Washington has quietly made logging a part of the state's climate mitigation strategy.
Paul Koberstein and Jessica Applegate
THE FOREST BEHIND Bruce Anderson’s home in the rolling foothills south of Puget Sound in Washington is densely packed with enormous Douglas fir trees, the most commercially harvested tree species in the United States. It is a natural forest, grown from seeds dispersed by a previous generation of conifers around the time of the Civil War. On a bright sunny morning in June 2022, Alexander bushwhacked his way through the thick underbrush, machete in hand. He stopped at a towering 200-foot-tall conifer, pulled a tape measure from his backpack, and stretched it around the thick trunk. Seven feet in diameter, 23 feet in circumference — an extraordinary size for a tree, but not for a Douglas fir.
To get an idea about how big a Douglas fir can grow, consider Queets Fir, a thousand-year-old hulk standing some 50 miles away in Olympic National Park. Measuring 50 feet around the trunk, it is more than twice the size of the tree at Anderson’s feet. Though there’s no guarantee the trees behind his house will ever match the stature of the Queets giant, they clearly have the potential to approach that size someday.
People have long marveled at the Pacific Northwest’s ancient Douglas fir forests for their innate beauty and towering canopies, but ecologists value them as indispensable wildlife habitat. Today, climate scientists see them as massive storehouses of carbon. Trees remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, one of the greenhouse gasses forcing the climate to spin out of control. CO2 is two parts oxygen and one part carbon. Trees keep the carbon and discard the oxygen back into the air, constantly refreshing the atmosphere. Half a tree’s mass is carbon. The bigger the tree, the more carbon it stores. After a tree dies, whether from natural death or logging, it will slowly return carbon back to the air.
Under the protection of the National Park Service, Queets Fir survived the great chainsaw massacre that took out almost every other massive tree in the Pacific Northwest during the last century. Today, the few remaining old-growth trees in the region are protected under various state and federal regulations. An “old-growth” tree is often defined as older than 175 years of age, but the big Douglas fir behind Anderson’s house won’t be considered old-growth for another two decades. The Washington Department of Natural Resources, the state agency that owns the tree along with thousands of acres of “mature” conifers and hardwoods throughout the state, is eager to cash trees like this one out while it still legally can.
To that effect, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law legislation that few Washingtonians seem to be aware of. Adopted two years ago, House Bill 2528 declares logging forests to be a “solution” to the climate crisis.
SINCE BECOMING GOVERNOR in 2013, Inslee has doubled down on his bet favoring shifting carbon from forests to wood products, as witnessed by how Washington’s state-owned forests are managed under his leadership. The state’s logging operations have clearcut thousands of acres of mature forests annually over the last decade, with another 3,600 scheduled for logging in 2023.
Inslee’s refusal to protect mature forests threatens to undermine his well-earned reputation as a leading climate hawk. In 2019, he ran an unprecedented, climate-centered campaign for the presidency, and early in his political career, while a member of Congress, he sponsored several unsuccessful climate bills. In 2008, he even wrote a book (Apollo’s Fire) about climate change.
But while he does see the need to convert to a clean energy economy, Inslee is betting that it’s better to store carbon in wood products like lumber and plywood rather than in standing forests.
The process of putting carbon in products begins with logging — the very opposite of conserving trees. After logging a forest, the wood products industry typically replaces it with a new crop of young saplings that will in turn be logged in 30 to 40 years — a course of action shown to be harmful to the climate in study after study after study.
“It can take decades or centuries for seedlings/saplings to reach the equivalent carbon storage capacity of mature trees,” Wayne Walker, a climate change scientist at the Woodwell Climate Research Institute near Boston, told us. “Given the urgency of climate change, we must therefore concentrate our efforts on protecting existing forests, better managing degraded/disturbed forests, and reforesting areas where forests have been lost.”
Unsurprisingly, Inslee is now seen by many environmentalists as the “Joe Manchin of the West Coast,” a Democrat whose passion for restoring the climate goes only so far as it doesn’t interfere with one of the state’s primary industries.
One such critic is Dr. John Talberth, executive director of the Center for a Sustainable Economy, a climate advocacy group based in Port Angeles, Washington. “Logging is a major threat to the climate, just like all combustion of fossil fuels. End of story,” Talberth told us. “The reality on the ground is the state Department of Natural Resources is the single largest logging corporation in the state, bigger than any individual private entity, and bigger than the federal government.”
