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Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action

  • Coastal temperate rainforests are among the rarest ecosystems on Earth, with more than a third of their total remaining global area located in a narrow band in the U.S. and Canadian Pacific Northwest. These are some of the most biodiverse, carbon-dense forests outside the tropics, thus crucial to carbon sequestration.
  • “The diversity of life that is all around us is incredibly rare,” a forest ecologist tells Mongabay on a hike in Olympic National Park. “It’s all working together. And there’s not much left here on the Olympic Peninsula or just north of us in British Columbia.”
  • British Columbia did the unexpected in 2016 by establishing the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, protecting 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) of coastal old-growth forest. But elsewhere in the province, 97% of all tall, old-growth forest has been felled for timber and wood pellets. In the U.S., protection outside Olympic National Park is scant.
  • New protections are promised, but old-growth logging continues apace. The U.N. says the world must aggressively reduce carbon emissions now, as scientists press the Biden administration to create a national Strategic Carbon Reserve to protect a further 20 million hectares (50 million acres) of forested federal lands from logging to help meet U.S. carbon-reduction goals by 2030.

OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK, U.S. — Walking along Barnes Creek amid towering old-growth hemlock, red cedar and Douglas fir, Dominick DellaSala points to the lichen, hanging thick like Spanish moss from the limbs shading our path.

“Take a deep breath,” he tells me. “Smell that?” The smell is crisp and refreshing, a lush green scent in late July on the Olympic Peninsula. “Lichens are the canary in the coal mine for clean air. Here, all this lichen is telling us we’re in a good air shed. They thrive in this clean air. So do a lot of other species as a result.”

I joined DellaSala, an Oregon-based forest ecologist, in what has been his career-long place of study, one of the rarest forest ecosystems on Earth: an old-growth coastal temperate rainforest, which stretches in a narrow continuous Pacific Northwest band from below San Francisco, California, north through Oregon and Washington, and western British Columbia to the panhandle of Alaska.

DellaSala looks up, marveling, and pointing out the mutual dependence between flora and fauna: “The branches of these big trees are accumulating mosses and lichens for decades, centuries. There are entire ecosystems we can’t see. You can have an amphibian at the top of the Doug fir, living its entire life on a branch. You can have a single tree vole that’s staked out a single tree as its territory. You can have a marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird, nesting in lichen in a notch at the top of the canopy.”

The shade from these trees enables regionally overfished salmon, perhaps the single most critical species in this old-growth forest, to swim in cool creek waters, to die naturally and decompose, fertilizing these woody giants or providing food for bears, eagles and wolves.

“We are walking in an ancient landscape that’s been here since at least the retreat of the Pleistocene glacier period 10,000 years ago,” DellaSala tells me. “These old trees have built up a massive accumulation of carbon in their trunks and soil, acting like a sponge to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, helping to cool the planet. The diversity of life that is all around us is incredibly rare. It’s all working together. And there’s not much left here on the Olympic Peninsula or just north of us in British Columbia.”

As humans endure one of the worst summers ever punctuated by climate catastrophes around the world, and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its most dire report yet, I’ve invited DellaSala, past president of the Society of Conservation Biology, to join me on this hike to discuss the value of old-growth forests.

What’s at stake in protecting much of what’s left? How can government policy on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border do more to preserve old-growth, perhaps the most effective means we have of slowing the alarming rate of global warming — letting tall, old trees grow taller and older in large, fully intact ecosystems?

Douglas fir are among the oldest, tallest trees in Olympic National Park. This one is laden with lichen, which doesn’t harm the tree but provides food and habitat for birds, small mammals and amphibians. Thriving lichen is a sign of a healthy forest ecosystem. Image by Ted Grudowski.
Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Northwest Coastal Map: Coastal temperate rainforests, among the rarest ecosystems on Earth as well as being the most carbon dense, stretch along the Pacific Coast from northern California to the Alaska panhandle. Image courtesy of Dominick DellaSala and Island Press.

Remembering the spotted owl

The northern spotted owl is no canary in a coal mine, but in the early 1990s in the U.S. it served as a harbinger for (depending on your perspective) old-growth logging run amuck in the Pacific Northwest, or liberal tree huggers valuing and preserving a small bird over thousands of lives dependent on the commercial forestry economy.

