Timber harvest is part of a climate solution
By Rep. David Brock Smith
In Ernie Niemi’s Sept. 20 Op-Ed (Timber is Oregon’s Coal), he attempts to draw obtuse similarities between mining and burning coal for energy and harvesting and manufacturing wood products. I’ll agree with Mr. Niemi on one point: that the coal and timber industry both provide important economic value (more than 60,000 Oregonians are employed by the timber industry at higher than average state wages) and both products contain carbon. Despite his attempts at mental gymnastics to paint them in the same light, that’s about where the similarities end.
In contrast, forestry and wood products are part of the solution to our changing climate conditions.
Yes, half the dry weight of wood is carbon. That’s because as trees grow, they use sunlight to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it into biomass (wood). In fact, that’s the ingenious beauty of forestry.
Wood products are the only renewable, sustainable, carbon-neutral building material in existence.
When timber is harvested and turned into wood products, the carbon stored in the wood as the tree grew stays locked away for the life of that wood product. In fact, the average North American wood-frame home stores about 30 metric tons of carbon; the equivalent of driving an average passenger car for five years. And in Oregon, the Forest Practices Act requires that harvested areas be replanted within two years, typically replacing one harvested tree with four new seedlings. Because of this cycle of timber harvest and replanting, Oregon’s forests currently serve as a carbon sink, capturing more than half of our state’s human-caused carbon emissions.
As far as I know, you can’t replant coal.
And while no one is harvesting trees exclusively to burn them for energy production (although lumber production can provide residuals for biofuel and many of our wood product industries take advantage of these co-gen activities), like coal, trees do burn. No one with a pair of lungs who has lived in Oregon the past few summers could deny that smoky fact.
There are two primary ways carbon leaves the forest: as smoke or in building products. As of September, nearly 800,000 acres had burned, 80 percent of which was on federal ground, costing our state nearly $42 million, and the fire season wasn’t over yet. A wildfire impact study released by Travel Oregon in July found that the state lost $51.5 million in visitor spending due to the 2017 wildfires.
Last summer, more than 7,600 people were evacuated from their homes and Oregonians suffered unhealthy air quality for weeks on end, spiking emergency-room visits. This summer was no different. That carbon is going up in smoke. Instead, it should be used to create renewable, sustainable building products.
Mr. Niemi would like to see our forests locked up and left alone. We know what happens when we do that.
For the past 30 years our federal forests have had little to no harvest but have continued to grow, becoming overstocked tinder boxes, and our communities are left breathing in the smoke when they go up in flames.
Furthermore, new houses are built every day in Oregon and across the United States. By curtailing Oregon’s wood production further, we only ensure that developers turn to wood from other jurisdictions with more lenient environmental protections than we have here in Oregon, or worse, that they use less-climate-friendly alternatives to wood.
In most mainstream circles working on climate change issues, including the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), use of wood products is strongly encouraged. The IPCC concluded that, “[i]n the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”
As my fellow policy-makers consider ways to address Oregon’s carbon footprint, I suggest they side with the IPCC and recognize the carbon-neutral advantage of the forest products sector.
House District 1 Representative David Brock Smith serves as Vice Chair of the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction, Vice Chair of the House Committee on Economic Development and Trade, and as a member on the Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee and the Energy & Environment Committee.