When most Americans think of forests and climate change, their minds go to tropical rainforests in the Amazon, Africa, or Southeast Asia. Those forests sustain indigenous communities, fish and wildlife, and store vast amounts of carbon (carbon that is ultimately released as carbon dioxide when they are logged). But closer to home, the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest also play a vital role in capturing and storing the atmospheric carbon that is fueling global climate change. Protecting and restoring old-growth giants on public lands is among the most important steps this region can take to help protect the climate.
For decades the climate impacts of clearcutting and old-growth logging have been ignored by federal agencies. This Climate Forests Campaign aims to change that.
Our oldest climate solution is our best climate solution.
Not all forests are created equal when it comes to their ability to store carbon. Old-growth and mature forests, with their mixture of ancient giants, snags, and young trees, as well as vast root networks, rich soils, and diversity of species, store far more carbon than young forests. Older forests stack up particularly well against young “plantation” forests — the unnaturally dense single-species stands of spindly Douglas fir favored by the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest.
The temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest store more carbon per acre than tropical rainforests.
Researchers from Oregon State University concluded that protecting western forests with high and medium carbon-storing abilities would be the equivalent of halting eight years of burning fossil fuels across the same region.
Older, bigger trees are also better able to withstand the more frequent and severe wildfires the western half of the country has been experiencing. In addition to protecting watersheds, bigger, older trees tend to be naturally more resistant to fire — they have thick fire-resistant bark, and their high canopies help maintain a cool, moist microclimate and hold their fuels high above the ground and out of danger from surface fires.
In the Pacific Northwest scientists estimate that only ten to twenty percent of the state’s ancient trees remain. And these trees are not all permanently protected, despite their incredible climate and ecological value. Ensuring that remaining old-growth forests are safeguarded from logging, and that we recover more old-growth across federal public lands, is a critical first step in maximizing our forests’ ability to act as a natural climate solution.
Therefore, we must ensure America’s mature and old growth forests are protected as a cornerstone of America's climate strategy.
Lauren Anderson is the Forest Climate Policy Coordinator at Oregon Wild.
Steve Pedery is the Conservation Director at Oregon Wild.