All posts by Bronwen

Failing forestry: Oregon Forestry Department faces financial crisis: Oregonian Story

By Ted Sickinger
September 25, 2019

The Oregonian

The Oregon Department of Forestry has failed to collect nearly $100 million it is owed for wildfire costs dating back as far as 2015, creating a cash flow crunch that is undermining core operations and forcing its leaders into a financial shell game to pay the bills.

In June, agency leaders restructured a $50 million line of credit with the Oregon Treasury to avoid default. Then they borrowed $18 million from the Department of Administrative Services to cover two months of payroll costs – loans they’re required to “repay” in coming months but will immediately renew to keep cash on hand.

Meanwhile, the agency has been forced to drain internal cash reserves that support other departments, tapping one fund that is supposed to support state forests for $27 million and another for private forest landowners for $15 million.

Those funds must be repaid, too, and officials acknowledge that their temporary subsidization of fire costs is hampering work in other areas. The agency has put a freeze on an all non-essential spending to conserve cash, including computer and motor pool purchases, travel and training.

The cash flow problem only came to light in mid-June, when the agency nearly defaulted on its line of credit from Treasury. It eventually paid off half of its $50 million obligation, but extended the repayment period for the other half until April. That may not be an option going forward, as Treasury might not be willing to continue the practice.

“As the frequency and severity of Oregon’s fire costs grow, along with the complexity and duration of underlying repayment mechanisms, Treasury’s interfund borrowing program may no longer be the right tool to support these ongoing cash flow needs,” Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Treasury said Tuesday.

That near default prompted the co-chairs of the Legislature’s Ways and Means Committee to demand a monthly memo from State Forester Peter Daugherty detailing the agency’s financial condition and the steps he is taking to solve the problem.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose and one of the three co-chairs, said the agency had not been forthcoming with the size or the nature of the problem with the Legislature or the Board of Forestry. She said she’s still trying to piece together “what I consider to be a crisis.”

“There has not, in my view, been a complete disclosure of the problem,” she said. “I am terribly disappointed by the agency’s inability to process its outstanding claims that stretch back four years,” Johnson said. “At some point the data may become irretrievable.”

Daugherty did send an email in mid July to Board of Forestry members describing the nature and extent of the issue.

“I take full responsibility for the department finding itself in such a precarious position, with only two weeks left in the fiscal year,” he said. “It will be important for me to ensure that clear, consistent communication between finance functions in the Fire Protection and Administration divisions are seamless and that adequate controls are in place to identify and escalate this type of issue as early as possible.”

In his August and September memos to the co-chairs, Daugherty said the root of the problem was Oregon’s outdated approach to covering firefighting costs at a time when the severity of wildfires has increased and the related costs have mushroomed.

The agency’s fire division is responsible for fighting fires on private and state land. It also contributes much of the resources needed to fight fires on lands owned by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Most of those costs are reimbursable by the state and federal government, but the agency says it simply doesn’t have financial capacity to float those escalating costs until the bills get paid.

Bill Herber, the agency’s deputy director for administration, said another issue is that the agency hasn’t been adequately staffed to process the backlog of expense claims after years of high-cost fire seasons. That involves digging through boxes of old shift tickets and lists of equipment used on fires as far back as 2015, reviewing them against old cost-sharing agreements, auditing the results and submitting the claims.

The agency just closed out its expense claims from fires in 2013 and 2014. It has $93 million in unreimbursed costs from fires between 2015 and 2018, half of which have yet to be invoiced. And though the 2019 fire season has been fairly mild to date, it has another $32 million in costs that will take at least a year to reimburse.

“Some of this just creeped up on us,” Herber said. “It all culminated pretty suddenly. It overwhelmed our ability to really track it… There’s a lot of work that goes into determining how much needs to be paid and by whom.”

The agency is currently working with the legislative fiscal office and the state’s chief financial officer to beef up its collection efforts, improve its documentation and invoicing processes, and track its cash flow on a weekly basis. Herber said the agency had transferred staff internally to address the backlog, and those efforts have led to quicker turnaround of more recent expenses and successful collection of some older debts.

Agency leaders plans to request more money to help address the crisis in the 2020 session. Longer-term, they say Oregon needs to restructure its approach to cover the cost to fight large wildfires.

