Clearcutting and climate change


Late last week the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in California challenging approval of 400 acres of clearcuts in Northern California’s Sierra Mountains. In the press release announcing the lawsuit, the Center claims that approval of the clearcutting by California’s Board of Forestry violated California law which requires that state agencies analyze and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from a project when they approve it. The Board of Forestry claims the trees will grow back in 100 years and that the clearcutting is therefore carbon neutral.

This is believed to be the first time logging has been challenged on the grounds that it will damage the climate. It comes at a time when there are signs that the Forest Wars may be once again heating up in California.

The Board of Forestry is under attack from environmentalists and fishing groups for seeking to weaken logging rules that were enacted a decade ago to protect Coho salmon and other at risk salmon. Those rules only apply to watersheds where Coho and other at risk salmonids spawn and rear. The logging rules were themselves deemed inadequate to protect Coho by the National Marine Fisheries Service. 

In a related political move the Department of Forestry recently asked the State Water Resources Board to remove authority to regulate logging under the Clean Water Act from the North Coast and other regional water boards. The North Coast Water Board has been reworking a “waiver” of waste discharge requirements for timber operations on private lands. It is believed that the new North Coast waiver would have included road maintenance and other more stringent requirements which environmentalists say are needed to protect water quality, salmon and other Public Trust resources.  The Board of Forestry opposes stronger water quality protection; it is dominated by timber interests – including one seat which has been occupied by Sierra Pacific Industries executives for about a decade. In a reaction to the Board of Forestry action, some California forest protection groups have proposed legislation to abolish the Board of Forestry.  

California’s Timber Wars are also heating up on public land. In yet another political move, a clean water “waiver” for timber operations on national forests which was up for renewal at the North Coast Water Board was recently preempted by the State Board. The Environmental Protection and Information Center had insisted that the new North Coast federal logging waiver strengthen water quality protections including a new requirement that water quality must be considered when the Forest Service fights wildfires. Forest Service managers have been criticized for approving thousands of acres of questionable backfires and burnouts and hundreds of miles of unnecessary fire lines during last summer wildfires. These disturbances then deliver large amounts of sediment to streams during winter rains and summer thunderstorms. Another impact of the large scale burn-outs - health destroying smoke - was flagged by officials from the Hoopa Tribe and became the main subject of investigative reports by the Redding Record Searchlight newspaper. (link)

In California's timber wars carbon credits for growing trees is also an issue. Industry giants like Sierra Pacific Industries want to be paid for growing trees even while they continue clearcutting; they are heavily lobbying the California Air Resources Board to adopt carbon rules which will pay them for continued clearcutting.

The timber industry claim that once trees are turned into lumber they will keep the carbon in storage for many years or even centuries. Critics contend, however, that the carbon footprint from logging and milling trees wipes out any benefit from carbon storage in lumber.

Specialists believe that the details of rules on forest and agricultural carbon storage will determine whether “cap and trade” systems will be effective in reducing human climate change impacts. The Timber Industry and Big Agriculture recently won a round in the carbon storage game when Ag Champion Colin Peterson of Minnesota succeeded in amending the climate bill which passed the House in June. The Peterson Amendment substitutes the Department of Agriculture for the Environmental Protection Agency as the agency which will decide how much credit farmers and timber companies get for storing carbon.

Numerous Inspector General audits as well as citizen investigations document the waste, fraud and abuse which is wide spread in USDA-operated Conservation Programs. Recent congressional testimony by the USDA's Inspector General summarized the situation and was the subject of a GOAT Blog post in April.  In many cases payments are made even when those approving the payment know that no conservation benefit will result. Some promoters of carbon trading are fearful that a carbon trading system operated by USDA would likely exhibit the same abuses. 

All this indicates that carbon will be a major front in the ongoing conflict over logging in the American West. Stay tuned. 

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