Inslee’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
THE AFOREMENTIONED HOUSE BILL 2528 absolves Washington’s entire wood products industry —landowners, mills, bioenergy, pulp and paper, and the related harvesting and transportation infrastructure — from any blame for contributing to the climate crisis, a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card. The legislation accepted the industry’s claim that it is a “net sequesterer of carbon,” a designation obscuring its carbon emissions, which can be substantial when one accounts for the the fossil fuels used in logging and milling machinery and vehicles transporting the timber, as well as the wood burned during forestry activities and decomposing plant matter left behind in logged areas.
It’s important to note that the bill credits timber companies for carbon sequestered in not just their own forests, but in publicly owned forests as well. As a result, any effort to tax the industry for its carbon emissions could be problematic.
HB 2528 attempted to magically bend climate science so that it aligns with the industry’s business practices, the rough equivalent of declaring that burning coal is clean. At its core, the bill was a pre-emptive strike against growing public sentiment in favor of protecting old forests as a climate-mitigation strategy.
In hearings on the bill in 2020, Washington’s legislative committees took testimony from lobbyists on the wood products industry payrolls, but not from independent climate scientists. In his testimony, one industry lobbyist, Jason Spadero, executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, explained the root of the industry’s anxiety. “There are some that would have a carbon policy to avoid cutting of trees, extend rotations, grow trees forever and damage our manufacturing sector. We cannot allow that to happen.”
Both chambers of the Washington Legislature passed House Bill 2528 and its companion version in the Senate by a combined 139-3 vote, and Inslee signed it into law. Implausibly, Washington law now deems logging to be part of the state’s climate mitigation strategy.
Although polls show most Washingtonians view addressing climate breakdown as highly important, it’s likely few ever heard of House Bill 2528. Two years on, the state’s largest newspaper, The Seattle Times, is yet to write about it. Few voters realize their elected leaders were seemingly bamboozled on an issue they care deeply about.
“It slipped in under radar screens because it sounded so innocuous,” Talberth said. “It slipped in and got passed really quickly without any serious debate.”
A serious debate could have drawn testimony from experts like Tufts University’s Dr. Wiilliam Moomaw, lead author of a groundbreaking 2019 paper linking forests and climate. Moomaw, a 2007 Nobel Laureate, was among 2,000 other scientists who helped write reports for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He was a co-author of five IPCC reports.
In his 2019 paper, Moomaw coined the term “proforestation” to describe a three-pronged climate strategy: protect old-growth forests; protect mature forests, or forests that will become old growth in the not-too-distant future; and delay the harvest of younger forests, including those recently planted. He argued that protecting both old growth and mature forests can safeguard carbon for centuries. Delaying harvests in young forests can double the amount of carbon they store within just a few decades.
The legislature could also have heard from noted climate scientist Dr. Beverly Law of Oregon State University, who told us: “For the next hundred years, I would be reserving these big contiguous giant carbon banks. It only makes sense to keep it there.” Or from Dr. Jerry Franklin, the retired forest ecologist at the University of Washington, who told us: “Allowing the forest to go longer between harvests is probably the most important single thing that we could do.”
Or it could have turned to Dr. Simon L. Lewis of University College London, who found that natural, unlogged forests are “forty times better” than industrial tree plantations at storing carbon.
Rep. Bill Ramos, a Democrat from the city of Issaquah and chief sponsor of the bill, told us the legislation simply “acknowledges the place that working forests have in the sequestration of carbon. We have a demand for wood products in this country that’s not going away. If you don’t harvest it here, you are going to rip it out from some third world country with a lot less environmental control than here.”
WASHINGTON STATE POLITICIANS are not the only elected officials to subscribe to the idea that logging is climate-friendly. Consider two bills passed recently in Congress, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill of 2021 and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Together, they allocated $4 billion for logging subsidies, Dr. Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist and director of the John Muir Project, a California-based forest advocacy group affiliated with Earth Island Institute (the publisher of Earth Island Journal), pointed out.
The bills categorized the subsidies as “climate mitigation,” despite a letter signed by Moomaw, Law, Hanson, and some 200 other climate scientists and ecologists warning they would lead to more logging and “substantially increase emissions and worsen the climate crisis.”
Industry lobbyists often cite several studies (such as this and this) touting the alleged benefits of logging to the climate and wildlife diversity. House Bill 2528 specifically cites one such study – a controversial 2019 paper by Dr. Indroneil Ganguly, associate director of the Center for International Trade in Forest Products at the University of Washington. According to Ganguly’s LinkedIn bio, he is neither a climate change scientist nor an ecologist. He has a PhD in marketing and forest resources with an undergraduate degree in economics. Before coming to the university in 2013, Ganguly was a market research consultant for the National Association of Home Builders.
