Lawmakers Look to the Forests to Slow Carbon Emissions

Experts told lawmakers that carbon sequestration needs to happen at a faster pace — which means pouring resources into wildfire mitigation, forest restoration and new building technologies.

Senator Joe Manchin speaks at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing about carbon sequestration. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — From carbon sinks to carbon sources, forests in many Western states are now emitting more carbon than they absorb and store, spurring alarm from researchers. 

In a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing Thursday, experts told lawmakers that more resources need to be poured into forest management by means of restoration, wildfire mitigation and new carbon-sequestration technologies.

“Scientists are telling us that if we proactively manage our forests we cannot only prevent emission from wildfires but we can also increase the amount of carbon we are sequestering and storing now,” said Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democratic chair of the committee. 

Our planet is home to 3 million trees  — half of what was originally here — and continues to lose about 10 billion trees each year. But, there’s still room for over 1 trillion trees on about 2.2 billion acres of degraded lands where forests could naturally grow, with the potential to capture up to 30% of our existing carbon emissions. 

“The science of forest restoration is well established and widely practiced,” Mary Mitsos, president of the National Forest Foundation, told committee members. “What impedes this work is the cost of restoration at the scale needed.”

Restoration costs around $1000 per acre and can’t be done by simply planting trees. 

“This idea is so tempting but it encourages people to invest in massive plantations of fast growing trees that are good for rapid carbon offsets,” said Thomas Crowther, scientific adviser for the United Nations Trillion Trees Initiative. “Those plantations are often comprised of a single species that would lack the thousands of interacting species of plants, animals and microorganisms that are necessary to maintain clean air, clean water and soil fertility for local people.”

Almost half of restoration projects around the world are massive monocultures, which can lead to degradation of forests, grasslands and other wetlands, which are just as important for life. Instead of just planting trees, restoration needs to create conditions that allow forests to recover naturally. 

Preventative measures also need to be taken by means of wildfire mitigation like prescribed burning. 

“The lack of active forest management has turned many of our nation’s forests into tinder boxes, which created a perfect storm for widespread catastrophic wildfires,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, ranking member of the committee. “California’s 2020 wildfire emissions were equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of over 24 million passenger cars.”

On Thursday, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, alongside Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington, Diane Feinstein of California and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, reintroduced legislation to throw over $300 million in funding toward pre-fire season controlled burning. Last year, the bill died before receiving a vote. 

“This year, it would be absolute malpractice in this country for this committee, and the Congress, to not take concrete steps to do more to reduce hazardous fuels and deal with the fire mitigation threat,” Wyden said in the hearing. 

The bill is backed by both environmental groups and timber industry leaders. 

Witnesses told committee members that carbon sequestration also needs to come through innovative construction materials. When a tree is harvested and converted into building products, carbon remains in the wood fiber — creating long-term carbon storage in buildings. Now, cross-laminated timber, an innovative way of stacking boards together, can be used in lieu of steel or concrete. 

“Total global emissions could be cut by 15-20% if these technologies are used in construction,” Manchin said. 

Ben Wudtke, executive director of the Intermountain Forest Association, noted that successfully using these strategies will likely require additional resources beyond those currently available.

“Does the United States currently have a sufficient workforce to accomplish the amount of planting and thinning and science based forestry practices that you have been talking about?” asked Wyden. “Because my sense is we’ve got to have some more people and we’ve got to do it quickly.”

“We’ve got to have more people,” Mitsos replied. “Whether youth or young adults or people right out of college, the number of people who work in forestry, and natural resources in general has been dwindling, and without the assistance of building up a new workforce, we are going to struggle with finding new stewards of our lands.”

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