Proforestation is a better use for public forest lands

Proforestation is a better use for public forest lands

Last year while visiting Washington State, I had the chance to see one of the largest red cedar trees in the world, the Duncan Memorial Red Cedar. The tree is located in the Olympic National Park and stands in an area that was once clear-cut. With only a bit of green branching on the top crown, it's hard to believe it is still alive. The 1,000-year-old tree stands 178 feet tall with a diameter of 19.4 feet.

The same region is home to a now famous tree species, the Pacific Yew or Taxus brevifolia. During the 1990s a chemical compound found in this tree’s bark, Taxane, was shown to stop cancer cells from dividing. From this compound came the chemotherapy drug, Taxol, which is used to treat breast and ovarian cancers.

Trees are pretty amazing, and this time of year they impress us with their magnificent colors. Once the seasons change, daylight hours and temperatures decrease and trees stop the process of making the green compound chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll dwindles, red, orange and yellow pigments always present in the leaves are now observable.

Trees also are excellent recyclers. Once their leaves die and fall, the nutrients in the leaves are returned back to the forest soil to be used again. Trees, like all green plants, can make their own energy through the process of photosynthesis. Forests are the lungs of the planet and play a major role in the carbon cycle of the planet as “carbon sinks.”

Trees, especially large trees, do this so well that they are being championed as a major component of climate-change mitigation. As they grow, trees store carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. Of course trees that are located in tropical regions never cease active growth and are the best at storing carbon. This is why the fires in the Amazon forests are so devastating. Trees that are burned no longer store carbon and in fact release it back into the atmosphere.

The temperate forests in Appalachia store carbon as well. Usually the denser deciduous trees, like oaks, are the best for storing carbon, but conifers like white pine also are good at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. While some people claim younger trees take in more carbon because they are growing faster, studies show this is not true. Older stands of trees can sequester two to three times more carbon than young forests.

Leaving older forests unmanaged to continue holding carbon is a new and popular strategy for climate-change mitigation. This process is called proforestation. A recent article in “Frontiers in Forests and Global Change” said, “Intact forests, free from human intervention, are the most carbon-dense and biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems.” The amount of atmospheric carbon captured by temperate and boreal forests in the USA is equivalent to 11 percent of the USA’s annual carbon-dioxide emissions.

Although planting new trees is important, we do not have time to wait for those trees to mature and remove carbon. We also do not have enough available land to plant in forests. This makes saving our existing mature forests even more important.

California is the first state to offer financial incentives to landowners who preserve their trees as living carbon banks. Minnesota has recently started to urge landowners to manage forests for carbon storage, not just wood production.

The Blandin Paper Company has a large-scale carbon-storage project on 175,000 acres in Minnesota. The 20-year project is expected to keep 3.6 million tons of carbon in the trees. This is equivalent to taking 760,000 cars off the road for a year. The Passamaquoddy Tribe in Maine will earn $40 million in carbon offsets on a project that protects 90,000 acres of land.

We cannot count on just using the trees on our public lands as carbon sinks. Our national parks and wildlife preserves in the lower 48 states only hold about 7 percent of their land as intact forests. Even areas designated as “roadless” hold timber harvests, allow oil and gas extraction, and permit grazing and road-building. According to the National Parks Conservation Association, “There are 534 active oil and gas wells in 12 national parks with plans to open up 42 more parks for drilling.”

A new study in the journal, Science, reported, “The Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction in public lands in history.”

The administration wants a “freer hand” in development, and this means primarily oil and gas extraction, logging, and mining. Our own national forest, the Wayne National Forest, is no exception. The Bureau of Land Management has opened up 40,000 acres for fracking leases.

Ironically most of the acreage where the Wayne National Forest is located was originally used for extraction of mineral resources, especially iron and coal, and the trees were clear-cut to be used as fuel in iron smelting. The forests, established in 1934, literally rose from the ashes as hundreds of Civilian Conservation Corps workers replanted trees in the 1940s.

Ohio is 44th in the nation for the amount of public land it owns. Private corporations should not be using this precious property for financial gain. The Wayne contains 120 species of trees, 45 species of mammals, 158 species of birds, 28 species of reptiles, 29 species of amphibians, and 87 species of fish.

This is our forest, and it would be wise to preserve it and keep it intact as a carbon sink and a place of biodiversity. If it becomes another fracking zone, it will once again revert to a wasteland and a source of greenhouse gas emissions. Keep the Wayne wild.

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