“We are committed to appropriately responding to the new challenges fire seasons are presenting and working closely with the governor’s office, the governor’s council on wildfire response and legislators to identify a long-term solution,” Daugherty said in a Sept. 3 memo to the co-chairs.

Johnson said she was skeptical of the agency’s requests for general fund money when it had $93 million in reimbursements outstanding.

“It’s a management problem, or a prioritization problem,” she said.

Tom Imeson, the chair of the Board of Forestry, said problem needs a legislative fix and the board will be taking it up at an October meeting focused on strategic planning.

“This topic will be an important discussion item at that meeting.”

Kristina McNitt, president of the Oregon Forest & Industries Council, described fire protection as the number one priority for Oregon’s private forest landowners and said the department’s protection program is the envy of the nation.

But she said “the current fiscal crisis is alarming, not least of which the agency’s precipitous loan to itself of $15 million from the Oregon Forestland Protection Fund, predominantly funded by fees and taxes paid by private forestland owners. The state legislature, the Oregon Board of Forestry, and Oregon’s private forest landowners deserve answers and transparency from the agency.”

Endangered Species Protections Sought for Oregon Coast Spring Chinook; Press Release from Native Fish Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and Umpqua Watersheds

For Immediate Release, September 24, 2019

Conrad Gowell, Native Fish Society, (971) 237-6544,
Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185,
Stanley Petrowski, Umpqua Watersheds, (541) 825-3070,

Endangered Species Protections Sought for Oregon Coast Spring Chinook

Early Migrating Salmon Threatened by Logging, Hatchery Fish, Dams, Pollution

PORTLAND, Ore.— The Native Fish Society, Center for Biological Diversity and Umpqua Watersheds today filed a petition to protect Oregon coast spring-run chinook salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The safeguards would apply to salmon from below the Columbia River to Cape Blanco. Spring chinook, which are distinct from fall-run salmon, return in the spring from the ocean to freshwater rivers, staying for many months in deep pools until fall to spawn.

“Spring chinook up and down the West Coast have been cherished by many communities for their large size and exceptional taste, but sadly have undergone massive declines nearly everywhere they exist,” said Conrad Gowell, Fellowship Program Director with the Native Fish Society. “We hope this petition will be the beginning of a sustained and successful effort to reestablish abundant spring chinook on the Oregon coast.”

All runs of Oregon coast spring chinook have severely declined, and they have been completely wiped out in three coastal Oregon streams. Remaining spring chinook runs are threatened by depletion of stream flows during critical periods in summer and fall, due to logging, dams and water diversions. Other threats include habitat degradation and elevated stream temperatures caused by logging and road building, pollutants, river channelization, harvest in commercial and sport fisheries, predation by invasive fish, and climate change.

“Spring chinook are truly the king of salmon, but Oregon’s springers need protections for the cold, clean water and deep pools they require for survival,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of species under its protection, and it can save these magnificent fish.”

Four salmon hatcheries operating on the Oregon coast artificially propagate spring-run salmon. The goal of these hatcheries is to produce fish for anglers, but in recent years there have not been enough returning adult salmon to produce the next generation. Additionally, hatcheries not aimed at helping rebuild fish stocks may be jeopardizing wild spring chinook by creating competition between hatchery and wild fish and unintendedly producing hybrid spring-run and fall-run chinook. Hybrid salmon are not fit for long-term survival in natural habitats, and are likely contributing to the disappearance of spring chinook.

“Spring chinook are a keystone species that benefits an entire expanse of the web of life, from bears to humans to forests to orcas,” said Stanley Petrowski with Umpqua Watersheds. “We are asking the Fisheries Service to recognize the significant role of springers in our complex coastal ecosystems and give them the protections they need for recovery.”

Former spring-run chinook populations in the Siuslaw, Coos and Salmon rivers no longer exist. Very small populations remain in the Tillamook, Nestucca, Siletz, Alsea and Coquille rivers. The North Umpqua River supports the only remaining large spring-run chinook population on the Oregon coast, with variable returns of 2,500 to 16,000 spawners annually. By contrast the South Umpqua River had only 51 adult spring-run fish return to spawn in 2019.

