On October 11th, the California Natural Resources Agency released its draft Natural and Working Lands Climate Smart Strategy for public comment. In some ways, this document is a win for environmentalists. We have been saying for years that, if stewarded properly, our natural and working lands can contribute to the climate solution instead of the climate crisis. We also appreciated the process through which this document was created. The agency held numerous public input hearings where they took testimony from Californians from across the State. They also specifically highlighted the need for equity in determining the future of California’s lands.
That’s why the released draft is so disappointing. It appears that the timber industry has managed to influence this document so that the section on California’s forests mimics their talking points. The document is replete with misinformation and, if the Natural Resources Agency doesn’t hear from the public, soon they’ll be the driving force behind California's forest carbon strategy during the immensely important next few years.
So what kind of misinformation are we talking about? How about the timber industry lie that carbon from logged trees is “stored” in wood products and that therefore cutting down trees is a climate solution. The strategy repeatedly refers to “climate smart wood products” but fails to define the term. The graph below, taken from two separate case studies of the fate of carbon from harvested trees, shows how the logging process on average only stores about 15% of the carbon of each tree on net. The rest is quickly lost to the atmosphere.
Even the carbon that does make it into homes and other structures generally ends up burned or in a landfill within the typical lifetime of the home, which on average is 70-100 years. Compare that to the lifetime of our trees if they weren’t cut down.
Some of the other myths perpetuated in this document concern wildfire and forest thinning. The document calls for “Increase[d] commercial thinning to achieve disturbance-resilient forest structure on federal and privately owned forested parcels.” This language is a Trojan horse. While it is true that in some areas that have been managed particularly poorly (in the footprint of clearcuts for example) some thinning may be beneficial, the timber industry regularly abuses the term “thinning” and instead uses this language as an excuse to harvest the most profitable (and therefore the largest and most fire resilient) trees in an area. But harvesting the largest trees from a forest leaves the forest even more susceptible to wildfire and exacerbates the exact problem that “thinning” is meant to solve. That’s why forests that have been logged the most aggressively also burn with the most severity.
If we want our forests to become part of the climate solution, we need to fundamentally rethink our relationship to them. Our forests produce far more value as carbon sequestration and storage machines than they do as lumber. It’s time for our State Agencies to accept that. Instead of treating our forests as timberlands, we should transform them into carbon reserves that will naturally help fight climate change.
It’s not too late to submit your comments on the draft strategy! Close of comments is November 9th, 2021 and comments can be emailed to CaliforniaNature@resources.ca.gov or sent by mail to California Natural Resources Agency, 715 P Street, Sacramento, CA 95814. You can even leave a voicemail by calling 1-800-417-0668. Let them know that you support transforming more of California’s forests into carbon reserves and that logging is not a climate change solution.