Wood Mizer

A More Nimble Forest Products Industry Could be the Key to the Future

By Jack Petree

Much of what is written today, especially in the popular and/or activist-driven press, about post-fire and other salvage harvests, is based on antiquated thinking about American forests. Most arguments against salvage harvests were posited in the days before climate change, other (often imported) threats to the forest, and equipment better suited to selective treatments of threatened forests was widely acknowledged, intensively studied, and available. Anti-harvest activists haven’t updated their ideas in a generation — a generation of massive change when it comes to the challenges our 21st century forests face.

In North America today tens of millions of acres of formerly vigorous, resilient forests contain hundreds of millions of dead trees that threaten our forests’ ability to provide the carbon-gobbling and sequestration capacity photosynthesis provides in a healthy forest. Every day those tens of millions of trees are giving up to the atmosphere, in the form of greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon they’ve stored away over a lifetime. The precise number varies with species but, in general, a board foot of lumber sequesters (traps) somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 – 5 pounds carbon equivalent in its cells. If a million dead trees, each averaging only 500 board feet of lumber were to be milled rather than allowed to deteriorate and release their carbon, two billion pounds of carbon equivalency in emissions would be avoided.

Today’s Challenges

In general, conditions challenging today’s American forests are much different than those faced by forests even two decades ago. An important article, “Temperate forest health in an era of emerging megadisturbance,” (Science Magazine - 2015), by two of America’s foremost forest ecologists points out: “Although disturbances such as fire and native insects can contribute to natural dynamics of forest health, exceptional droughts, directly and in combination with other disturbance factors, are pushing some temperate forests beyond thresholds of sustainability. Interactions from increasing temperatures, drought, native insects, and pathogens, and uncharacteristically severe wildfire are resulting in forest mortality beyond the levels of 20th-century experience. Additional anthropogenic stressors, such as atmospheric pollution and invasive species, further weaken trees in some regions. Although continuing climate change will likely drive many areas of temperate forest toward large-scale transformations, management actions can help ease transitions and minimize losses of socially valued ecosystem services.”

Another study, Evidence for declining forest resilience to wildfires under climate change (Ecology Letters 9(2018) 21: 243–252), documents the loss and/or transition some forests experience after a major disturbance. Among other conclusions, the authors report that compared to the last century, “Results highlight significant decreases in tree regeneration in the 21st century,” and “Major climate-induced reduction in forest density and extent has important consequences for a myriad of ecosystem services now and in the future.”

Future Carbon Source

Some, many, or even most, of the forests some imagine as having “eternal” or “timeless” natures are unlikely to survive into the future with a form recognizable to what they exhibit today. Likely forms after a megadisturbance run the gamut from transitional forests with reduced ability to provide the ecological services we expect from a forest today to wholesale conversion to shrub or grass land; the carbon sink taken for granted today may, without help, become the atmospheric carbon source of the future.

The tens of millions of dead, dying, and overcrowded trees in our public and private forests represent an opportunity not to be wasted. Of course, abundant habitat for flora and fauna dependent on traditional post-fire landscapes needs to be preserved, but nothing has prepared our forests for overwhelming amounts of salvageable timber; timber that, harvested, not only provides the lumber and other products we need but, sawmilled, offsets the need to harvest healthy trees in forests not yet threatened by megadisturbance.

Future Forest

Today’s forest products industry is already serving the future forest. Thinning to both reduce the odds of catastrophic fire and to provide more water for healthy trees represents a sort of pre-salvage harvest, providing lumber and saving healthy trees from harvest. Lidar allows us to identify trees threatening forest health and remove them specifically, while modern, portable, thin-kerf sawmills allow salvage to take place at a targeted level, with harvest and milling mostly accomplished by local small business owners. Biochar made from slash sequesters carbon, provides nutrients for farms and forest, and on, and on . . .

Much remains to be learned about how climate change will ultimately change our forests, but change they will, as will the forest products industry. Exciting times? We’re living them now!

Jack Petree is a public policy consultant and owner of Tradeworld Communications. 

TimberWest November/December 2013
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