These are the values that we all hold dear–the values of clean drinking water, carbon storage, critical habitat, recreation, fishing and the myriad outdoor experiences that are the reasons many of us love this forested state. Ongoing industrial logging undermines each of these values and will continue to do so until we stop it and allow room for a re-visioning of forest management. Thankfully, there is a science-backed and sensible path forward, but it requires us to account for the big picture.

Responsible forest management in the age of human-caused climate change must take account of the total cost of our activities on the landscape, and with that accountability, comes the responsibility to do better.  The submission of the two coalition letters to Governor Brown and the Oregon Department of Forestry today signify a call to action for our state decisionmakers and forest managers to step up to this critical task. Now the question is, will they?

Read:

Prepared by Samatha Krop, Campaign Manager, Wild and Working Forests Program

[1] Kelly, Peter. 2013. A Greenhouse Gas Inventory of Oregon’s Forests. Salem, OR: Oregon Department of Energy, Oregon Global Warming Commission; and Law, B.E., et al. 2018. Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 115: 3663-3668; Talberth, J., 2017. Oregon Forest Carbon Policy: Scientific and technical brief to guide legislative intervention. Lake Oswego, OR: Center for Sustainable Economy.

[2] Turner, D.P., Guzy, M., Lefsky, M.A., Ritts, W.D., Van Tuyl, S., Law, B.E., 2004. Monitoring forest carbon sequestration with remote sensing and carbon cycle monitoring. Environmental Management 33(4): 457-466.

[3] Polly C. Buotte, Beverly E. Law, William J. Ripple, Logan T. Berner. Carbon sequestration and biodiversity co‐benefits of preserving forests in the western USA. Ecological Applications, 2019; DOI: 10.1002/eap.2039

[4] Harmon, M., Ferrell, W.K., Franklin, J.F., 1990. Effects on Carbon Storage of Conversion of Old Growth Forests to Young Forests. Science 247: 699-702.

[5] Seidl, R., Spies, T.A., Rammer, W., Steel, E.A., Pabst, R.J., Olsen, K., 2012. Multi-scale drivers of spatial variation in old-growth forest carbon density disentangled with Lidar and an Individual-Based Landscape Model. Ecosystems 15: 1321-1335.

[6] Segura, Catalina & Bladon, Kevin & Hatten, Jeff & Jones, Julia & Hale, V. & Ice, George. (2020). Long-term effects of forest harvesting on summer low flow deficits in the Coast Range of Oregon. Journal of Hydrology. 124749. 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2020.124749.

[7] Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF), 2015. Detailed analysis: predicted temperature change results. Agenda Item 7, Attachment 3 to the meeting packet prepared for the Board of Forestry, June 3rd, 2015. Salem, OR: ODF.

[8] US Environmental Protection Agency, “Climate change and harmful algae blooms,” available online at: https://www.epa.gov/nutrientpollution/climate-change-and-harmful-algal-blooms.

[9] See, e.g., Stone, C., Hudak, A., Morgan, P., 2008. Forest harvest can increase subsequent forest fire severity. In Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Fire Economics, Planning and Policy: A Global View. Armando González-Cabán, ed. Riverside, CA: USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station.

[10] Bloomfield, L.S.P, T.L. McIntosh, E.F. Lambin, 2020. Habitat fragmentation, livelihood behaviors, and contact between people and nonhuman primates in Africa. Landscape Ecology 35: 985-1000.

[11] Green, E., 2019. Taxpayers prop up the biggest carbon culprit in Oregon: timber. Street Roots 18 Oct. 2019. Available online at: https://news.streetroots.org/2019/10/18/taxpayers-prop-biggest-carbon-culprit-oregon-timber.

1 thought on “Coalition provides roadmap for Executive Order implementation on Oregon forestlands”

  1. We need to change the mindset of the Timber Industry that is only out for their own good. They are not concerned about their clearcuts that exacerbating climate change, the runoffs from their cuts damaging local streams, their spraying that pollutes these streams and drifts onto peoples homes and communities, the destruction caused to local watersheds, etc. Both California and Washington have taken measures that mitigate all of these issues to some extent but they also, could do better. We need these corporations to not use their profits to benefit themselves but to put some of this money back into this state to help with all of the issues mentioned above. We need to change the Forest Practices Act to address these concerns.

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