In reality, the issue was far more complex. Clear-cut logging had become so intensive then, with forest and aquatic habitats so dissembled and disrupted, that multiple species neared extinction, including the spotted owl. Runoff and landslides damaged watersheds and streams. Vital salmon runs were imperiled. Climate wasn’t a priority at that point; conservation was. So was air and water quality.

In 1994, the Clinton administration passed the Northwest Forest Plan as a means of breaking the impasse and effectively managing federal land within the range of the spotted owl. Today, this series of federal policies governs land use on nearly 10 million hectares (25 million acres) stretching from northern California to Washington state. Logging of old-growth federal forests wasn’t banned, but it was reduced.

“We did a good job back then,” DellaSala says, “but we didn’t finish the job. Logging is still going on at an unprecedented rate. Millions of acres are still vulnerable. And now we understand that it’s not just conservation that’s needed to save the spotted owl and salmon, it’s old-growth [preserved] as carbon sinks that we desperately need to fight climate change.”

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
“The northern spotted owl is a magical being,” says John Talberth, CEO for the Center for Sustainable Economy. “It represents the fate of thousands of species that need real forests to survive as opposed to timber plantations. Unfortunately, the spotted owl is again being driven to extinction by the kinds of industrial forest practices that we’ve seen on the land for decades: clear cutting, logging roads, and timber plantations that bear little resemblance to the forests they’ve replaced.” Image by FotoshopTofs via Pixabay.

What a difference a border makes

Meanwhile, just to the north, in British Columbia, the forestry-dominated province did something uncharacteristic in 2016. It bowed to pressure from environmentalists to implement the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement, which covers 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) of old-growth and temperate rainforest along the central Pacific coast. Some 85% is now off-limits to logging. It’s a major, albeit limited, eco success story.

But the Canadian province has done little else to protect its old-growth heritage before or since. British Columbia, four times the size of California, is logged today far more intensively than the U.S. Northwest for timber and wood pellets exported for bioenergy. Studies last year using provincial data indicate that all but 3% of BC’s tallest old-growth trees have been cut down for timber or wood pellets.

That’s why Canadian environmentalists camped out for months in 2021 to protect Fairy Creek; at less than 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres), it’s the last old-growth stand in the southern Vancouver Island watershed. Some 20% is open to logging, and the provincial government recently agreed to defer road building and logging in Fairy Creek for two years, but protesters continue to demand full and permanent protection.

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Logging trucks carrying freshly harvested, stick-straight red cedar, spruce, hemlock and fir are a common sight on highways surrounding Olympic National Park. Timber companies in Washington own one-third of the state’s forested land and employ more than 100,000 workers. Image by Justin Catanoso.
Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
The Great Bear Rainforest Agreement of 2016 represents one of the rare wins by environmentalists in British Columbia, preserving 6.4 million hectares (15.8 million acres) of parkland with 85% off-limits to logging. “The Great Bear may be fine, but most everything else in British Columbia is heading toward collapse,” says forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala. Image by Travel with Kat via VisualHunt.

Sonia Fursteneau, the leader of BC’s Green Party, told me last spring about her drive to Fairy Creek to support the protesters: “To get there, you have to drive through relentless clear-cuts all around. Then you get into an intact forest like that and you are altered by just being there. You are surrounded by an abundance of life. It changes you. But to get there, you have to drive through a landscape of death. Because of the clear-cuts, there is nothing left alive.”

DellaSala and forest ecologist Michelle Connelly of Conservation North recently completed a study of logging’s impact on BC’s singular inland temperate rainforest with its cedars more than 1,000 years old. Only two other such inland temperate rainforests exist, both in Russia. The researchers concluded BC’s temperate rainforest will collapse in nine to 18 years if current logging rates continue.

At extinction risk: a host of lichen species, mountain caribou, various fish and birds. At stake: an irreplaceable carbon-storing, rainmaking ecosystem in a dry province ravaged by wildfires this summer.

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Bald eagle perched, hunting, in an old-growth forest on Vancouver Island. The coastal temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest are incredibly biodiverse with thousands of species of mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and crustaceans. Image by Nick Kenrick.. via VisualHunt.com.

