California’s Carbon Plan and Forest Practices

Thursday, August 18th, 2016

help FIGHT climate changeIn a time when corporate profits rule over our ecosystems, and each year becomes the hottest year on record, we are faced with an incredible challenge to protect what matters for the greater good and for future generations. At EPIC, we know that the best thing we can do is protect our intact forestlands, which is no easy task, but we are willing to do the hard work of participating in the public process, developing standards, and keeping corporations and agencies accountable. But this work is only possible with contributions from people like you. If you believe in our cause, please consider making a donation today.

Changes in our global climate – as a result of emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the earth’s atmosphere from anthropogenic activities such as fossil fuel combustion and wide-spread deforestation – have been apparent to scientists and concerned citizens for several decades. In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Physical Science Basis Report concluded with a 95 percent degree of certainty that human activities are the dominant cause of global warming observed since the mid-20th century.

Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, deforestation, and other human activities have increased carbon dioxide to its highest concentrations in the atmosphere in 800,000 years, according to reports commissioned by the State of California Air Resources Control Board (Battles et al. 2014). According to the 2013 IPCC Report, the globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, between 1880 and 2012.

The IPCC (2013) report states that it is “unequivocal,” that the earth’s climate system is warming, and that since the 1950’s, changes observed are deemed to be “unprecedented” in global history. Radical changes in polar and tropical temperatures are well-documented, as are changes in precipitation levels by latitude, and significant changes in severe weather and climactic events are similarly well-documented and easily observable.

In California, the signs of global climate change are easily apparent. Long-term and unprecedented state-wide drought, water shortages, increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires, documented decreases in fog and precipitation on the North Cost, coastal sea-level rise, and the recently-documented die-off of over 2 million trees in the Southern Sierra-Nevada are just some of the signs that the human-induced changes in our global atmosphere and climate are very real.

Deforestation has been ranked as the second highest contributor to global GHG emissions behind fossil fuel combustion. In California today, our forests are storing less carbon than in the past. Burkhardt (1992) estimated that forest biomass, and essential component of forest carbon sequestration potential, has been reduced to a level of only 15 percent or less of the pre-European contact and settlement estimates. This dramatic decrease in total forest biomass is directly, and almost exclusively a consequence of intensive, and largely unregulated or poorly-regulated forest resource extraction in California.

According to Battles et al. 2014, between 2001 and 2008, the total carbon stored in the forests and rangelands of California decreased from 2,600 million metric tons of carbon (MMTC) to 2,500 MMTC. Aboveground live carbon decreased ~2% and total carbon decreased ~4%. The majority of this decline in carbon storage (61 %) can be attributed to a loss in carbon density, which is largely related to tree-size. According to McIntyre et al. (2015), tree density in forested regions in California increased by 30 % between the 1930’s and 2000’s, whereas forest biomass has declined, as evidenced by a 19 % reduction in basal area (a measure of average tree diameters at breast height per-acre).

In 2006, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 32, the “California Global Warming Solutions Act,” which requires California to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emission to pre-1990 levels by the year 2050. In August 2014, Governor Brown commissioned the Forest Climate Action Team (FCAT), with the purpose of creating a California Forest Carbon Plan by the end of 2016. The goal of the FCAT, among other things, is to establish forest health and resiliency conditions needed to reach targets for carbon sequestration and net reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and atmospheric black carbon, develop near, medium, and long-term targets for carbon sequestration and emissions reductions by region and ownership, through 2050 and beyond, based on goals and ecosystem potential. The FCAT is a cooperative venture of the California Department of Forestry, CalEPA, the California Air Resources Control Board, and the California Natural Resources Agency.

The FCAT is also charged with the development and implementation of forestland investment strategies to achieve carbon sequestration targets, and provide a framework for managing California’s forested landscapes to increase carbon sequestration and reduce climate-warming emissions, alongside other values of “healthy forests.”

