Cut ‘Em or Not?

What would Captain Kirk do? Say what you will, his ability to compartmentalize everything in a crisis and just keep moving forward was the implicit core of a vast majority of Star Trek episodes.

For us facing a climate crisis, on the other hand, maybe compartmentalization is not such a good idea.

There's an argument going on in the forestry community about the ability of forests to absorb carbon dioxide. Here's the problem: Older trees store more carbon, but younger trees absorb more carbon. So, cut 'em down or not?

Les Blumnethal reported in the Olympian that new satellite measurements of global forests have sparked a debate on how to use them to address climate change. It turns out that the forests here, in the US Pacific Northwest, are the world's tallest on average. And that puts them at the focus of a mystery.

As Blumenthal reported, "From 15 percent to 30 percent of the 7 billion tons of carbon that are released globally every year is unaccounted for, government scientists say. About 3 billions tons remain in the atmosphere, and the oceans absorb 2 billion tons. Vegetation, including the forests, probably absorbs the remaining 1 billion to 2 billion tons, but no one knows for sure how much and where."

"Scientists suspect that the forests with the biggest trees store the most carbon, and the Northwest forests are probably among the largest carbon sinks in the world. However, they also say that while slower-growing older trees store more carbon, younger trees also absorb more carbon as they grow rapidly."

So now they're debating whether older trees should be cut to make way for younger ones or whether they should be protected to store the carbon they contain. Add to this the expectation that forest behavior will change with global warming, and you have the makings of a world class debate.

"It's a hot topic," said Elaine Oneil, a research scientist at the University of Washington's School of Forest Resources and the executive director of a consortium that's been studying the issue. "We can't afford a one-size-fits-all solution. We can't lock it all up, and it's not feasible to cut it all for two-by-fours."

Oneil's group, the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, suggests that rather than leaving all the tall trees in place, where they could be susceptible to bugs and fires, they be cut and used for wood products such as building materials.

Lost in this compartmentalized argument are all the other implications of cutting down forests. (Damn, why does everything always end up being linked?) Salmon runs have been shown to be nature's way of transporting tons of nutrients back uphill from the sea to the high elevations. (If salmon hadn't evolved, nature would have had to invent them.) Cutting forests exposes streams to the solar heating that decimate salmon runs. Forests also act as a sponge to hold rain and release it gradually so that we don't get flooded every spring and have water to run our hydro plants all summer. Forests hold unstable slopes in place, prevent simultaneous melting that would happen with unshaded snowfields, and provide refuge for beneficial insects and animals. I'm an engineer, not a biologist. But I just can't see clearcuts providing so many benefits even if we do plant new trees to absorb carbon.

I think a debate amongst foresters is great. But if they ever get to the point of making a Kirk-like compartmentalized decision to cut all the trees, I hope Star Fleet steps in and reverses it pretty quickly.

Paul Birkeland lives in Seattle, WA, US, and develops Strategic Energy Management Systems for government, commercial, and industrial organizations through Integrated Renewable Energy.

Photo credit : w:User:Nickpdx