We can’t fight climate change with a chainsaw

by Erin Hogan-Freemole | April 5, 2023

Forests and the climate are inextricably linked. Ask an Oregonian about climate change, and likely the first thing we’ll think of is forest–or rather, forest fire, the most visceral and dramatic symptom of the climate crisis. We’re sometimes told that our only weapon against catastrophic wildfire is a chainsaw–that we must log the forest to save it. But research has shown otherwise–intact forests, particularly the stands of large, old trees characteristic of old-growth, are important for both climate change mitigation and resilience. That’s why Crag and our clients are fighting to protect forests across the Pacific Northwest. Here are three reasons why protecting forests is crucial to addressing the climate crisis:

1. Forests remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere

Trees remove large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it for decades or centuries—a Douglas fir can store up to 14 tons of carbon in its first 100 years, and may live for over eight centuries. Western Oregon’s forests are some of the most carbon-dense in the world, and Oregon’s oldest forests are especially good at capturing and storing carbon.

Intensive logging reverses this effect, emitting significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. One recent study found that logging accounts for a third of Oregon’s total carbon emissions.

Between 1900-2015, roughly one-third of the world’s old growth trees were cut down. Photo: Humboldt State University Library

Between 1900-2015, roughly one-third of the world’s old growth trees were cut down. Undated photo courtesy of Humboldt State University Library
Here’s an example of slash that’s produced by logging. Photo by Kelsey Furman, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center

Logging produces slash—branches, tree tops, and smaller trees with no commercial value. When slash is burned or left to decompose, it quickly releases the trees’ stored carbon. More carbon is emitted while transporting and milling the trees. On top of that, logging reduces the forest’s capacity to absorb and store carbon for years afterward.

Here’s an example of slash that’s produced by logging. Photo by Kelsey Furman, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.

2. Old-growth forests are more resistant to severe forest fires.

Claims that we must log mature forests to save them are just plain wrong. Old-growth forests are significantly more fire-resilient than heavily managed tree farms. Forest Service researchers have found that younger forests are more likely to experience high-severity fire than older forests. Old-growth forests are typically cool and shady, with moist air and soil, reducing the speed and intensity of wildfires. Big, old trees are naturally fire-resistant because their thick bark is harder to burn and they tend to have fewer branches near the ground that can catch fire easily. Because old-growth forests can serve as refuges from high-severity fire, they are crucial to maintaining biodiversity as climate-driven fires increase.

3. Forests help build climate resilience.

Logging also impacts forests’ role in climate resilience and adaptation. Climate models predict that if current emissions continue, Oregon’s temperature will increase by 5ºF by 2050 and more of our precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow. Healthy riparian areas shielded by mature trees can mitigate these impacts by storing and filtering water, slowing runoff, and reducing the risk of erosion and landslides. Forests also moderate rising temperatures, providing refuge for heat-sensitive species.

As climate change creates increasing stress for threatened and endangered wildlife, protecting old-growth forests as biodiversity reserves is more important than ever.

Erin admiring an old growth tree in a western Washington forest. Photo by Karsten Zuendel

Me admiring an old growth tree in a western Washington forest. Photo by Karsten Zuendel

That’s why Crag isnt waiting to act.

With our partners, were challenging large-scale logging sales across Oregon and California.

Many of these sales target large, old trees that had been protected from logging until the Trump administration axed these rules—we’re in court to reinstate those protections.

Federal agencies continue to ignore the potential climate impacts of logging on public lands—we’re demanding the full environmental analyses required under federal law.

The Forest Service plans to log thousands of acres under the guise of fuel reduction—we’re challenging those timber sales and the misleading narrative of logging the forest to save it.

Tree from Baby Bear project flagged for logging. Photo Credit Chandra LeGue, Oregon Wild
Photo of spotted owl, whose habitat is being threatened by the BLM Siuslaw Harvest Land Base program
Woman looking up at huge tree in Ochoco National Forest, which the BLM is proposing to log. Photo Credit Jim Davis

We can’t fight climate change with a chainsaw. Instead, we need a forest. 

President Biden’s Climate Forests Policy

Recognizing the “irreplaceable role” healthy forests play in fighting climate change, President Biden marked Earth Day 2022 by announcing a policy to conserve “mature and old-growth forests.” He ordered the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to map old-growth on federal lands, and to analyze and address threats to these special forests.

Unfortunately, the agencies responsible for managing our forests have done little to implement this new policy. Despite public comments urging a moratorium on logging old-growth while it’s being mapped, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have refused to halt any current logging projects and claim that logging can continue at the same pace.

Community groups, including many of Crag’s partners, are urging the Forest Service to recognize what their own scientists tell them: significantly reducing logging on public lands is critical to fighting climate change. Until they do, the Executive Order is an empty promise.

President Biden signing his Climate Forests Executive Order on Earth Day 2022.

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