Trees and Climate Change

By John McFerrin

            By now the science is clear:  trees have an enormous impact upon climate and can be an important tool in mitigating climate change.  In West Virginia, nobody is the boss of more trees than the United States Forest Service.  Because of its management of the Monongahela National Forest, the Forest Service has more to say than any other institution on how all those trees are managed.  

            The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has now joined in efforts to urge the Forest Service to use its role in managing the Forests as a tool to combat climate change.

The basic relationship between forests and carbon dioxide is straightforward.  As plants and trees grow, they take in carbon from the air and store it in wood, plant matter, and under the soil.  If it were not stored in the forests, it would remain in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas causing climate change.  

The effect can be substantial.  Each year since 2000, forests are estimated to have removed an average of 2 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. In the United States, forests remove an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere equivalent to about 13 percent of the nation’s human-made carbon dioxide each year.  This “carbon sink function” of forests is slowing climate change by reducing the rate at which CO2, mainly from fossil fuel burning, builds up in the atmosphere.   

The Monongahela National Forest is only the teeniest fraction of the total forests that are collectively slowing climate change.  At the same time, all climate change is the cumulative result of a multitude of actions, each of which makes a tiny contribution.  The Monongahela National Forest contains 921,000 acres of mostly forests.  It is enough to make a difference.

The Monongahela National Forest is managed, as are all National Forests, according to a Forest Plan.  It sets how the Forest is to be managed, including goals of the management. The Plan for the Monongahela National Forest was issued in 2006.  

The Plan was updated in 2011, including the addition of material on how the Forest Service would address climate change.  The 2011 changes did not call for any changes in how the Forest was managed. The changes that were made to the Plan were the addition of descriptions of how what the Forest Service was already doing could have an impact on climate change.  There was no suggestion that the Forest Service should do anything different.

Now the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has begun suggesting that it is time to do something different.  It often comments on projects that the Forests Service is planning.  In those comments, the Conservancy has begun requesting that, in evaluating the proposed project, the Forest Service consider the effects of the project on carbon sequestration, the part of any project which has an impact upon climate change.  

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has also joined the West Virginians for Public Lands in a letter to the Forest Service suggesting that it modify the Forest Plan so that it reflects the latest climate science.  Only by doing so can the management of the Forest reach its potential as a tool to mitigate climate change. 

So if the Forest Service started managing its Forests in a way that combats climate change, what would that look like?  Like all climate science, it’s complicated.

As a general matter, it would mean not logging old forests while letting young forests mature.  For any project the Forest Service considered it would involve considering any emissions from equipment used, any carbon lost from waste material, loss of carbon through soil disturbance and vegetation changes, the use made of any wood produced, how mature forests and new growth sequester carbon, and any other changes in carbon sequestration, including sequestration in the soil.