Early return salmon and steelhead in California are also imperiled. In 2011 the Center petitioned to list spring-run chinook in the Klamath River under the Endangered Species Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service denied the petition, arguing spring-run aren’t distinct enough from the more abundant fall-run chinook.

Since then several scientific studies have shown that spring-run fish are indeed genetically distinct, with the evolution of early returning salmon and steelhead occurring millions of years ago. This difference in spawning run timing is highly unlikely to occur again if these distinct early return populations are lost.

The Karuk Tribe re-petitioned for Klamath springers in 2017, and in 2018 received an initial positive finding from the Fisheries Service that listing may be warranted. In 2018 Friends of the Eel River petitioned to list summer-run steelhead in Northern California, and the Service made a positive initial finding in April 2019. The agency is currently conducting status reviews for Klamath spring-run chinook and Northern California summer steelhead.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

The Native Fish Society is a nonprofit conservation organization that cultivates a groundswell of public support for reviving abundant wild fish, free-flowing rivers, and thriving local communities across the Pacific Northwest.

Umpqua Watersheds is dedicated to the protection and restoration of the ecosystems of the Umpqua watershed and beyond through education, training, advocacy and ecologically sound stewardship.

Oregon Board of Forestry Grants Petition to Protect Coho Salmon from Private and State Logging

News from Cascadia Wildlands
July 26, 2019

SALEM, Ore.— Late Wednesday afternoon after hours of deliberation, the Oregon Board of Forestry voted 5-2 to accept a petition for rulemaking on coho salmon. The petition was brought by 22 different conservation and fishing groups under a rarely used portion of the Forest Practices Act which requires the Board to consider forest protections on private and state land when species are listed under state or federal endangered species acts. The Board is required to identify “resource sites” for listed species and subsequently develop rules to protect these species if threatened by state and private logging practices.

While coho salmon have been threatened with extinction for years, the Board of Forestry has until now never initiated a state-mandated review of its rules to protect the fish. “The Oregon Forest Practices Act requires the Board of Forestry to address conflicts between logging and habitat for species at risk of extinction,” said Nick Cady, Legal Director with Cascadia Wildlands.  “The major ongoing conflict between logging practices and coho salmon habitat is finally getting the hard look it deserves.”

The Board has only undertaken such efforts for a handful of bird species and had never done such work for coho salmon, which are listed as threatened by the National Marine Fisheries Service.  The petition specifically asked the Board to (1) collect and analyze the best available information on coho salmon; (2) conduct a resource site inventory; and (3) adopt rules to protect resource sites and to develop a process to identify new sites in the future.

“This resource site process allows the state of Oregon to take a wholistic look at the numerous different ways logging impacts salmon and its breeding habitat. Practices that perpetuate poor habitat conditions like intensive logging too close to streams and on landslide-prone areas, sediment from forest roads, and large areas dominated by clear-cuts and said Robyn Janssen with Rogue Riverkeeper. “Oregon’s rules for state and private timberlands are the weakest in the Pacific Northwest, and it is encouraging to see the Board take its first steps towards addressing these deficiencies.”

Oregon has relied heavily on voluntary measures by timber companies to protect coho.  Between 1995 and 2017, taxpayers invested $65 million dollars of public funds on instream habitat restoration efforts.  However, Oregon’s weak forest practices rules still allow logging to degrade aquatic habitat critical to the recovery of coho salmon.

“It is an obvious case of one step forward, two steps back. We need to address the root causes of fish decline. The public’s investments in habitat restoration activities cannot keep up with the pace or scale of the ongoing degradation from poor forest practices,” said Nick Cady. “The Board has a perfect opportunity now to address these inefficiencies and meaningfully address salmon recovery where it matters most.”

Who’s Following The Forest Practices Act? Oregon Can’t Say For Sure: OPB News Story

June 13, 2019
by Tony Schick

Click here for full story

On Feb. 26, 2019, Oregon State Forester Peter Daugherty sat in front of lawmakers during a budget hearing and reported his agency’s sterling compliance rate with the laws that govern private logging.

“The audit showed an overall rule level compliance rate of 98%,” Daugherty told them.

Others aren’t so sure about that.

“We don’t know if it’s 98, 99 or 50,” said Brenda McComb, a retired Oregon State University professor who serves on the board overseeing Daugherty’s agency, the Department of Forestry.

