In order to not lose our forests, we cannot be afraid to use them
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Forests are my passion. I grew up on forestland in the U.S. South and am a conservationist to the core. But those who oversimplify the issue of “chopping down and burning our forests for electricity” are shaky on science, economics, history and understanding what motivates private property owners—and it may harm both our forests and our climate.

Some in the environmental community have been hypercritical of using “wood pellet” biomass from southern forests for electricity generation, concerned (rightly) about potential effects on natural forests and the climate. But they ignore the complexity of forest carbon exchange in the South, the “wood basket” of the United States. Most importantly, critics overlook the reliance of southerners—many of them land rich and cash poor—on working forests, and they cherry pick data to support their conclusions.

In the U.S. South, 86 percent of forests are privately owned. These are not federal forestlands, which remain forests if not logged. Private landowners expect economic returns, and state governments in the region are highly resistant to restricting property uses. Southern states will not enact preservation policies prohibiting logging or economic development of forest products. So, in the absence of forest product markets, landowners are far more likely to convert forestland to other uses. In fact, the US Forest Service projects that up to 13 percent of southern U.S. forests could be lost over the next 50 years due primarily to urbanization. Wood pellet markets can provide important incentives for private property owners to keep forests intact rather than convert them to other uses, particularly since other markets—like pulp and paper—have diminished in recent years. It could even provide incentives to expand forestland onto currently unforested land. And there is historical precedent for markets driving expansion of forest cover in the South: before pulp and paper markets emerged in the early 1900’s, the state of Georgia only had 25 percent forest cover, compared to the 66 percent it has today.

While burning forests for electricity releases CO2, the science on biomass climate impacts is not nearly as clear as critics contest, and detractors focus on forests with far longer grow-back periods than typically seen in the South. Also, very little research has been done to actually quantify the potential loss of carbon into the atmosphere due to the absence of forest product markets. Without such markets, the climate may be worse off—forest carbon would be released into the atmosphere from land conversion, with no forests replanted to pull more CO2 out of the atmosphere. A closed loop of forest growth, consumption, and regrowth could provide climate benefits in as little as 17 years according to some scientists (primarily due to the displacement of fossil fuels, which, unlike trees, cannot regrow and reabsorb CO2).  

Critics also fear impacts on “native” forests. Yet managed pine plantations actually more closely resemble the original longleaf pine ecosystem that once stretched across the South—but which has been reduced by 96 percent—than do the “native” hardwood forests that have arisen primarily because of poorly conceived fire suppression policies. Also, while bad actors have logged bottomland wetland forests, the evidence for widespread abuses of the kind is lacking. Finally, there is enough upland forestland already subject to intensive management to meet demand for wood pellet markets. Over one-quarter of southeastern forestland is already under intensive management, and the South maintains nearly three-quarters of all the forest plantations in the country. Demand for wood pellets comes nowhere near the supply available from these lands. Southern U.S. forests already produce more industrial wood than any other single country, and total forest cover in the U.S. South has been stable for decades despite intensive cultivation. While opponents are correct that the South is among the most intensively deforested regions of the world, they fail to mention that it is also the most intensively reforested region.

There is emotional appeal in arguing that forests should not be cut. I get it. I grew up on beautiful southern forestland that my family plans to preserve for many generations. But that appeal shouldn’t blind us to the complex drivers of forest loss and the motivations of those who actually own the forests. After all, it may be far better—for the climate and the overall environment—to burn forests for electricity and replant them than to have no forests at all. Solar and wind should absolutely be our primary focus, but I personally do not want to live in a world of only solar panels, windmills, and fake plastic trees pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere. I prefer a real forest. And without using forests, we may end up losing them.

Blake Hudson is A.L. O’Quinn Chair & Professor of Law at University of Houston Law Center.