Public Lands Program — Restoring Natural Systems & Creating Resilience
At long last, the threat of climate change has made the transition from an admitted risk to a top priority on the nation’s agenda. As the urgency and consensus around climate change and the resulting global warming grows, scientists and policymakers are seeking to develop and define the role of public land in combating climate change. Currently US forests only offset the equivalent of 12 percent of US carbon emissions; and officials are assessing the ability of public land to serve as carbon sinks to offset even greater amounts of our carbon emissions.
More than half of Oregon is federally owned land. If properly cared for, this forest landscape can continue to exist and provide us with clean water, native fish and wildlife, and help us deal with the causes of climate change. In various venues, Crag has been called upon to explore the link between climate change, forests, soils and oceans. We are taking action to encourage state and federal agencies to fully consider the implications of climate change and the potential increase in drought, fire, rain and windy weather in our natural systems.
According to Oregon State University’s top climate scientist, Dr. Mark Harmon, removing trees or biomass from the forest generally punches holes in an already leaky carbon bucket, causing additional loss. Expanding on this analogy, Harmon explains that the bucket will hold water, even if there are leaks as long as there is a constant supply of water. However, as the leaks get bigger, the amount of water the bucket can hold will diminish to a point at which the bucket ceases to function. Like water, carbon is constantly being poured into our forests, but is also always leaking out through a number of different means: decomposition, respiration, combustion, leaching, and erosion. Disturbances, whether natural or human caused, increase the leaks in the bucket, making it more difficult for forests to store carbon.
Mature and old growth forests must be preserved because these older forests are far more effective at storing carbon than young fast growing plantations. While young forests may absorb more carbon than older forests for some time, these young forests stay at this level of optimal carbon storage for only a brief period of their overall development. Before and after this period and over the long haul in which carbon sequestration can legitimately be measured, younger forests will store less carbon. Because we cannot keep forests at this one optimal age, the best absorbers of carbon over time are older forests, which contain larger trees, and thus larger carbon stocks. The larger trees are also far less likely to burn in a wildfire and they store carbon for far longer periods of time.
In addition to preserving old growth forests, the most effective practices to increase carbon sequestration are reducing deforestation and increasing forest planting on bare ground, a strategy known as afforestation. By reforesting open lands and increasing the resilience of existing forests, we can increase the amount of carbon that our nation’s forests hold. Dead vegetation and soil are also very important components of our carbon sinks. Smothered roots continue to hold carbon, and as it decomposes, this live carbon is transferred into the soils which can hold carbon for a very long period of time. While post-fire (salvage) logging removes dead wood and stores it in wood products, the carbon from these dead trees would be stored in decomposed soil for far longer than the average life span of a consumer wood product made from fire-killed trees.
In the long term, climate change will cause a decrease in forest growth and as emissions increase, the changing climate will adversely affect the ability of forests to act as carbon stores. As the climate continues to warm, scientists predict potentially hotter and driers summers and larger and more intense fires and insect outbreaks. If prompt action is not taken, these forests could become carbon sources instead of carbon sinks, worsening a growing problem.
With proper management and scientific information, the nation’s public land can act as part of the solution to our growing climate change crisis. Under the Northwest Forest Plan, our federal land has already increased its carbon stores and the United States could and should be recognized for this effort in any international climate talks. Additional similar carbon reserves would increase our standing on the world stage. The best available science must guide us as we select the best policies to reduce carbon and tackle global warming.
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