“Every action to protect public lands is a step to protect our climate.”
Shelley Silbert, Executive Director, Great Old Broads for Wilderness
Last week Sue Edwards and I hosted our third CounterAct Climate Change program, “Protecting Forests to Mitigate Climate Change.” (If you missed Ralph Baker’s presentation, you can see the recording here.) His talk focused on current climate statistics, how forests store carbon and foster biodiversity, and what action his family took to protect a local forest while at the same time generating revenue for the water department. The audience was lively, with lots of interesting discussion about how federal, state, and local agencies are managing public forests.
Here are a few key takeaways:
- Some (not enough) people understand that intact forests (areas with minimal human intervention) play a critical role in sequestering and storing carbon, and provide oxygen— the gas that is imperative for the survival of life on earth. Deforestation and forest degradation accounts for 18.7 million acres of forest loss (equivalent to 27 soccer fields every minute), AND at the same time we’ve been pouring carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere; that’s a recipe for a climate emergency!
- If you’re chopping down a forest to make room for a solar farm, it’s probably not worth it in terms of carbon footprint; the forest stores more carbon than the solar electric farm will prevent in terms of carbon emissions.
- There are bio-mass (aka wood chips) power generation plants in New England, and they produce more CO2 and air pollution than coal-fired plants. Bio-mass power plants are a current topic for Massachusetts, and there is one proposed for Brattleboro, VT.
- Most importantly, I learned that a surprising number of public forests in Massachusetts have had clear-cutting, which is bad for the climate and bio-diversity.
One would assume that town, state and federal conservation agencies would all be in favor of keeping forests intact, to store carbon and pump out life-sustaining oxygen. Why devastate forests knowing how important they are in mitigating climate change? If you walk through conservation land as I frequently do, you find comfort, relaxation, and rejuvenation by strolling under a canopy of trees. In your local neighborhood conservation lands, you probably seldom, if ever, encounter a forest that has any clear-cut areas. Why would you? Most of us wouldn’t choose to hike in a clear-cut area. Alas, in last week’s webcast I learned that almost no forests are legally protected from deforestation and such agencies are not always progressive (see photographic evidence at http://www.maforests.org).
Clear-cut areas usually look like a wasteland of mud and stumps in rutted, compacted soil, with most shrubs and limbs either sawed or run over by heavy equipment. Months or years after the clear-cut you’ll see a succession of weeds and saplings as the forest heals. On private land, sometimes landowners really need the money they’ll get from the harvest; but does it make any sense to harvest trees on public lands, and if they do, shouldn’t the agencies be more selective and careful?
Whether they are staff at a government agency or volunteers on a local conservation commission, some very well-intentioned people advocate for timber harvest because they’re not aware of the current science that indicates timber harvests do more harm than good when it comes to mitigating climate change. If the Commonwealth of Massachusetts makes a few thousand dollars on a timber harvest to sell wood chips to Canada or elsewhere, is it worth the trade-off? And is it really that important to provide habitat for cottontail rabbits? Can we afford to cut down many trees, given the current climate crisis? Probably not.
The arguments of the commercial timber industry often strongly influence government and non-profit environmental organizations in their approach to managing forested land. For example, the Trillion Trees Initiative is a good sound bite, and hey, it is good to plant more trees! However, some argue that it will likely be much less effective than simply protecting existing forests. It takes about 80 or 90 years for a tree to reach maturity, depending on the species of course. Given the current climate emergency, do we have that much time? Furthermore, it just might give the timber industry what they want: monocultural, single-species swaths of forests that they can someday harvest for money. We as citizens need to be vigilant, to make sure that greed, ignorance, and short-sightedness do not lead to forest mismanagement.
Not all timber harvests are terrible, of course; sometimes the harvest is done ecologically. But in light of the climate emergency maybe it would be wiser to NOT cut down forests? Thankfully, Ralph Baker and his family came up with a creative approach; in 2017 they gave $50K to the Fitchburg, MA Water Department to NOT cut down any trees in 205 acres of land for the next 30 years; you can even walk the Baker Family Public Forest Reserve, thanks to that generous initiative. That’s thinking globally, acting locally! It may also be a role model for other philanthropists or corporate donors to follow.
What can you do?
- Sign the Logging Moratorium on State Lands Petition.
- Share this Massachusetts State Division of Fish and Wildlife Public Forests Report with your State Senators/Reps and ask the Senators/Reps to get involved to stop commercial logging on State Lands and remove Biomass from the definition of “clean” energy so it stops getting public subsidies promoting logging and burning.
- Contact Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to ask him to stop promoting and subsidizing more wood burning (biomass) and cutting of State forests.
- If you’re fortunate to own land with enough trees to conduct a timber harvest, instead of cutting and harvesting timber, look for ways to keep your land forested as is.
- Consider alternatives for single-use paper products like paper towels.
- Subscribe to the digital versions of your favorite publications.
- Rethink spreading bark mulch in your garden.
- Question where your “clean energy” being souced (was a forest decimated to install solar; is your electricity from biomass?)
- Contact your local state park agencies to ask them if they’re doing any timber harvests, and if so, when/where/for what benefit.
- Contact your state legislators to make your opinions known.
- Check the CounterAct Climate Change Project’s social media channels for updates and ideas.
This is a complicated subject — one that can’t be thoroughly explained in a short essay like this. That’s why Ralph Baker assembled a great reference list you can download here, so you can do a deeper dive on this subject. Our program last week was an excellent primer, so we hope you’ll watch it, and share it.
SAVE THE DATE!
Our next CounterAct Climate Change Zoom conference will be
Wednesday, August 26, 7:30-8:30 pm
“Adaptive Silviculture: Examining Climate Change Forest Management Strategies”