Death is life in an intact forest

Olympic National Park in the U.S., with its diverse ecosystems on either side of the unusually snowless Olympic Mountains, sprawls over more than 3,730 square kilometers (1,440 square miles), with 2,500 kilometers (4,000 miles) of rivers and streams. Established in 1938, the park conserves one of the largest swaths of old-growth and temperate rainforest in the continental United States. It has some of the largest salmon runs as well. It’s all fully protected. About 2.5 million visitors trek through this natural wonderland annually, making it a big moneymaker for the local economy.

It is, however, an oasis. DellaSala explains: “If you look at a Google Earth image of this peninsula, you see a big green emerald spot on the map. That’s this park. When you zoom in and see the surrounding areas, it starts to look like Swiss cheese around the edges. Clear-cuts all along the boundaries, a lot of it old-growth or nearing old-growth. Without this national park, the entire peninsula would look like this.”

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Kokonee salmon can be found in the creeks and rivers in Olympic National Park. “Salmon are the keystone element in this ecosystem that brings it all together,” says forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala. “They are so important to the forest’s entire food web, connecting terrestrial, aquatic and marine habitats. These iconic salmon runs have been depleted in this region from overfishing and warmer waters from deforestation.” Image by AdititheStargazer via Visualhunt.

Playing devil’s advocate, I ask: why do we need to protect these places?

“Why? Are you kidding me?” he responds. “This is our biological inheritance. Good lord, we need them because they are purifying our air. They are cleansing our drinking water. They are harboring untold biodiversity — many rare and endangered species. You don’t have those values in heavily logged landscapes.”

As we move through the forest, thick with an understory of devil’s club and western sword ferns nearly as tall as we are, I can’t help but notice enormous fallen trees — natural deaths — trees that stood for centuries and that have been decaying just as long with the help of fungi, mosses and moisture.

This is what the wood pellet industry refers to as “forest residue.” Biomass company representatives say that much of the pellets manufactured for burning to make electricity in the U.K., the EU and elsewhere come from such residue, which they argue is healthy for the forest and keeps the industry from needing to cut as many live trees.

DellaSala shakes his head at what he describes as a lack of understanding of forest mechanics and nature’s intricate balance, all of which accrues to humanity’s benefit.

He leans over a moldering tree in the understory just off the trail. He sinks his hands into its loose, moist exterior.

“This is starting to become soil; it’s getting broken down by decomposers. Feel this. It’s nice and cool and soft, a great place to grow seedlings. Look! You have a hemlock seedling growing out of the side of this dead tree. It might be the progeny of the tree that died. In an ecological sense, it’s all part of nature, of a forest rejuvenating itself. When a tree dies, it jump-starts the whole [ecological] succession process. From seedling to old-growth and back again. It’s a big loop, a circle of life.”

When loggers clear residue for wood pellet production, they rob the forest of this essential element. The industry says dying trees give up their carbon as they rot, which is true, just like burning wood pellets, which is not the same. A decomposing tree releases carbon so gradually that the moss and seedings growing atop absorb what’s being released, DellaSala explains. Burning wood pellets releases a gusher of carbon emissions all at once; nature’s balance is thrown off for many decades.

“We can’t use the atmosphere as a dumping ground during a climate emergency,” he says.

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Death is a rich symbol of life in an old-growth forest. Forest ecologist Dominick DellaSala examines a centuries-old downed tree, known as a nurse log, that is returning nutrients to the forest soil as it decomposes and serves as a rich bed for seedlings to take root and grow into thriving trees. Image by Justin Catanoso.
Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Old-growth with ferns: Everything is big in an old-growth forest like this one in Olympic National Park in Washington state. Many trees are near 60 meters (200 feet) in height; sword ferns common in the understory can grow as tall as 2 m (6 ft). Image by Ted Grudowski.

Note to Biden: Forests are our national carbon reserve

John Talberth agrees heartily with such thinking. He was among a cadre of environmentalists in the 1990s who sued the federal government to save the spotted owl and its habitats — and won. Now, as the chief executive of the Center for Sustainable Economy, he knows time is running short to do even more.

Talking to Mongabay in a park near Puget Sound in Port Townsend, Talberth tells me that in Washington, “the timber industry and its clear-cutting practices” is the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. That’s simply unsustainable, he says.