McComb, fellow forestry board member Cindy Deacon Williams and two consultants separately hired by environmental advocates are arguing the department’s work is riddled with biases and analytical flaws. One reviewer deemed them “sufficiently severe to preclude any defendable assessment of compliance rates.”

In response, the Department of Forestry says it is confident in its numbers but has nonetheless commissioned another statistical review by Oregon State University. It expects that to be completed this month.

All this means the state has spent five years and close to a million dollars to find out how many people and companies follow state logging rules — and came away with an answer that’s now being called essentially worthless.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Williams said. She first expressed her concerns about the numbers before ODF cited them in legislative testimony. She now says she’d like to see the monitoring redone and the record corrected.

“You can’t legislate or guide policy in a vacuum of ignorance,” she said. “We simply don’t have the information that we need in order to know whether our policies are responsible and are achieving our aims.”

Is The Law Working?

The effectiveness of Oregon’s Forest Practices Act is at the center of contentious debates about private logging.

Thousands of timber harvests take place in Oregon every year, on vast corporate forests and small family-owned woodlots.

The 288 rules of the Forest Practices Act govern them all. They dictate how many trees must be left standing alongside streams to keep them shady and cool for salmon. They govern forest road construction to lower the chances of a landslide. They direct foresters on when trees must be replanted, and more.

Oregon’s comprehensive law was the first of its kind when it was passed in 1971, but environmental advocates say it has since become the weakest state forestry law on the West Coast.

It remains the law that state officials use in defending against claims from the federal government that Oregon hasn’t adequately protected coastal streams. It’s what industry lobbyists extol and environmental lobbyists rail against.

Central to understanding the effectiveness of this law is the question of how well it’s being followed. So, back in 2011, the Oregon Legislature directed ODF to conduct an annual study of Forest Practices Act compliance, using an independent contractor to collect data from a sampling of forest owners.

The agency began by reviewing how well forestland owners and the timber industry were complying with rules on harvesting trees, building and maintaining forest roads and protecting water quality.

In Line With Other States

Its work found an overall compliance rate of 98% in 2017, the most recent year completed. The state also calculates compliance rates for specific rules, ownership classes and regions. Forest industry representatives say they are confident in the accuracy of those numbers, as do several members of the state’s forestry board.

Joe Justice, a board member who works for Hancock Forest Management in Eastern Oregon, said ODF foresters use the audits to identify areas where they need to work with landowners before, during and after tree harvests.

“Compliance Audits are just one way the Department monitors Forest Practices,” Justice said in an email. “A great deal of valuable information is gained from these audits including information and trends that help ODF focus training and education.”

Marganne Allen, ODF Forest Health & Monitoring Manager, said Oregon’s reported compliance rates are credible. She pointed out that they also fall in line with those reported by other states, which have found that landowners and timber operators are abiding by forestry laws at compliance rates that range from 61% to 99%, according to the Society of American Foresters.

“This has been a very repeatable outcome over time,” Allen said. She said the latest findings also are consistent with previous ODF studies dating back to 2002.

Department of Forestry officials say they are working to improve the way they check on logging-related activities. The department plans to involve statisticians from OSU in reviewing future audits, the next of which will focus on how landowners plant trees after harvesting. The department also opened up its external review team, Allen said, but the environmental groups criticizing its latest audit declined to participate.

A Flawed, Selective Method

A major concern they raised is who the department included and who is left out. The state made 345 inquiries with potential audit participants but ultimately studied only about one-third of them.

Participation was voluntary. Some landowners refused to give state foresters access to their woodlots — something the law permits them to do.

Don Stevens, a retired OSU statistician who reviewed the work at the request of the Wild Salmon Center, is the reviewer who said the audit’s flaws undermine the credibility of the state’s reported forestry-rule compliance rates. He said ODF’s sampling provides “enormous potential for non-response bias.” In other words, there’s no way to know if that method left out thousands of acres of forest land rife with violations. And should that be the case, the Department of Forestry’s overall picture of how well Oregon’s Forest Practices Act has been followed could be wildly inaccurate.

Stevens and others say the problems go beyond the collection of bad data. They say the department’s analysis of that data is also flawed.

