Currently, there is a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would ban logging on all of the state lands. The premise of the legislation is that logging contributes significantly to carbon dioxide emissions. The legislation sponsors argue that the best use of Massachusetts state-owned property is to maintain intact forests for carbon storage.
Ironically in Montana, the state has favored logging over forest conservation, contributing to carbon dioxide emissions.
Many people are beginning to understand that our forests greatest value is for carbon storehouse, not wood products. Indeed, one recent study suggests that if we stopped cutting and restored forests across the globe, we could pull up to 2/3 of the greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.
By contrast logging a forest for wood products is counterproductive. A recent study in Oregon found that logging was the most significant contributor to that state's carbon emissions—far more than all the transportation and other sources typically enumerated.
Logging advocates suggest that turning trees into wood products "sequesters" carbon for decades and centuries. However, the bulk of all wood products are used for temporary and short-lived items from wooden pallets to paper cups—all of which ultimately end up in the landfill. A recent paper Global Mitigation Potential of Carbon stored in harvested wood products concluded that such strategies could only remove and save less than 1% of global emissions.
Even more disturbing is that logging is costing taxpayers money. A new study by the Center for Sustainable Economy has documented taxpayer losses of nearly $2 billion a year associated with the federal logging program carried out on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.
The authors found that carbon economic values were two to three times higher than could be achieved by logging the stand. Add in the economic value that protected forests provide in the way of watershed protection, wildlife habitat, scenic values, recreational values, and the rest; there is no comparison as to which management strategy makes the most economic sense.
Even the argument that thinning or logging will reduce wildfires and keep more carbon in the forest is flawed.
One recent study found that far more carbon remains on site even after a wildfire than is removed when forests are logged. That is because what burns in a forest fire are the fine fuels, not the tree boles. The snags left behind after a blaze continue to store carbon for decades and sometimes centuries.
Ironically the Trump administration is ramping up logging on the presumption that it will reduce “fuels” and thus large fires. But again, the fundamental assumption is flawed. Another 2016 study that looked at 1500 wildfires around the country found that unlogged forests burned at lower severity than areas that had been “actively” managed, meaning thinned or clearcut.
All of the large blazes in the West are driven by “extreme fire weather” conditions. And logging/thinning has been found ineffective at halting blazes under such conditions.
The best use of our national forests is not to produce wood products or even logging under the false belief that we can halt large fires; instead, their highest value is for carbon storage.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published "Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy." He lives in Livingston.