Is a solution to climate change as easy as saying, “Leave our forests standing?” No. As with most climate change issues, the answer is far more nuanced than a blanket statement.
The carbon stored in trees and vegetation comes from the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere drawn into the plants during photosynthesis. Carbon is also found in soil from decaying vegetation. That stored carbon is released into the environment when the tree decomposes or burns in a fire. The amount of carbon stored in a forest depends on the species and growing conditions of the trees.
Clearly, deforestation worldwide is a massive issue, and forests are a natural carbon sink. However, the relationship between climate change and decades of a hands-off attitude toward forest management is complex.
Forests impacted by disease, insect infestations, and hot, dry weather are much more susceptible to the massive wildfires we have experienced in the last 20 years. According to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, 16 of the top 20 largest fires in Colorado history have occurred during the previous 13 years.
Wildfires release carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gasses, from the trees and vegetation, further driving climate change. Thus, overgrown forests with associated higher wildfire risk contribute to the problem.
Generally, the goal of forest management is to selectively remove trees, creating a forest with trees of varying ages. Small trees and groundcover, as well as some older commercial-sized trees, are removed to create a healthier forest that is more resistant to disease and massive fires. A healthy forest is also much more efficient for carbon storage and more biodiverse.
Forest management is also vital to protect infrastructure, homes, and communities. Wildfire mitigation includes steps that property owners can take to reduce the impacts of wildfire. “Defensible space” is the area around a home modified to reduce wildfire hazards. Establishing defensible space, including removing trees and flammable vegetation up to 100 feet from the home, reduces the likelihood of wildfire damage. The Colorado State Forest Service website has many tools and recommendations for creating fire-adapted communities and limiting the impacts of wildfire.
Trees harvested and used for wood-based products, such as furniture or building materials, continue to store carbon throughout the product’s life and even following its useful life if it does not decay. When substituted for energy-intensive production of construction materials, such as steel and concrete, wood can substantially reduce carbon emissions.
The construction of multi-story mass timber buildings in the United States rose 50% between July 2020 and December 2021, according to wood trade group WoodWorks. And while not without some healthy discussion among other trade groups, advocates of mass timber argue that it can be more environmentally friendly, less expensive, and just as fire resistant as traditional building methods.
As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “If you look at the carbon impact of harvesting trees and turning them into buildings, it gives you a much better number than you get from concrete or steel,” says Stephen Shaler, a professor of sustainable materials and technology at the University of Maine. “As long as you have sustainably managed forests—and we have that capacity—it is a clear winner on the carbon footprint.”
The largest manager of forest land in Colorado is the federal government which owns approximately 65% of Colorado’s forests. The United States Forest Service stands as a buffer to the conversion of forested land to non-forest land, keeping forests as forests.
The Forest Service Office of Sustainability & Climate recognizes, “According to the best available science, harvesting and the use of harvested wood products can play an important role in reducing carbon emissions along with good management for healthy forests.” Further, “When considering the whole system—both forest carbon and use of forest products—carbon emissions can be much lower than if the forest was unmanaged.”
Climate change mitigation and adaptation is not going to be an easy process for anyone. As we all strive to create positive change with our decisions, the health of the forest around us is vital. Sometimes that means cutting trees to manage the forest. Sometimes it also means planting trees, and yes, it does mean that we have to leave areas alone entirely.
It is important to thoughtfully consider land management options for the vastly different federally and privately owned ecosystems that sustain our Colorado lifestyle. As we confront climate change together, let’s make sure we take the time to listen to both sides, think critically, and act strategically. The future of our forests, our communities, and our children depend upon it.
Jonathan Bruno, of Gunnison, is CEO of Coalitions & Collaboratives, Inc.