Chris Mendoza, an environmental consultant who has worked on compliance monitoring for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, reviewed ODF’s work for the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition. He equated ODF’s methods to finding out that 200 out of 1,000 motorists pulled over by police were exceeding the speed limit — and assuming those 200 were the only speeders out of all 100,000 cars on the highway that day.

“If ODF intended to choose a method that selectively depicts the highest possible compliance rates for forest practices rules … then ODF’s reporting ‘methods’ hits that mark,” Mendoza wrote in his assessment.

The ODF’s Allen said her agency wanted to account for the fact that not all timber harvests are the same, and some landowners may be encountering the law more often than others.

Larger Questions About The Agency

“You can have one harvest unit that has only, say, 100 feet of road. Another may have 500 feet of road. So it’s important to get across some metric of not all harvest units are equal, and that they’ll have a different number of times that a given rule is applied.”

She said no issues had been raised with this method in the past, but that she expected OSU’s expertise to inform how they approach it in the future.

For some board members and advocates, the audit raised larger questions about how the agency works.

Bob Van Dyk of the Wild Salmon Center noted that, save for members from the Department of Environmental Quality, the audit’s external review committee was made up entirely of people from forest companies and industry trade groups.

A contractor sorts logs on Oregon Board of Forestry land in southern Oregon. 
A contractor sorts logs on Oregon Board of Forestry land in southern Oregon. Oregon Department of Forestry

“This audit shows that the agency that’s charged with protecting our forest waters is too close to the timber industry that they regulate,” Van Dyk said. “And that we can’t be confident in the quality of the laws, nor in their implementation.”

Williams, who was a fisheries biologist for 30 years before serving on the Board of Forestry, said the audit appears to be part of a pattern that causes her to be skeptical of scientific information coming out of the forestry department.

At a Board of Forestry meeting in early June, Williams voiced concerns that a board-ordered review of the science on the effects of forest practices on stream temperatures in Oregon’s Siskiyou forests omitted studies that were both relevant and indicated a need for changes in management to reach water quality objectives.

She said the agency’s work has the appearance of a bias toward upholding the status quo.

“It certainly feels that way,” Williams said in a phone interview. “I don’t know if it is an intentional bias or not, you know, I don’t know what’s causing it, but the result is that we are being given sort of a rose-colored glasses picture of the world.”

Fishing, conservation groups want logging rules to protect Coho

Tillamook Headlight Herald
May 1, 2019

While Coho salmon have been threatened with extinction for years, the Board of Forestry has never initiated a state-mandated review of its rules to protect the fish.

Twenty conservation and fishing organizations have delivered a rulemaking petition to the Oregon Board of Forestry requesting new rules to prevent logging-related harm to “resource sites” for Coho salmon listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Act.

Coho salmon, which are split into three evolutionarily significant units in Oregon, were first listed in Southern Oregon in 1997, and soon thereafter along the rest of the Oregon Coast in 1998. The Lower Columbia Coho population was listed almost over a decade ago, in 2005.

“The Oregon Forest Practices Act clearly requires the Board of Forestry to address conflicts between logging and habitat for species at risk of extinction,” said Nick Cady, legal counsel with Cascadia Wild. “There are major ongoing conflicts between logging practices and Coho salmon habitat that need to be resolved.”

Oregon has relied heavily on voluntary measures by timber companies to protect Coho. Between 1995 and 2017, taxpayers invested $65 million dollars of public funds on in-stream habitat restoration efforts. However, Oregon’s weak forest practices rules still allow logging to degrade aquatic habitat critical to the recovery of Coho salmon.

Conrad Gowell, Fellowship Director with the Native Fish Society said, “We need to address the root causes of fish decline. The public’s investments in habitat restoration activities cannot keep up with the pace or scale of the ongoing degradation from poor forest practices.”

Oregon’s rules for state and private timberlands are the weakest in the Pacific Northwest. “Oregon has dragged its feet in addressing problems that have long been identified by state and federal expert agencies,” said Mary Scurlock with the Oregon Stream Protection Coalition.

“Intensive logging too close to streams and on landslide-prone areas, sediment from forest roads, and large areas dominated by clear-cuts and young plantations are perpetuating poor freshwater habitat conditions,” Scurlock said.

