Industrial Logging, Forest Depletion, and Climate Change—The Ghost in the Machine

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

“Hole in Headwaters” on Humboldt Redwood Company Property, August 2014, as part of a Sanctuary Forest Forestry Practices Hike. Forest thinning in previously-managed second-growth redwood stand.

There are nearly 33 million acres of forested land in the State of California. Since the early days of European-American settlement, the wholesale destruction of our native, “old-growth” forests, and the overall depletion of the productive capacity of our forests, both public and private, have been the subject of debate and concern. Many may not realize it, but the California State Legislature actually created the very first Board of Forestry all the way back in 1885, recognizing even then that the threat that large-scale timber harvest and resource extraction from, and conversion of, California’s forestlands were a matter of statewide urgency and concern. This first Board of Forestry was quickly dissolved in 1887 as a consequence of push-back on the Legislature applied by the burgeoning and politically-powerful timber industry.

In 1945, the California State Legislature again acted to create a State Board of Forestry and a position for a “State Forester,” once again recognizing the threat posed by rapid depletion of the state’s forestland resources, and their conversion. Unfortunately, the 1945 Forest Practice Act was weak, and the Board of Forestry was entirely comprised of the industry itself, which was left to self-regulate until the creation of the present-day Z’berg-Negedly Forest Practice Act of 1973.

Old-growth redwood forest at Tall Trees Grove, Redwood National Park.

By the time the modern Forest Practice Act was created, California’s forestland resources had already been substantially depleted, and some of the most productive land for forests had already been converted to agricultural and residential uses. At the time Redwood National Park was created in 1968, several years prior to the advent of the modern Forest Practice Act, it was estimated that only ten percent of the original 2 million acres of native “old-growth” redwood forest remained. By 1999 and the creation of the BLM-administered Headwaters Forest Reserve, the estimate ranged between three and five percent.

It was not only lack of regulation, however that has led to our forestland depletion crisis in California; land use laws, most notably taxation structures, also served to incentivize over-harvesting. Particularly, the so-called “Ad valorum” tax, which required assessment and taxation of the value of standing timber volume on private ownerships annually based upon percent of standing inventory value, was a major driver. The tax on standing timber volume was assessed in addition to property taxes, thus serving to encourage heavy-handed forest management and the depletion of forestland productive capacity in the long-term for the sake of avoiding annual standing volume taxes in the short-term.

Clearcut logging units in redwood forest land on Green Diamond Resource Company Property.

Expressing the loss and depletion of California’s forestlands and their productive capacity in terms of acres of remaining native or “old-growth” forest in comparison to previously-managed and perpetually-managed forest stands can be grossly misleading because it vastly understates the magnitude of what we have lost to timber harvest and conversion. Timber harvest in California focuses almost exclusively on the production and value of wood products derived from the trees in our forests. However, the value, and potential growth capacity of our trees, as well as all other living, green, material in our forests that isn’t comprised of trees, has been grossly underestimated. There’s no better evidence for this short-sighted and narrow view of the productivity of our forests than we have today as we look at the overall productive ability of our forests to be carbon sinks in an age of climate change.

Green, living, breathing plants, including our trees, utilize air, soil nutrients, water, and sunlight to perpetuate photosynthesis, and the conversion of base elements into simple sugars to create more living, breathing, green woody material commonly referred to as biomass. Forestland productivity is a function of the basic elemental building blocks of life on earth: carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. These basic elements utilize trees and other living, breathing things in our forests to operate and perpetuate essential planetary ecological cycles, such as our air, water, and soil nutrient cycles. Our forestlands produce all of these, and the production and perpetuation of these are essential components to healthy, growing, productive forests.

The 1973 Forest Practice Act establishes a duel mandate for timber production on private forestlands in the state. This mandate calls for ensuring, “maximum sustained production of high-quality timber products, while giving consideration,” to a suite of overall environmental and social public trust forest-related values, including fish, air, water, wildlife, range, forage, carbon dioxide sequestration, and regional employment and economic viability. In our now 40 years of history advocating for science-based protection and restoration of forests in the State of California, EPIC has long-argued that maintaining a sustainable productive capacity of private forestlands is a matter of state-wide public trust concern.

