The Oregonian on economic benefits of forests that sequester carbon dioxide on March 21
Of the many background sounds emitted in the forest — birds tweeting, creeks gurgling, trees whispering — one of them isn't ka-ching. But that could change any year now.
Oregon's Willamette National Forest ranks No. 1 in the nation in its quantum storage of carbon dioxide. And it is but one of 10 Northwest forests — in Oregon, Washington and southeast Alaska — that lead all federal forests in the United States in locking away the greenhouse gas.
That's a doozy of a calculation, made recently by The Wilderness Society, because CO2 containment and reduction are bywords of the world's strained conversation about halting global temperature rise. As governments scramble to impose CO2 limits, containment promises cash value: If you can't meet your target, like China or a domestic coal-burning industry, you just might need to boost the credit you receive by paying someone who can really sock the carbon away. Like us.
This isn't small potatoes. Federal scientists have estimated American forests sequester more than 10 percent of the carbon dioxide released in the U.S. by the combustion of fossil fuels. Fuel burning and deforestation globally have, since the world industrialized, boosted atmospheric CO2 by more than 30 percent.
Fighting it is tricky. A recent study deemed risky the once-hot idea that seeding the oceans with iron would spur the growth of phytoplankton, which would load up on CO2, die, and sink — entombing the gas.
Now we find, although researchers at Oregon State University have known for some time, that while trees everywhere hold value, ours hold pure gold. On the wet west side of the Cascades, towering forests act as a capture machine storing from 460 to 500 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per square acre — in some places, such as the old-growth Wind River zone in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, locking up 900 tons per acre. Tropical forests around the globe, meanwhile, store between 360 and 460 tons of C02 equivalent per square acre.
But there's no real money going around, no public need met with funding from trees allowed to stand, nobody getting paid to wait another decade between harvests, no payback here or federally for hosting and managing such epic carbon vaults. While private timberland owners have jumped into the carbon market — and Portland's EcoTrust last week announced the sale of credits deriving from more than 3,000 acres of forested Olympic Peninsula land it owns — the larger public realm is stuck.
Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden did hold a hearing in December as part of his drive to make federal forests get credit in any cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. And big Oregon landlords — the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, overseeing west side forests — have signaled enthusiasm.
But complication sets in. Do you log a forest or leave it alone? Younger industrial forests grow fast and "bank" more carbon in doing so. Old-growth forests capture at a slower rate yet already are stuffed vaults; cutting them would leave a decaying site that releases carbon and, once replanted, would take decades to "pay back" what was lost.
Then there's the neighbor problem: If rewards for carbon sequestration on federal forests somehow competed against private timberland owners, those owners just might sell for development, offing forests.
None of this should make us turn away. Neither should it turn us away from responsible, profitable logging. But Oregon, the Northwest and public agencies working here should get check-cashing credit for forests that help the world by storing carbon. Anything less is neglectful stewardship and, well, ungrateful.
Our congressional delegation can and must, in consultation with public lands managers, step up and lead in forging a carbon plan for our federal forests. Then, we just might hear a strange but chirpy new sound: "ka-ching."