August 22, 2011

Increased global forest density necessitates more forest management

Environmental Research Web published a report last month based on U.S. and European research concluding that global "Forest Density is Increasing." This substantiates the argument that Indirect Land Use Change is a speculative theory because increased forest density can mitigate the impacts of deforestation - particularly in large forests like Brazil's. If we can sustainably grow and manage forests that have increased density or develop best practices that improve the health and yield of forests (just as we can with food and energy crops) then minor variations in the use of acres becomes a meaningless concern.

Unfortunately, many in the North American environmental community will conclude that the study results prove something else. They believe that, by obstructing forest industry development and enforcing a more laissez-faire attitude toward forests, that forests will cure themselves of the "exploitive invasion" by the forest products industry.

Almost everyone agrees that that an end to active fire suppression decades ago in North America has resulted in more forest density. However, the challenge and responsibility of maintaining forest health is more important now than ever before. Is it safe to have unmanaged forests with 400-600 trees per acre when, properly thinned, it is much healthier and fire resistant at 100?

What is the value of a carbon sink if it (and its diverse habitats) can be lost to megafires and beetle kill? These disasters have grown substantially since 2000 in North America - in acreage and intensity. One can believe that "natural conditions" will fix forests but if that same person believes that 39% more carbon in the atmosphere compared to the pre-Industrial era compromises natural conditions then a laissez-faire attitude toward forest health is pure negligence.

Increased density of our forests makes it imperative that we exercise more forest management. The academics (UC/Berkeley), agencies (USDA/Forest Service and the Woody Biomass Utilization Group), and associations I belong to (TAPPI, SAF, ACORE) all tell me that the key to improving forest management is building more "infrastructure." They define infrastructure to mean forest products facilities, including biopower plants and biorefineries, that can convert forest thinnings into products, power, and fuels.

These products that have the added carbon cycle benefit of reducing greenhouse gases from combusting coal and oil distillates. More infrastructure will also provide important disaster response alternatives for managing forest salvage from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and droughts - all anticipated to rise with global climate change.

I wrote about a 2008 study of 4 wildfires in California and the carbon consequences of active vs. inactive forest management as carried out by private vs. federal managers (see Links between California Wildfires and GHG emissions). The data analysis from this study raises some important questions relevant to our perception of the best way to manage forests before and after high density fuelwood accumulation.


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1 comment:

C. Scott Miller said...

Tom Bonnicksen just published his personal views about the outcome of high density fuel accumulation from the Lake Tahoe site of the 2007 Angora fire. The forest is quiet and barren (see photograph and story at ). Funding and action is needed for reforestation.