“The Board has been taking a very slow and piecemeal approach to updating its policies,” Robyn Janssen said, “The last rule change took 15 years but still didn’t address some of the biggest problems for salmon and water quality – and left the Rogue Basin and its salmon out of the picture entirely. We can’t afford to wait another 20 years for Oregon to bring its logging rules up to snuff.”

Board of Forestry, Uphold your Mission: Op-Ed in Mail Tribune

by Lydia Doleman
Sunday, May 26th 2019

Mail Tribune

I am a mother, a carpenter, a business owner, and the co-founder of a non-profit called Speak for the Trees. I live in the Little Applegate Valley and have for nearly 10 years. During that time, I’ve seen our local forests and hillsides decimated by private forestry practices and lack of reasonable, science-based rules from the Oregon Board of Forestry.

The stated mission of the Oregon Department of Forestry is “To serve the people of Oregon by protecting, managing and promoting stewardship of Oregon’s forests to enhance environmental, economic and community sustainability.” My experience of interacting with the Oregon Department of Forestry has been that it caters heavily to private timber companies and has little regard for communities, businesses and species that depend on healthy forests and waterways.

Currently, rules for clearcut logging on private lands in the Southern Oregon “Siskiyou Region” require 50- and 70-foot riparian “management” areas for small and medium streams. However, all too often the “management” of these riparian areas results in harvesting down to a 20-foot required no-cut buffer minimum. If a stream is non-fish bearing, trees can be cut all the way to the stream’s edge.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that this is not good for waterways. Lack of trees and streamside vegetation causes warmer temperatures, increased sediment, and additional impacts to cold water streams vital to our fisheries and communities.

Even my 6-year-old could point out that removing the trees (i.e. the shade) from a stream will make it warmer, having a detrimental impact on stream health and salmon habitat. So why even consider excluding any Oregon bioregion from expanded stream buffers when doing so is also in direct violation of the Clean Water Act? Especially in a region that supports threatened coho salmon and other sensitive fish species.

For the rest of Western Oregon, stream buffer rules are at least better than what we have here in the Siskiyou Region. When the Board of Forestry voted to increase stream buffers for Western Oregon forests, increasing buffer zones by 10 feet, they left the entire Siskiyou Region out of these increased protections, claiming there is no data to support the need. Again, I’m not a scientist, but I know that trees create shade and shade creates cooler temperatures on land or water.

From a profit perspective, an extra 10 feet of buffer at the stream would have a minimal economic impact on the vast majority of private-land logging operations and would provide a net positive impact on our environment and our communities. Healthy streams are the life-blood of our rural communities. Water is the bank account we all draw from; it’s how we grow our food, our medicine and our businesses. We are looking at hotter, drier times ahead and our streams deserve and will require more protection as we stare down the barrel at systemic climate changes.

As a carpenter I love working wood and I love our forests. Stream health, forest health and economic health do not have to be at odds. One of the biggest issues is that our forest products are greatly undervalued. With the trade war with China and a slowing construction sector, the price per million board feet is dropping, mills are slowing production and exports are a fraction of what they once were. The time is ripe to encourage holding onto more of our precious resources and managing our forests in a sustainable, innovative and conscious way.

The Oregon Board of Forestry has a responsibility and an obligation to uphold its mission in its decisions. Excluding the Siskiyou bioregion from increased stream buffers seems counter to that mission. I believe we can do better for our watersheds, our communities and our future. You can speak up by asking the Board of Forestry to include the Siskiyou Region in increased stream buffers rules like the rest of Western Oregon.

What legacy do you want to leave?

Lydia Doleman lives in the Little Applegate with her daughter, owns Flying Hammer Productions and is the co-founder of the nonprofit Speak for the Trees.

Tall and old or dense and young: Which kind of forest is better for the climate?

Article in Mongabay: News & Inspiration From Nature’s Frontline

by Paul Koberstein & Jessica Applegate
23 May 2019

  • Scientists say reforestation and better forest management can provide 18 percent of climate change mitigation through 2030. But studies appear to be divided about whether it’s better to prioritize the conservation of old forests or the replanting of young ones.
  • A closer look, however, reconciles these two viewpoints. While young forests tend to absorb more carbon overall because trees can be crowded together when they’re small, a tree’s carbon absorption rate accelerates as it ages. This means that forests comprised of tall, old trees – like the temperate rainforests of North America’s Pacific coast – are some of the planet’s biggest carbon storehouses.
  • But when forests are logged, their immense stores of carbon are quickly released. A study found the logging of forests in the U.S. state of Oregon emitted 33 million tons of CO2 – almost as much as the world’s dirtiest coal plant.
  • Researchers are calling on industry to help buffer climate change by doubling tree harvest rotations to 80 years, and urge government agencies managing forests to impose their own harvest restrictions.

