Protecting America’s Forests From Logging is Necessary to Reach Climate Goals

April 25, 2018:  Climate Change is happening, temperature on the Earth is rising, in fact 17 U.S. towns are starting to relocate due to climate caused sea level rise.  So how does forest protection factor into this equation? Most people understand that protecting rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia is essential to combat the impacts of climate change, but did you know that the United States does more logging than any other country in the world?  Protecting forests from logging and development is critical to stopping global temperature rise, and this does not just mean protecting forests overseas.  In order to meet the Climate Change goals of the Paris Climate Agreement we need to substantially reduce private lands logging in the United States and eliminate logging on our public forestlands.  Below is a discussion of how the science is stacking up.

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Protecting Forests from Logging: The Missing Piece Necessary to Combat Climate Change 

Unless we take bold action to curb human-caused climate change, within the next 20 to 70 years 25% or more of the residences in hundreds of U.S. towns and cities will be under sea water, severely impacting some of the nation’s largest coastal cities, such as New York City, Boston, Jersey City, and Honolulu, as well as Long Beach, Oxnard, and Richmond in California.[1] Within this same timeframe, at least 414 U.S. towns and cities will be even more impacted, with at least 50% of residences being overwhelmed by seawater, including Miami, New Orleans, Norfolk, VA, as well as Sacramento, Stockton, and Huntington Beach in California. Today residents in 17 U.S. towns are starting to relocate due to climate caused sea level rise.

The need to reduce fossil fuel consumption to meet climate change goals is widely known, but fewer people understand that forest protection is equally necessary to solve this climate crisis. Our forests absorb CO2 from the atmosphere—trees “breath in”CO2, store the carbon from CO2 in their growing trunks, branches, leaves and needles, and then emit oxygen. Intact forest ecosystems, including those affected by natural disturbances such as fire, drought and native insects, are the very best at carbon storage and sequestration. Here is why protecting forests in the United States from logging is essential
to combat climate change:

  • It is largely understood that logging in forests internationally, such as in the rainforests of the Amazon, is contributing to climate change and that these areas need to be protected. However, most people do not know that more logging and deforestation occurs annually in the U.S., including on our public lands, than in any other nation in the World.[2]  The logging of forests is not just an “overseas” problem. If we are to have the credibility to leverage change abroad and increase forest protection globally to mitigate climate change, we must simultaneously do our part by substantially curtailing logging of American forests.
  • Logging not only removes the carbon stored in trees from forest ecosystems, but it also compacts and damages soils, removes vital nutrients that are stored in trees, and disturbs the carbon contained in soils.[3] All of these impacts from logging combine to significantly reduce forest productivity (the rate at which trees and plants will grow), and therefore reduces the capacity of our forests to absorb and sequester CO2 over time. In addition, research shows that 45-60% of the carbon stored in trees that are logged becomes CO2 emissions as soon as the trees are removed from the ecosystem and processed into wood products.[4]  100% of the carbon stored in trees that are logged and then burned for biomass energy becomes CO2 emissions, making biomass burning more polluting than burning coal.[5] Logging forests does not result in more resilient or productive ecosystems or more carbon storage.
  • Scientists agree, it is not realistically possible to achieve necessary climate change mitigation goals solely by reducing fossil fuel consumption—we must protect our forests.[6] Only by substantially increasing forest protection from logging, while also recovering forests which have suffered industrial deforestation, in combination with reducing fossil fuel use and emissions, will we have a greater than 66% chance of keeping additional global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. If we take even bolder and immediate action to prevent the loss of forests and forest productivity caused by logging, we have a 90% chance of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failing to include forest protection from logging in our climate change strategy reduces our chances of successfully mitigating global temperature rise to less than 10%.
  • Logging, conducted ostensibly to “thin the forest”, “reduce fuels” or for so called “restoration”, causes a net loss of carbon from forest ecosystems.[7] Whereas Wildfires are not a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Even in the largest, most intense, crown fires, only a very small percentage of carbon stored in trees is actually consumed by the fire.  Forests burn in a mosaic pattern of low, moderate and high severity, and in the areas of a forest which burn at low and moderate severity (which amounts to most of the area of any given fire), this percentage is even lower.  After fires, including in high severity fire areas, forests rapidly and dramatically sequester carbon from the atmosphere, incorporating CO2 into the abundant plant and tree regeneration that begins to occur almost immediately after the fire burns out.[8]

Making the link between climate change mitigation and forest protection from logging currently lacks the recognition needed to truly offset the buildup of CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere and prevent the planet from heating above 2o C.   The policies being proposed in Congress to subsidize, expedite and increase logging on both private and public lands, for either wood products or biomass energy, illuminate a disconnect between climate change rhetoric and the actions that are necessary to reach our CO2 reduction goals.  We need elected officials to exercise visionary and bold leadership to not only oppose all efforts to fund and accelerate logging, but also to push for the reforms and restraints on logging  that we need in order to limit global temperature rise.   We need to protect our National Forests and other federal forestlands from logging, and eliminate taxpayer subsidies that drive logging on private and state lands.

[1] Strauss, B.H., et al. 2015. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112, pp. 13508-13.

[2] (a) Hansen, M.C., et al. 2013. Science, Vol. 342, pp. 850-53. (b) Prestemon, J.P., et al. 2015. The global position of the U.S. forest products industry.

[3] (a) Elliot, W.J., et al. 1996. The effects of forest management on erosion and soil productivity. Symposium on Soil Quality and Erosion Interaction. July 7, 1996, Keystone, CO. (b) Helmisaari, H.S., et al. 2011. Forest Ecology and Management, Vol. 261, pp. 1919-27. (c) Achat, D.L., et al. 2015. Scientific Reports, Vol. 5, Article 15991.

[4] Harmon, M.E., et al. 1996. Climatic Change, Vol. 33, pp. 521-50.


[6] Griscom, B.W., et al. 2017. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 114, pp. 11645-50.

[7] Campbell et al. 2011. Can fuel‐reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions? Frontiers in Ecology and Environment 10: 83-90.

[8] (a)Meigs et al. 2009. Forest fire impacts on carbon uptake, storage, and emission: the role of burn severity in the eastern Cascades, Oregon. Ecosystems 12: 1246-67; (b)Hanson. 2018. Landscape heterogeneity following high-severity fire in California’s forests. Wildlife Society Bulletin (in press).

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