Currently, as California strives to take the lead on combating the causes and effects of global and regional climate change, it is more clear than ever that the productive capacity of our forestlands has been severely depleted, and that changes in law and incentives affecting forestry practices, particularly on industrial lands, may be our last hope for continued human civilization and survival.

Let’s remember, forests are the lungs of our planet, cycling in and storing or “sequestering” large amounts of carbon dioxide, one of the primary elements in a gaseous form contributing to our atmospheric greenhouse effect. Carbon dioxide is unnaturally emitted into our atmosphere in two primary ways: fossil fuel combustion, and deforestation. Research suggests that deforestation and forestland depletion contribute as much as 20 percent of the total excess carbon dioxide emitted into earth’s atmosphere as a result of anthropogenic extractive activities. A 1994 study conducted on industrial redwood timberlands in Mendocino County concluded that the total amount of living woody material, or biomass, in the forest at that time represented only ten to fifteen percent of the total biomass that existed pre-European-American settlement. In 2015, a study of the overall above and below ground carbon dioxide storage budget in California’s forests showed a continuing decline, while 2016 state-wide forest inventory assessment shows continued overall declines in total forest biomass and productivity. Declining forestland productivity and a commensurate decline in the amount of carbon dioxide stored in our forests raises many questions, about our forest management, and about our prognosis for long-term survival.

In late 2016, the California State Legislature enacted Senate Bill 32, a follow-up law that extends the state’s greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and carbon storage goals, and calls for attainment of a 20 percent reduction in GHG emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2030. The state’s climate change plan is predicated upon the presumption of utilizing California’s forestlands as our primary means of sequestering carbon dioxide captured from our atmosphere in living biomass, such as trees and other woody forest plants, while at the same time reducing GHG emissions associated with various state industry sectors, including transportation, energy production, and manufacturing of non-renewable fossil fuels like oil and gas.

However, the depleted condition of California’s forestlands raises numerous questions about the wisdom and likelihood of success of such a strategy. The present day tree mortality crisis occurring in the southern Sierra Nevada serves as one example of how past forest management and forestland depletion have led to catastrophic consequences that may serve to foil and undo California’s bold and aggressive GHG reduction and carbon dioxide storage objectives.

Historically, the forests of the Sierra Nevada were of a mixed conifer composition, dictated by soil, slope, aspect, and elevation, as well as water availability, and were largely fire-adapted. However, 150 years of fire exclusion, aggressive logging of native forests and conversion of these to homogenous over-stocked pine plantations, combined with extensive drought, and expansion of the range and influence of the pine-bark beetle, have served to generate an unprecedented tree-mortality event that some claim has affected over 100 million trees. The debate about how to respond to this tree-mortality crisis exemplifies the “Pandora’s Box” effect of past, aggressive logging of the native “old growth” forests and replacement of these with young, overstocked, under-performing, homogenous pine tree plantations, which represents a much greater hazard for large-scale, high intensity wildfire than did the native, fire-adapted forests. Instead of having a mix of large, well-spaced, fire-adapted tree species with higher branches and crowns, the homogenous, even-aged and over-crowded pine plantations of the Sierra Nevada are a tinder box, and a potentially significant source of carbon dioxide emissions, either as a result of large-scale high-intensity fire, or from mass die-offs, and decomposition.

The one-two punch of logging native “old growth” forests, resulting in the loss of both the living, breathing woody biomass and the associated carbon dioxide that was once stored, and the replacement of these with industrial tree plantations largely harvested on short even aged rotations, deprives California of critical forestland productivity, and has turned our forests into a net source of carbon dioxide emissions instead of a carbon sink.

The solution seems simple; extend forest harvest rotations, increase forest diversity and move industrial logging away from even-aged to multi-aged management to increase total biomass and carbon storage in trees and other herbaceous woody forest plants. Unfortunately, contemporary Forest Practice Rules fail to constrain harvest on industrial ownerships in any meaningful way, and as we know, the Department of Forestry is asleep at the wheel. If California can’t change the “business as usual” mentality of our forest products industry, there’s little hope that the state’s ambitious plans to combat the causes and effects of climate change will ever succeed. EPIC is dedicated to ensuring that the forests of North West California are protected, enhanced, and restored, and are managed for maximizing benefits to combating the causes and effects of global and regional climate change.