Why should we care about forests, carbon and climate?

By Hal Salwasser  

A new book just came out called “Forests, Carbon and Climate Change,” and a conference of scientists will meet in mid-February at Oregon State University to discuss its findings. The book makes one point quite clear – the climate that created some of the world’s greatest forests here in the Pacific Northwest is changing, fast.                                   

Climate change is inevitable and some can be quite dramatic such as ice ages and interglacials. But human activities have now accelerated change and are warming the planet at a rate not seen for at least several hundred thousand years. As stewards of these forests, as people who live in and near them, as people who have nurtured them for generations, we have to learn about these changes, and do what we can to address them. We must become informed and adapt. This is not something we can just wish away.                                   

Forests are crucial to our quality of life and well being. They help sustain a livable atmosphere. They protect our watersheds, harbor native plant and animal species, provide wood, paper and other products, and are settings for many recreational and cultural activities. Forest management, conservation and forest product enterprises support communities and help drive Oregon’s economy.                                   

 Current forests thrive in the context of our existing climate. But climate, and the forests that help create it and depend on it, has changed in the past, and it is changing again. One of the unique aspects of the Earth’s great forests is that they are not only affected by climate, but they also can play a role in influencing the climate. Carbon is the prime link between forests and climate, along with water and oxygen. Forests and forest products

have high potential for greater carbon storage, helping to address the serious climate issues we face.                                   

Oregon is taking a leadership role on climate through Governor Ted Kulongoski’s Global Warming Initiative. Oregon is also teaming with California and Washington to develop regional and state strategies for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.                                   

The forest land parts of these strategies include reducing wildfire risk by thinning overly dense forests, creating markets for the woody biomass, taking greenhouse gas effects into consideration in farm and forest land use decisions, and returning under-producing former forestlands to healthy forest conditions.                                   

We still have a lot of learning to do, but these are good first steps. We already know enough to get started. What we know so far is that our climate is rapidly getting warmer due to human activities, such as tropical deforestation and burning of fossil fuels. A contributing factor has been the significant loss in forests worldwide that began when early humans started clearing forests for crop cultivation, and accelerated with industrial development.                                   

With proper management, forests and forest products can play important roles in easing the effects of some future climate change. Durable wood-based products help to store carbon and keep it out of the atmosphere, in contrast to materials such as steel, concrete and plastics, whose manufacture adds emissions because of fossil fuel use.                                   

Forests also are affected by climate change – the trees that grow best here now may not be identical to those that will best thrive in the future, and we must study this. Forest, fish and wildlife conservation and management plans will need to be revised with future climate in mind.                                   

Managing forests for carbon storage as well as for wood production can aid our environment and our economy. Carbon “markets” can earn revenue from greenhouse gas emitters, paid to forest landowners who agree to keep land forested for a certain period of time – and this may help prevent forests from being converted to other uses. Enlightened forest management can sustain a multitude of values, products and services, and help maintain our economy, our community vitality, our state’s livability, and our forest heritage.                                   

These are some of the major reasons we should all care about forests, carbon and climate. Because Oregon is such a forest-rich state, there are many options open to us. The future can be bright if we understand the issues and take the actions necessary to address them.                                   

Dr. Hal Salwasser, dean of the Oregon State University College of Forestry, was one of several speakers at the Forests, Carbon and Climate Change conference at OSU, this winter.  


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