“We have to get [forest protection policy] right nationwide,” he emphasizes. “We have to get it right globally. We have to get it right very soon. We’re in a climate emergency. The world is burning” — not to mention flooding, melting, roasting. “That’s why we need a global vision. The [United Nations] climate summit [in Scotland this November] offers a huge opportunity to turn the tide on sustainable forestry.”

British Columbia has a solid plan. A year ago, the progressive ruling party accepted a detailed report in its entirety designed to, for the first time in the province’s history, put forest and biodiversity protection ahead of timber and pellet industry interests. To the dismay of environmentalists and others who got their hopes up, the government has yet to implement the plan as logging continues unabated.

Meanwhile, DellaSala and some 200 like-minded scientists have been pushing their own ambitious vision to the Biden administration: the establishment of a Strategic Carbon Reserve as a global model for old-growth protection and climate action. The initiative entails protecting 20 million more hectares (50 million acres) of forested federal lands from logging, especially in the Pacific Northwest, while still leaving younger forests (less than 80 years old) and tree plantations available to meet timber demand.

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
A clear-cut near Mount Rainier. Washington state is a patchwork of increasingly clear-cut forests and plantations, which help meet the global demand for wood products. While Washington’s Department of Natural Resources is beginning to protect old-growth stands on state-owned lands that are open to logging, ancient, carbon-absorbing trees and their biodiverse habitats are still being cut and disrupted amid a climate emergency. Image by Ted Grudowski.
Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Olympic National Park and the harvested areas around its boundaries.

Proposed to resemble the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the Strategic Carbon Reserve would be paid for by redirecting public subsidies for oil and gas to protect forests and then simply let them do what they do naturally as they grow: inhaling and sequestering greenhouse gases, exhaling oxygen.

The forestry industry would still have plenty of capacity. It owns a third of forested land in Washington state, for example, which makes up 70% of its annual harvest. The industry would also still have state and federal lands to cut, just less of it, with old-growth virtually off-limits.

As we walk along, DellaSala tells me that the old-growth trees above us are incredibly carbon dense. In fact, he says, they sequester more carbon per hectare than rainforests in the tropics, though those tropical forests hold more overall carbon because of the relative scale difference. The U.S. actually has some of the most carbon-dense forests in the world — concentrated along the West Coast, stretching from California’s redwoods to Alaska’s temperate rainforests.

“We want the [Biden] administration thinking along those lines,” DellaSala says: “A network of carbon reserves that would cover the U.S. [including] the large trees that are capturing and storing the most carbon.”

Such a move would help the United States meet Biden’s aggressive carbon-reduction goals set for 2030 and put the U.S. back in a leadership role as it reenters the Paris Agreement after President Trump’s withdrawal, he says. It would also provide a model for other countries on how to protect their vulnerable carbon reservoirs to help slow the rate of global warming as they transition from fossil fuels.

Near the end of the hike, DellaSala and I turn to head out of Olympic National Park. We’ve covered a lot of ground, physically and ecologically. I ask one last question, which takes a spiritual slant.

“How I feel when I come into these forests is like entering a cathedral,” he answers. “I’m in this work of art, this work of beauty which is the consequence of millions of years of evolution and of connection between people and nature. It’s uplifting. And it gives me hope that others will see this and will do everything they can to protect it from collapse. When you have something as rare as this, we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure it’s here for future generations.”

Old-growth forests of Pacific Northwest could be key to climate action
Hall of Mosses Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park, Washington state, U.S. Image by Tjflex2 via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, teaches journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, U.S. Follow him on Twitter @jcatanoso.

Banner image of Olympic National Park by Matt Shiffler Photography via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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Biodiversity, Bioenergy, Biomass Burning, Carbon Conservation, Carbon Sequestration, Climate Change, Climate Change And Conservation, Climate Change And Forests, Climate Change Policy, Climate Change Politics, Conservation, Deforestation, Energy, Environment, Environmental Law, Environmental Politics, Forest Carbon, Forests, Global Trade, Globalization, Governance, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Logging, Old Growth Forests, Primary Forests, Protected Areas, Rainforest Conservation, Rainforest Destruction, Rainforests, Soil Carbon, Temperate Forests, Threats To Rainforests, Timber


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