In 2007, Richard Branson, the British business magnate, offered a $25 million prize to anyone who can invent a device capable of removing significant volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Andy Kerr, a noted Oregon environmentalist, drew a picture of a tree and sent it in. After all, a tree performs the job of sucking carbon out of the air far better than any technology yet devised by humans. But Kerr didn’t win, foiled by contest rules specifying the winner must be the inventor of such a device, and it’s certain neither Kerr nor anyone else invented the tree. An artificial tree might win if it could perform the implausible feat of inhaling CO2.

Kerr’s idea, however, was rooted more in the climate benefits provided by an entire forest rather than just a single tree. These benefits can be enormous, according to “Natural Climate Solutions,” a paper published in 2017 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The paper asserts better management of forests, wetlands and farmland can provide 37 percent of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed through 2030. Forests alone can provide 18 percent of the mitigation, according to a statement published last year by the Climate and Land Alliance and signed by an international group of 40 scientists.

“The ‘natural technology’ of forests is currently the only proven means of removing and storing atmospheric CO2 at a scale that can meaningfully contribute to achieving carbon balance,” the 40 scientists said. “The world’s forests contain more carbon than exploitable oil, gas, and coal deposits, hence avoiding forest carbon emissions is just as urgent as halting fossil fuel use.”

The Amazon Rainforest is one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Last year, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned we have only until 2030 to act if we hope to limit global warming to moderate levels.

Forests cool the atmosphere by inhaling CO2 through the process of photosynthesis and storing or sequestering it in roots, trunks, branches, needles and leaves. Half a tree’s weight is carbon. Although every backyard vegetable garden absorbs some amount of carbon, a rainforest takes in exponentially more. For this reason, rainforests and other large terrestrial ecosystems made up of dense vegetation are known as “carbon sinks.”

Kerr lives at the edge of a temperate rainforest straddling the west coast of North America from the redwoods of Northern California into Alaska, the largest contiguous temperate rainforest in the world. Few ecosystems anywhere match its capacity to absorb and store carbon. Trees in the temperate rainforest, among the tallest in the world, live for 800 years or more.

The expansive Amazon tropical rainforest of South America is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. But on a per-acre basis, the Amazon is not nearly as efficient at absorbing carbon as the coastal temperate rainforest. The Douglas fir forests of Oregon and the hemlock and cedar forests of Alaska store about twice as much carbon per acre as the Amazon. The giant redwoods of Northern California, which store seven times as much, are regarded as the most carbon dense forests in the world.

The temperate rainforest is a “carbon storage powerhouse,” says John Talberth of the Portland, Ore.-based advocacy group Center for a Sustainable Economy (CSE). “If allowed to mature, Pacific Northwest forests can capture and store more carbon than almost any terrestrial ecosystem on Earth.”

Pound-for-pound, North America’s temperate rainforests – like this one on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington – beat tropical rainforests when it comes to carbon storage.

The problem is most mature trees in the rainforest have been cut down and young ones are not allowed to mature. Outside conservation areas like national parks and wilderness, ancient groves are converted to industrial tree farms by the timber industry.

After cutting down every old growth tree it can get its hands on, the industry typically plants a young sapling in its place. The saplings grow for about 40 years on average until the next harvest. Then the cycle repeats again and again.

This business model might be good for timber industry profits, but what does it do to the climate?

Sara Duncan, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Forest Industry Council, a lobbying group, claims this business model is good for both profits and the climate. She says old growth trees store a lot of carbon, but like everything else, old growth trees eventually die. If they aren’t harvested and converted into wood products, they will fall down in a windstorm, burn up in a wildfire or meet their fate some other way. Eventually they will release all their stored carbon content back to the atmosphere.

The industry’s solution to the climate crisis is to log the trees, truck them to the mill, and store the carbon in 2-by-4s, plywood boards and toilet paper. Eventually, however, the carbon in these products will still return to the atmosphere one day.

