Aerial view of Green Diamond clearcut.
Our planet is getting hotter. That is clear to the over 650,000 people displaced across the West during this year’s fire season. Climate change likely exacerbated this year’s fires, lengthening the fire season—it is now drier and warmer for longer—and by causing more extreme weather that helps to drive the large, fast-moving fires often to blame for the loss of life and property. Climate change is felt elsewhere locally. Humboldt Bay has experienced more severe sea level rise than anywhere else in America, threatening portions of Highway 101 with inundation in a little over a decade. Changing fog patterns could result in more stress to the region’s iconic redwoods, including shifting their range further north. Heat-sensitive species, like our coho salmon, fear the warmer water temps caused by a decline in winter snowpack. And so on.
All of this is obvious. Except apparently to Green Diamond Resource Company, whose clearcuts pockmark the North Coast. In every timber harvest plan (THP) submitted for approval to CALFIRE, Green Diamond begins the discussion of the impacts of harvest on climate change by questioning whether climate change is real. I kid you not. Take this recent excerpt from THP 1-20-21HUM:
The magnitude, causes, and effects of global climate variability are the subject of intense scientific inquiry and considerable scientific debate and uncertainty. (U.S. Senate 2008). Many scientists and policymakers have concluded that the earth’s climate is currently warming at a rate that is unprecedented in human history. Their conclusions are based on temperature data, samples of carbon dioxide (CO2) content in prehistoric ice and sediment and climate models. However, some scientists question this conclusion because global temperate data has only been collected for a brief time, and there are potential errors in climate models and measurements and inferences drawn from samples of CO2 in prehistoric ice and sediment. They argue that global warming trends must be viewed in the context of climate variability, which can be used to demonstrate or disprove global warming depending on the chosen time period.
To be clear, EPIC did not cherry pick one offensive quote. The THP is replete with climate skepticism—“scientific inquiry and uncertainty concerning the condition and causes of climate variability continues”; the “causes and effects [of climate change” are also the subject of scientific uncertainty and debate”; “[t]here is some evidence supporting scientific theories that variability in global climate conditions is caused by solar activity and variability in the earth’s electromagnetic field”; and so on.
Ultimately, after hemming and hawing over the science of climate change, Green Diamond acknowledges that its opinion doesn’t matter—that California, and CALFIRE as an agency of the state, recognizes climate change is real and that forestry can contribute to it. To complete a THP it is then necessary for Green Diamond to accept, ad arguendo, the existence of climate change. But that doesn’t improve their analysis.
Green Diamond’s analysis is long on “common sense” but short on science. Generally, Green Diamond’s argument is this: there are limited emissions attributable to the harvest equipment—the skidders, fellers, chainsaws, trucks and the like—and there are some emissions that result from decomposition or burning of the slash left in the forest, but most of the carbon from the forest will be left intact in the form of dimensional lumber and what emissions do occur will be offset by the growth of forests elsewhere on their property and through the regrowth of the logged stand.
Slash Pile. Photo by Oregon Dept. of Forestry, Flickr.
Of course, this is a far oversimplified picture of the carbon cycles at play from a timber harvest. As the best available science finds, forestry can result in significant greenhouse gas emissions, as it converts a relatively stable store of in-forest carbon in the form of trees and quickly releases a significant amount of carbon. The majority of carbon stored in a tree never ends up in lumber. Between branches and tops, a significant portion is left in the forest as “slash,” which is often burned or left to decompose, releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. The remainder of the tree is sent to a mill, where more is lost to sawdust or other unmerchantable “mill waste.” This mill waste is typically burned, such as at the biomass energy plant in Scotia. The remainder may turn into timber or other forest products, but the actual life of these products is remarkably short and the product typically ends up in a landfill, where its decomposition can release methane gas. Over time, a regrowing forest sequesters carbon but, given the urgency of climate change, do we have the luxury of waiting decades for the regrowth to balance the carbon ledger? Why does CALFIRE accept such slipshod work?
While on one hand Green Diamond questions the scientific basis on climate change, it also attempts to cash in where possible. According to the California Air Resources Board, Green Diamond has sold carbon credits to “offset” the emissions from other polluters in the state. Between 2016 and 2019, Green Diamond put forward multiple projects to sell hundreds of thousands of tons of carbon credits. Environmental activists have criticized the use of forest carbon credits in offset or cap-and-trade programs as a paper exercise, resulting in little changes on the ground. EPIC intends a deeper dive into Green Diamond’s carbon credit projects in the future to investigate.
As the most aggressive timber operator in our region, Green Diamond demands scrutiny. EPIC is there to keep an eye on the company.