I’m lucky to be able to spend most days in the woods, helping to look after the sustainability and health of 33,000 acres of Hampton Lumber’s forestland here in Clatsop County.
As a family-owned wood products company, our outlook is inherently multi-generational. Our foresters plant trees they have no expectation of seeing harvested before they are retired. The Hampton family is committed to ensuring the next generation inherits a business that is healthy and sustainable, both economically and ecologically.
The work we do every day is focused on ensuring our forests are as healthy in 50 years as they are today. We recognize how climate change could affect forest and community health.
I hope it is understandable, then, just how frustrating it is for those of us in Oregon’s forest sector to see a new line of attack by groups opposed to commercial forestry: the claim that forestry operations are the primary source of carbon emissions in the state. There are some eye-popping numbers being put forward by groups whose main goal appears to be to reduce or eliminate timber harvests in our state. However, closer examination of the source material for these claims reveals they are less scientific analysis and more creative interpretations of carbon accounting and policy language.
Like so much of the science relating to climate change and its effects, proper forest carbon accounting is complex and the subject of ongoing research and debate. It is worth noting, however, that the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change specifically identified sustainable forest management for “timber, fibre or energy” as a key tool in mitigating carbon emissions. In fact, several Northern European nations — often seen as leaders in the green movement by environmentalists in the U.S. — are actually increasing the actively managed forests in their countries as a component of their strategy to combat climate change.
Sustainable timber harvest as a strategy to fight climate change makes a lot of sense when one looks at modern forest management and timber production in the proper context —through a long-term life cycle analysis. A good portion of a tree’s carbon remains stored in the wood products that are created from it, locking that carbon away for the life of the product, while atmospheric carbon is taken up by the tree planted in its place. This is particularly important when those products are lumber used in housing and other construction. It’s also worth noting that every building material, piece of furniture and even kitchen utensil made from wood means one less product made from iron, aluminum, concrete or plastic, all of which emit significantly more greenhouse gases during their production.
While it does take some years for a newly planted tree to reach the carbon capture potential of a mature one, trees grow faster here on the North Coast than almost anywhere else in the world and that difference is quickly made up for. When consideration is given to carbon uptake over the entire lifespan of the tree and the life cycle of wood products, Oregon’s working forests are shown to be a net carbon sink. Said another way, commercial forests in Oregon are already absorbing and locking away more carbon than is emitted to manage them.
Carbon release through deforestation is a very real threat — just not in Oregon. Deforestation is defined as the conversion of forestland to a non-forest use (e.g. agriculture or development). There is virtually no deforestation taking place in the state and what little is occurring is due to conversion of forestland into housing. In fact, the Oregon Department of Forestry estimates that 92 percent of the land that was forested in 1850 remains forested today.
A good portion of forest loss outside of the U.S. is due to logging to meet the world’s ever-growing appetite for agricultural and wood products. If one is truly concerned about climate change, it is important to remember we live in a global economy and every tree we do not cut here, in a place with strict environmental protections and replanting laws, is a tree that will be cut somewhere else in the world, likely from a forest that will be lost — along with its carbon storage capacity — for many lifetimes.
There is something deeply cynical about proposals that suggest Oregon could meet the majority of its goals for net carbon output by halting harvests in our forests. It should be the responsibility of all Oregonians, indeed all residents of more developed countries, to make the necessary changes in our lifestyle to reduce our carbon emissions. To demand that the residents of rural counties sacrifice their way of life and renewable natural resources economy — our rare comparative advantage — so that urban residents can continue their consumption without further inconvenience strikes me as unfair. Further, to suggest that the handful of jobs created through forest restoration projects would come anywhere close to replacing the thousands of high-skill, living-wage forest and sawmill jobs that would be lost in a coastal carbon storage scheme reveals a lack of understanding about the modern forest economy in our county.
These forests are our livelihoods, our schools, our public services, and our privilege and responsibility to sustain for a variety of uses and benefits. Reducing the amount of timber we sustainably harvest in Oregon will do more to harm efforts to reach a global reduction in CO2 levels than help them. But even if we choose to ignore this and focus on Oregon’s carbon reduction goals as though we were in a bubble, why would we ask rural Oregonians to give up more working-class jobs and more school funding dollars when our working forests are already part of the solution to climate change?
I invite you to learn more about working forests and talk to those who make their living in the renewable wood products sector. There are a lot of us here on the North Coast. Rural or urban, we’re all in this together. Let’s work together so our forests can continue to sustainably provide for a multitude of benefits.
Jed Arnold is community outreach and stewardship coordinator for Hampton Family Forests on the North Coast.