Defining and attaining a state of, “healthy forests,” particularly as pertains to our privately-owned and administered forestlands in California, can be a significant challenge. To begin with, the vast majority of our state’s privately-owned forestland has been logged at some point in the past, many several times over, and therefore, no longer resemble the “reference” or “old-growth” condition. For example, here in Northern California’s coast redwood forest region, 95 percent of the forested landscape has been previously logged at least once; according to estimates provided by Save-the-Redwoods League (2016), 77 percent of the original 2 million-acre coast redwood forest land-base is privately-owned and managed in the present-day, almost all of which has been logged at least once, and very likely, at least two or three times in the 175-years since European-American contact and settlement in the region.

The FCAT concept of “healthy forests,” as articulated in the Forest Carbon Plan Concept Scoping Paper (FCAT 2016), describes a healthy forest as resilient, diverse, biodiverse, and ecologically and economically sustainable. The sad reality of the vast majority of California’s privately-owned and managed forestlands, particularly our large, “industrial” or “corporate,” forestland ownerships bare little if any resemblance to the reference condition, as they are largely evenaged, homogenous, and over-simplified as a result of intensive plantation-style forestry models that in no way resemble forests that are resilient, diverse, biodiverse, or ecologically or economically sustainable in the present-day. Simply put, over 175 years of intensive resource extraction and conversion of native forests to industrial fiber farm plantations has depleted our forests, our fish and wildlife resources, and has ultimately served to erode our economic and social systems as well as the infrastructural systems of many of our rural forest-dependent communities in California.

California’s private lands forest practice, legal and regulatory framework has been slow to respond to the realities of global climate change, and has done virtually nothing to meaningfully curb the past and ongoing contributions of California’s private land forest products industry to GHG emission that have, and continue to pollute our atmosphere and endanger the short-term viability of human, and other life on earth.

While the California State Legislature has recently amended the California Forest Practice Act of 1973 to require the Board of Forestry to ensure that its Forest Practice Rules consider forestland resource capacity, including values related to above-ground and below-ground carbon dioxide and carbon emissions and sequestration, and to enact standards and guidelines in the rules to guide CAL FIRE and the activities of the private lands forest products industry, in accordance with the mandates of AB 32 and Executive Orders issued by Governor Brown, the Board and CAL FIRE have thus-far failed to act to address these new legislative mandates.

To say that the bureaucratic process at the Board of Forestry is moving to address the new realities and legislative mandates at a snail pace would be a massive understatement. At present, the only proposed action the Board is developing and considering is the addition of a Greenhouse Gas Assessment component to the suite of factors to be assessed in the cumulative impacts assessment of individual Timber Harvest Plans and other discretionary projects. There appears to be no movement, or real impetus, for the Board to discuss, develop, or adopt rules and standards and guidelines to address GHG emissions, carbon sequestration, or forest health and productive capacity as directed by the State Legislature at-present.

EPIC staff has been invited to participate in the stakeholder working group developed to refine the specifications of the California Forest Carbon Plan. Among EPIC’s chief goals in the development of the Plan is advocating for an approach that is forest-type and regionally-specific that prioritizes forest management practices that protect, enhance, and restore the carbon sequestration capacity of forestlands as well as support the development of healthy, diverse, and resilient forests. EPIC also advocates for prioritization of Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund allocations in areas with the greatest potential to contribute to State-mandated GHG reduction targets, and that are spatially strategic so as to achieve the greatest possible benefits from fund allocations.

EPIC is also engaging with the Board of Forestry to compel the Board to take seriously its responsibilities to ensure restoration of forestland productive capacity and to promulgate rules, regulations, guidelines and standards that ensure State-mandated requirements to address carbon emissions, sequestration, and forest health and capacity for both ecological and economic benefits are developed, adopted, and implemented.

The days of “business as usual” and favoring short-term economic benefits of private entities and individuals over the needs of our forests, fish, wildlife, water, air, economies and communities, and general public welfare simply cannot continue in California, or elsewhere. If we are to arrest or reverse the global-scale climactic crisis that threatens the very future of life on earth in the short-term, immediate conservation and restoration of California’s forests, particularly our coast redwoods, is absolutely critical to the achievement of State-mandated GHG reduction objectives, and to the creation of resilient, healthy, diverse, and ecologically and economically viable forests that can serve to buttress and combat the specter of a human-induced global climate catastrophe, and likely, mass extinction.

This is an uphill battle and we are willing to do this hard work, but we need your support to keep our organization running.

Please click here to make a contribution today.