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It's time to be practical--not politically correct--about carbon retention issues for the forest industry
By Jim Stirling
Carbon retention issues are becoming a major grassroots challenge for the forest industry in British Columbia.
Carbon storage appears destined to assume a more prominent role in the province's forest management strategies. And while it's far from clear how the whole issue will play out for B.C.'s loggers and sawmillers, there are a couple of safe assumptions.
One, if a carbon storage consideration is implemented, a new level of bureaucracy will be spawned--with all the joys that entails. And two, it will cost more money.
Some people both in and out of the forest industry, question the need to be aware of carbon issues in the forest, along with the whole concept of climate change. They dismiss it as garbage. But there are enough strident voices out there citing opposing views and forecasting varying levels of strife and damnation if the entire subject is simply ignored.
Governments, in their time-honoured tradition, have hedged their bets and done nothing.
But more recently, there have been undeniable moves toward a more carbon aware approach. Just one example is the creation of the Pacific Carbon Trust, a B.C. government Crown agency. Its primary role is as a clearing house for buying and selling carbon credits, a murky enough issue at the best of times with questionable global benefits.
The government, of course, wants its share of any available bartering bounty.
Early this year, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urged the B.C. government to elevate carbon storage's importance in the forests. The report noted the mountain pine beetle epidemic and increasing activity among other forest pathogens have put huge swathes of the province's forests out-of-whack carbonwise. Instead of the forests as carbon storage tanks, the vast numbers of dead trees have transformed them into carbon emitters.
To counteract that, the report suggests setting aside more forest land.
It doesn't however, detail where that commodity might come from.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report also encouraged wood product use--because of its considerable ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide--compared to other building materials like steel and concrete. The group recommends the establishment of carbon tree plantations, presumably off-limits to the forest industry. It would also like to see an increase in protected areas in the province and longer rotations between harvesting cycles.
The forest industry, on the other hand, would largely welcome an increase in intensive silvicultural practices which would increase a tree's growth rate and potential yield while, in effect, shortening the harvesting cycles.
A more recent study in the U.S. discovered the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest amongst the tallest in the world. This information is hardly revolutionary but it spurs more debate about the most desirable age structure of a forest, from a carbon retention perspective. Should they be old or young?
Studies using lasers shot from satellites are trying to find answers.
"All of the remote sensing is providing us with the ability to monitor changes in the environment in a way you might not see on the ground," according to Michael Lefsky, an assistant professor in the department of forest, rangeland and watershed stewardship at Colorado State University, in a published report."We are expecting under global warming that the productivity of the forest will change."
Scientists seem to concur more carbon is stored in older, taller trees.
But the tallest, most magnificent trees in the forest will eventually die and carbon contained in them will be released.
Young stands absorb carbon faster as they progress through their growth cycles. Planting more trees and tending the young stands to begin compensating for the lost pine forests seems a no-brainer from the perspectives of forest land rehabilitation, carbon storage and forest industry jobs. And it bears repeating: when wood is converted into forest products, be it a 2 x 4 or a guitar, the carbon it contains is permanently stored.
The major potential dilemma facing B.C.'s forest industry with the whole carbon question is how any new rules and regulations are to be implemented.
The memories of the Forest Practices Code remain fresh and painful. The earliest incarnations of the code were politically driven, knee-jerk reactions to marketing threats from holier-than-thou self-interest groups. Just in case it's slipped the memory like the bad dream it was, the ill-conceived edicts introduced were often unworkable in the real world and were full of questionable bureaucratic assumptions. Not the least of them was lumping all types of provincial forest land as one, making equal on-the-ground operating conditions on western Vancouver Island, for example, with those north of Fort Nelson.
If carbon consideration is destined to become part of the forest management mix in B.C., it should be removed from the unrealistic influence of self interest groups and politically correct stupidity. Instead, words like practical, realistic and fair should be among the guiding principles.
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