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The San Jose Mercury News

The Sierra Forests Can Prevent Global Warming

Todd J. Paglia

California's Global Warming Solutions Act is a landmark attempt to cap greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors of the state's economy. Signed into law in September 2006, the California Air Resources Board is figuring out the precise formula by which the state will reduce emissions 25 percent by 2020.

Imagine a grand formula that somehow left out - cars. Or industrial manufacturing. Leaving out one of these huge emissions sources would render any climate legislation toothless.

Fortunately, both will likely be accounted for. But will forests? Judging by recent statements, it isn't clear whether the state recognizes the outsize role California's forests play in naturally absorbing carbon emissions, or the quantity of carbon dioxide released when these forests are irresponsibly clear-cut.

Deforestation's role

Deforestation and logging account for one-fifth of all global carbon emissions - more than all trains, planes and, yes, automobiles combined. Any serious attempt to address California's contributions to climate change must include an understanding of what's happening in the forests of the Sierra Nevada.

In April, ForestEthics released "Climate of Destruction," a report outlining the logging practices of Sierra Pacific Industries, the state's largest landowner, and its effects on climate change. The results were not surprising: SPI's brand of forestry-large-scale clear-cutting operations across the Sierra and conversion of wild lands to sterile tree plantations-contributes mightily to climate change, more so than even wild fires. Its management plan calls for the clear-cutting and conversion of up to a million acres to "tree farm" plantations over the next 50 years.

Studies have shown that California's forests are particularly carbon-rich and that the best way to preserve a forest's stored carbon is to preserve the forest itself. We often talk about weaning ourselves off fossil fuels as a first step toward greater sustainability, but addressing deforestation is arguably as important.


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As we put out our report, SPI released its own, titled "How California's Forests Store Carbon and Improve Air Quality.'' It's a nice title, but so were President Bush's "Clear Skies Act" or "Healthy Forests Restoration Act". A message of "don't worry, what we are doing now, which is what we have always done, is actually green'' permeates the report to justify clear-cutting and tree plantations. And when clear cuts are called a climate solution, it's time to worry.

Age counts

The more a forest ages, the more carbon it stores. Old trees, roots, woody debris and undisturbed soil combine to form a rich carbon-absorbing system that a human-made tree plantation cannot replicate. Remember nature? It works pretty well. When mature forests are clear-cut, most of the vast carbon stored goes into the atmosphere. When you see a clear cut, imagine a tailpipe.

The industry says young and growing trees consume carbon at a faster rate than older trees, and are therefore more valuable weapons against climate change. Young trees do absorb carbon at a higher rate. But this is a little like saying that because a baby's mind acquires language and complex thought rapidly early in life, intelligence acquired between ages 5 and 55 is of little use to society.

There's a huge fortune of carbon "intelligence" in a natural forest, and clear-cutting for little baby tree plantations runs counter to the ways the Earth is designed to protect itself.

California officials who are working on turning the Global Warming Solutions Act into on-the-ground policy treat forests as a carbon-neutral bystander. Is it the influence of the logging industry?

It would be a shame if a self-interested industry and its friends in Sacramento kept one of Gov. Schwarzenegger's proudest accomplishments from reaching its full potential.

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Todd J. Paglia is executive director of ForestEthics, a forest and climate advocacy group.

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