Top Climate Scientist Joins Coalition in Calling for an End to Clearcuts and Timber Plantations

July 10, 2018 by John Talberth

One of the world’s leading climate scientists joined a coalition of 18 conservation, scientific, and community organizations calling on Oregon’s new Carbon Policy Office (CPO) and the Department of Forestry (ODF) to do an about-face on the state’s evolving forest carbon policy and to immediately implement measures to curb the harmful climate impacts of clearcutting and tree plantations. In a thirteen-page letter sent to CPO Director Kristen Sheeran and State Forester Peter Daugherty, the coalition urges the state to abandon the timber industry’s preferred ‘hands off’ approach to forests and climate change in favor of a forest carbon policy based on science and principles of environmental justice. The letter was also sent to forest policy makers in Washington state since that state is on a similar track with respect to forests and climate.

Dr. William Moomaw of Tufts University, one of the world’s leading climate scientists and lead author of three global climate assessments published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated: “As next in line for adopting state level climate policies, all eyes are on Oregon and Washington. It will be essential for these states to protect older carbon rich forest, and to allow more younger forests to continue growing to store additional carbon. Research has consistently shown that clear cutting, short rotation times and conversions to plantations are major drivers of climate change and loss of climate resiliency. Reducing logging related emissions, halting any further loss of carbon rich old growth forests and expediting the conversion of tree plantations back into climate resilient forests are essential elements of a science-driven climate strategy.”

Despite the imperative to act, to date, Governor Kate Brown and legislative leaders have refused to consider regulating the timber industry in climate legislation cued up for passage in 2019 despite multiple studies documenting the fact that logging is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state and that millions of acres of industrial tree plantations pose grave risks to rural communities as climate change unfolds. Instead, the state is promoting logging and wood products as a climate solution. According to Dr. John Talberth, Senior Economist for Center for Sustainable Economy “Oregon is blundering down the wrong path by failing to consider direct regulation of harmful forest practices and, instead, promoting wood products as a climate solution when in fact timber sourced from industrial tree plantations is very carbon-intensive. The climate would be much better served by including timber industry emissions in climate legislation and by reducing demand for carbon intensive wood through improvements in recycling and reclamation rates, repurposing existing buildings rather than building new ones, paperless offices, less waste at construction sites and mills and changes in building codes to restrict construction of gargantuan single-family homes.”

In addition to calling attention to the high emissions associated with Oregon wood products, the coalition letter expresses alarm over the public health and safety risks of industrial tree plantations. According to Regna Merritt of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, “Watersheds dominated by clearcuts and industrial tree plantations are far more susceptible to low water flows, toxic algal blooms, wildfire, floods, and landslides than watersheds dominated by native and well-managed forests. Recently, the majority of forested municipal watersheds in Oregon were classified as ‘waters of potential concern for harmful algal blooms’ so this is a huge public health issue.” Industrial forest practices and tree plantations were cited as one of the key drivers of Salem’s run-in with toxic algae blooms because they produce warmer, slower moving water that is laced with sediments, chemicals and fertilizers that stimulate its growth.

In the coalition letter, ten specific policy interventions are identified that form the basis for immediate action. One includes halting state support for logging carbon-rich mature and old growth forests on federal, state, and private forestlands. According to Brenna Bell, staff attorney for Bark, “The timber industry and their friends in Congress have created the mirage of a ‘forest health crisis’ they claim can only be solved with more logging. This is not based on best available science. Killing trees to prevent them from dying naturally from insects, disease or fire, does not ‘cure’ the forest, or enhance carbon sequestration or reduce emissions. Studies show that industrial logging, even thinning, emits far more carbon than forest fires.”

Other policy interventions proposed by the letter include reporting wood products emissions in biennial greenhouse gas inventories, ramping down such emissions on par with other sectors, modernizing the Forest Practices Act to make climate smart practices the law, and removing tax breaks and subsidies for harmful practices. The letter also asks the state to abandon its commitment to forest carbon offsets as the primary strategy for promoting more climate friendly practices. Daphne Wysham, Director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network states: “Over two decades, I have observed first-hand the rampant fraud and perverse incentives baked into offset schemes. Paying people not to do harmful practices often results in more harmful practices being implemented – a classic moral hazard dilemma. Oregon should not replicate these failures and, instead, provide incentives that reward foresters who know how to harvest timber and leave a climate resilient forest behind.”