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Logging is not the solution to wildfires or climate change

Logging is not the solution to wildfires or climate change
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The bodies are still being counted. The land is still burning. Yet Big Timber is wasting no time greasing the wheels in Congress for another round of profiteering from the staggering community losses in the West.

In a recent op-ed published on The Hill, the author repeats tired old myths about logging, wildfires and climate change that science has thoroughly debunked but which serve logging corporations well. What the author fails to mention is that timber companies promote salvage logging on federal lands because it gives them an opportunity to buy top quality logs at heavily discounted fire-sale prices. Taxpayers and Forest Service revenues take the loss

Logging makes fires worse, not better. One of the most fateful management choices Congress and our federal forest agencies made in the past was to allow logging corporations free reign on public lands to take the biggest, oldest, most fire-resistant trees with them and leave behind flammable piles of slash, dense plantations of young trees and networks of logging roads that would stretch from here to the moon and halfway back. With these roads come more human-sparked fires from logging equipment, irresponsible campers, gunfire and fireworks. Ninety percent of wildland fires are human caused and this labyrinth of logging roads provides the conduit. 

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When fires start, a landscape degraded by clearcuts and dense tree plantations burns hotter and faster, causing fires that would otherwise smolder to race down hillsides incinerating everything in their path. This is what happened in Oregon, where I live, over the past 10 days. Salvage logging adds insult to injury by removing critical biological legacies that jump start forest renewal — big downed logs, standing dead trees, patches of unburned forests. The best thing we can do with the newly burned forests in the West is let them heal on their own rather than letting Big Timber in to profit from fires made worse by their logging practices. 

The author also gets climate science backwards. The notion that it is better to store carbon in wood products rather than forests is absurd. Wood products don’t store carbon — they release it. Any storage is temporary. When wood is burned for energy or turned into short lived products, like toilet paper or packaging, it decays fast and its carbon is released quickly. Longer lived wood products lose most of the original carbon from the trees during processing and what survives in buildings decays along well-established timelines that result in the vast majority of that carbon being released into the atmosphere within decades as wood decays and is discarded.

Add to this the carbon emissions associated with decay of logging debris, burning slash to make room for new plantations, applications of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers sprayed on plantations and the energy consumed by log trucks, mills and ships that export logs and chips and it all adds up to make the wood products sector very carbon intensive. In Oregon, two independent studies, one of which I co-authored, found logging and wood products to be, by far, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

The bottom line is that for every ton of carbon temporarily stored in wood products through salvage logging, many more tons are released along the way. But if left on the land, the carbon embodied in standing forests, even when they burn, replenishes the soil and helps set the conditions for a new forest to regrow. 

Our forests are under stress from climate change. There’s no doubt about that. But what Congress must reckon with is that more logging is not a climate solution. While powerful logging corporations that pollute our politics with money try to get their way with legislators, no amount of campaign donations can erase the truth that decades of opening up our public lands to logging and other forms of commercial natural resource extraction has backfired in a catastrophic way. 

In the era of rapid climate change, our public lands must be safe havens for climate resilient forests, clean water and air and wildlife habitat that can heal the land and protect our rural communities from the kinds of catastrophes now unfolding. This means restoring forests where they have been damaged — like decommissioning all those harmful logging roads — and then letting natural processes do the rest. Readers can take solace in the lessons from the great Yellowstone fire of 1988. Over 20 years later, the landscape is beginning to thrive without any salvage logging or so called “active management” by Big Timber. In contrast, lining Big Timber’s pockets with another round of taxpayer subsidized salvage logging will set the ecological recovery process on recently burned lands back for decades to come.

John Talberth, Ph.D., is president and senior economist for the Center for Sustainable Economy based in Portland, Ore. He also co-directs the Forest Carbon Coalition.