But is there a more climate-friendly way to manage our forests? Can we get more climate mitigation from a forest if we don’t cut it down every 40 years? The science suggests we can.

In 2014, a study published in Nature by a team an international team of researchers led Nathan Stephenson, a forest ecologist with the United States Geographical Survey, found that a typical tree’s growth continues to accelerate throughout its lifetime, which in the coastal temperate rainforest can be 800 years of more.

Stephenson and his team compiled growth measurements of 673,046 trees belonging to 403 tree species from tropical, subtropical and temperate regions across six continents. They found that the growth rate for most species “increased continuously” as they aged.

“This finding contradicts the usual assumption that tree growth eventually declines as trees get older and bigger,” Stephenson says. “It also means that big, old trees are better at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere than has been commonly assumed.”

This giant cedar sucked in a lot of carbon during its 1,000-year life. Photo by Morgan Erickson-Davis.

But the science, as usual, is muddy. As Mongabay reported in February, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2019 by Thomas Pugh of the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research in the UK found young forests sequester more carbon per year than old-growth forests.

“These findings upend conventional wisdom that old-growth tropical rainforests are the planet’s biggest carbon sinks,” Pugh’s study said. It defined old-growth forests as any stand over 140 years of age.

It would appear the two studies contradict each other. But both scientists say they are consistent.

“The difference is that Stephenson et al. looked at biomass of individual trees, whereas our study looks at biomass of whole stands of trees,” Pugh said in an email. “Whilst a single tree might continue to pile on more and more biomass, there will be less of such trees in a stand, simply because of their size and as tree stands age, gaps tend to appear due to tree mortality.”

“So, our conclusion is actually that young forests are responsible for more of the terrestrial carbon sink than old growth forests,” Pugh said.

“Both things are true,” Stephenson said in an email. “Individual tree mass growth rate increases with tree size, but old forests usually absorb carbon more slowly than young forests.”

However, the relative growth rates of young and old trees do not tell the entire story.

“Older forests store a lot more carbon than young forests and much of it is returned to the atmosphere quickly when harvested and planted with young trees,” says Beverly Law, a professor of global change biology at Oregon State University.

By the time it becomes a desk, table or 2-by-4, a log will lose about 70 percent of its carbon, according to Dominick DellaSala, director of the GEOS Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oregon.

About 45 percent of the carbon is left on the forest floor, said DellaSala, a member of the Oregon Global Warming Commission Task Force on Forest Carbon. “This includes decomposition of root wads, branches, and tops remaining on site and a little soil carbon. Logging takes nearly half the carbon and puts it into the atmosphere within years.”

Trees that fall naturally release their carbon gradually over decades as they decompose.

Another 25 percent is lost during manufacturing, he said. And as the finished wood products decay over time, he said, they emit even more.

And that doesn’t include carbon emitted by chainsaws, logging trucks and lathes. In 2018, Law led a team of researchers who quantified these and all other carbon emissions as logs move from forest to sawmill. Their paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said logging operations in Oregon contribute an average of 33 million tons of CO2 to the air. This equates to almost as much as the world’s dirtiest coal plant, Taichung Coal Plant in Taiwan, which emits about 36 million tons per year.

Moreover, the climate impacts of logging are even greater if you factor in a harvested log’s lost future growth opportunities, Law says. Although her paper makes no attempt to quantify a logged tree’s foregone climate mitigation potential, she acknowledges it could be significant.

Law called on the industry to help buffer climate change by doubling harvest rotations to 80 years and urged government agencies managing forests to impose their own harvest restrictions. These and other actions could increase the amount of carbon absorbed by Oregon forests by 56 percent by the year 2100, as well as improve water quality and biodiversity, her paper said. She is conducting a similar analysis for forests in California and Washington.

Even after the wood is converted into a wood product, the carbon will likely return to the atmosphere sooner than people might think, Law said.

“Old growth trees in the coastal temperate rainforest can sequester carbon for hundreds of years,” she said, “which is much longer than is expected for buildings that are generally assumed to outlive their usefulness or be replaced within several decades.”

Paul Koberstein and Jessica Applegate are editors of Cascadia Times, an environmental journal based in Portland, Oregon.