The Biden administration supports protecting 30% of U.S. lands by 2030 or what is termed the “30x30” proposal. One of the best ways to meet those 30-by-30 goals would be to put all national forests and BLM lands off-limits to logging.
Wilderness designation of all roadless lands would be a good start, and one way to further this would be to enact the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA). Not only does NREPA help to move the country closer to the 30x30 goals, but it would go a long way toward sequestering carbon as well.
Our public forests currently hold about seven times the current annual national carbon emissions and U.S. forests sequester about 12% of the country’s carbon emissions. If we stopped logging and thinning our federal forests, we could sequester even more carbon.
However, the Forest Service, the timber industry and co-opted conservation groups continue to support thinning the forest in the name of reducing large wildfires. Unfortunately, advocates of thinning mislead Americans on the limited effectiveness of thinning in precluding large blazes. Plus, logging contributes more carbon to the atmosphere, exacerbating fire weather.
The problem with the “thinning will limit large fires” myth is that it ignores the influence of extreme fire weather. Thinning might, in some instances, slow or stop blazes burning under low to moderate fire conditions, but not under extreme fire weather. Under less than extreme weather, most fires are easily suppressed or even self-extinguish if we leave them alone.
All large fires are driven by extreme weather. And these are the fires that the agency, politicians and others seek to stop, but under such conditions, the scientific consensus is that nothing can stop a blaze. Wind-driven fires pass over, around and through thinned forests and prescribed burning sites. Despite being in some of the heaviest logged and thinned forests in Oregon, fires burning under extreme fire weather conditions charred hundreds of thousands of acres of the western Cascades.
Even if logging/thinning worked to slow a blaze’s advance, there is an extremely low likelihood (less than 1%) that any treated forests will be exposed to fire. So most thinning projects remove carbon, but they do nothing to reduce large blazes.
As one study concluded: “The amount of carbon removed to change fire behavior is often far larger than that saved by changing fire behavior, and more area has to be harvested than will ultimately burn over the period of effectiveness of the thinning treatment.”
Another researcher suggests: “Reducing the fraction by which [carbon, or ‘C’] is lost in a wildfire requires the removal of a much greater amount of C, since most of the C stored in forest biomass (stem wood, branches, coarse woody debris) remains unconsumed even by high-severity wildfires.”
A common misconception is that wildfires release a lot of carbon. Burning does release some carbon, but the majority of the carbon in the forest remains on site even after a severe fire. The snags left after a blaze contain much of the carbon found in a forest, while charcoal that is retained in the soil stores even more carbon.
By contrast, logging releases a tremendous amount of carbon. The biggest source of greenhouse gas in Oregon is logging, which accounts for 35% of the state’s emissions.
Plus, the carbon lost during thinning/logging takes decades to centuries to re-sequester.
The highest value of our public forests is their function as carbon reserves. Prohibiting logging would not only help sequester more carbon—in addition, putting all federal lands in carbon reserves would provide numerous other benefits such as watershed protection and protection of wildlife habitat, preserving the ecological functions of insects, wildfire and drought that create healthy forest ecosystems.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published several books on wildfire ecology.