Forests are the Natural Solution to Addressing Climate Change

From fires to floods to the increasing cascade of species loss, the need to address climate change head-on and at scale has never been more urgent. The evidence of its increasingly disastrous impact has never been clearer. We are witnessing the earth’s, and our, basic support systems — such as the forests that supply us with clean water, air and a wealth of other benefits — being torn apart.

We know that forest loss and degradation is the second largest source of CO2 emissions. It’s not just a tropical forest problem: CO2 emissions from forest disturbance is the single largest cause of emissions in Oregon, and a major source in other states as well. We are on an emissions pathway far accelerated from the IPCC’s worst-case projections.

We know we need transformational action in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change — the question is whether we are proactive in initiating those transformations, or if they are forced upon us by inaction. We can continue doing what we have done, and see the same results, or we can thoughtfully and radically change directions. In many cases we know what we need to do. Perhaps the ripest of the “low-hanging fruit” we can seize lies in managing our forests for enduring outcomes.

Quite simply, we must transform our forest management construct from one that “produces” climate, water and biodiversity services as by-products of a timber or fiber focus to one that produces those critical services as the primary goal, with timber and fiber as the by-products. Our forests are irreplaceable as natural climate solutions — not simply as carbon sinks, but for all their climate adaptation services: water production, treasure houses of biodiversity, and well-springs of human renewal and inspiration. There are no substitutes.

We must make it more financially rewarding to keep and manage forests for their many and manifest climate benefits than to simplify, degrade, and lose them to production of conventional timber products and development. We also need to invest at the required scale to restore public lands to a vibrant, resilient state. For, even if we could wave a magic wand and stop all fossil fuels emissions today, we’d still have our second largest emissions source pumping far more CO2 into the atmosphere than what we must take out to have a safe climate for our children. And our children know this.

This is not an argument to stop cutting trees. It is an imperative to start managing for whole forests, and to cut trees in ways and for purposes that restore and enhance natural forest function. Our focus must be on restoring more natural, older forest conditions that are far more resilient to climate change stress, and vastly more carbon rich.

Older trees and stands store vastly more carbon than do young trees and stands.

Older, bigger trees in more natural forest stands survive fire, pests and drought more successfully than crowded young plantations. Older, more natural forests store more water longer, reduce floods. and release water later into the summers than do young plantations. And older, more natural forests support more natural biodiversity than do young plantations.

For fire safety, this transformation needs to be at the large, landscape scale. Forests in much of the US, and especially in the west are fire-adapted. They co-evolved with fire. Restoring them to a naturally fire resilient state will entail both more cutting (although differently than we do now) and more burning (also differently than we do now). We need large landscapes that we can “let burn,” differently, at low intensities, while we focus fire suppression efforts around homes and communities.

The severity of 2020’s North Complex Fire decreased significantly as it entered a treated area (photo courtesy of Sierra Nevada Conservancy)

This will take investments at a vastly different scale than we have traditionally done. We need to move to investing billions of dollars annually in proactively restoring and conserving our forests, rather than spending those billions of dollars a year, every year, in fighting and remediating disasters.

Some states are stepping up to face the enormous challenge, as is our nation. California has just passed a budget with an unprecedented $7 billion allocated to fight climate change, including almost $3.5 billion in investments in forests and other nature-based climate solutions, and Oregon has issued a compelling call for action in the report of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

Both to avert massive species loss and to address climate, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak has also issued his agency a challenge to review its programs, like the Forest Legacy Program, to see how they can step up their game where forest loss is most significant — private lands.

PFT is attending COP26 as an accredited observer, focusing on enhancing understanding of the vital role forest conservation and stewardship must play in meeting our shared global challenge, as we have for over 15 years. On November 10, PFT will host a live webinar from Scotland, “Seeing the Forests: For the Climate”, where a panel of international experts will address the role of forests as a natural climate solution. The webinar will be the first in a series where PFT engages with global experts on the role of forests in addressing our climate challenge.

Leveraging the climate-healing power of forests is fundamental to any hope of reducing the risks of climate change, as 40% of the climate solution comes from conserving forests, improving their management, and focusing on supporting how forests function naturally.

Forests are a core and critical part of the solution.

We cannot save the planet at the pace and scale we have acted on to date.

This is the challenge of our time, and we must rise to it.

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