Ganguly’s paper claims wood products sequester carbon “for the duration of their functional life.” And the longer these products remain in use, it said, “the longer the carbon stays in its sequestered form.” But research by independent climate scientists expose these claims as gross exaggerations.
A University of Idaho study found wood products retain only 19 percent of the forest’s total carbon long term. All wood products decompose, slowly returning their carbon to the air, regardless of whether they are in use or not. A far bigger cache of carbon is emitted by the branches, leaves, needles, and crowns that are sometimes left to decompose on the forest floor or, more commonly, are burned in biomass energy facilities.
An even larger amount of carbon is found in forest soils. Much of this carbon is emitted to the air as a result of logging, as Dr. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia wrote this year in National Geographic. “Once the forest floor is pushed around by the clear-cutting machinery and exposed to the air, about 60 percent of the carbon is lost through displacement, erosion, and decomposition. My research also suggests that ultimately 90 percent is lost when the replacement tree plantations are logged again,” she wrote.
Ganguly’s study failed to mention the loss of carbon in forest soils at all.
In an email interview, we asked Ganguly to explain why he thinks logging is a better solution to the climate crisis than protecting forests. He offered a number of reasons, including statements like, “that we need to continue to manage our timberlands sustainably and intensively and store carbon in our economy so that our trees don’t die, rot and burn,” and “the risks associated with storing carbon in the forests are increasing rapidly. ” But when we asked him about soil carbon, he ceased responding to our inquiries.
Ganguly may be overly concerned about the climate impacts of wildfires. This year, a study based on over four years of field research concluded that carbon emissions from wildfires have often been greatly overestimated in scientific literature. The study found that even a large fire consumes less than 2 percent of the carbon stored in large trees. It also found forest fires can even benefit the climate. Decaying, dead, and burned trees return vital nutrients to the soil, enhancing the forest’s capacity to sequester carbon.
Ganguly should instead be more worried about fires in tree plantations rather than natural forests. Peer-reviewed research suggests fires tend to be more severe in tree plantations, while fires in natural forests are often less severe because they usually contain more moisture.
Ganguly also told us that forests stop sequestering additional carbon after they reach 120 years of age or so. He should tell that to Queets Fir, the thousand-year-old Douglas-fir in Olympic National Park that is still growing like crazy. It has added a full six feet to its massive girth in just the last six decades, according to official measurements.
BACK IN APRIL, President Joe Biden jetted from the backrooms of the nation’s capital to Seattle to deliver an Earth Day address under a Douglas fir canopy in one of the city’s waterfront parks that is part the largest temperate rainforest on Earth. This rainforest covers 27 million hectares (67 million acres) across 2,500 miles from Northern California to the Gulf of Alaska. Trees here grow to immense proportions, thanks to the rich, loamy soils and heavy year-around rains. Acre for acre, it is one of the world’s most important terrestrial carbon sinks, an Australian study found in 2009, and yet has no official name. This forest also contains high biodiversity, stores enormous volumes of fresh water, and is highly resilient to climate change.
According to one study, heavy logging in the temperate rainforest since the beginning of the 20th century released more than 1 gigaton of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate disasters we see today.
At the end of his address, the president signed an executive order to inventory mature and old-growth forests on federal land – a move that conservation groups hope will soon turn into real protection for these forests and could be a step toward recapturing some of their lost carbon. It could also lay the groundwork for a climate-friendly model that other timberland owners could follow.
To be clear, Biden’s executive order applies only to forests owned by the federal government. It doesn’t include the 2.1 million acres of timberland owned by the state of Washington. Of those 2.1 million acres, fewer than 80,000 acres still host mature forests. And most of these “legacy forests,” as they are known, are being targeted by the state’s logging operations. The 57-acre forest behind Bruce Anderson’s home was scheduled to be logged in 2024, but the DNR spared the forest last summer upon discovering it contained some old-growth trees.
“They are biological and ecological sanctuaries, and an important part of our natural heritage,” said Stephen Kropp, executive director of the Center for Responsible Forestry, a group that is trying to save these forests. In an effort to block the logging, Kropp’s group has filed a handful of lawsuits that are now pending before a state appellate court. A second conservation group, John Talberth’s Center for a Sustainable Economy, is suing the state for failing to analyze the climate impacts posed by its logging operations. A hearing on the case is scheduled for October 26.
“Both groups were heartened by Biden’s executive order on old forests. In the days following his Seattle speech, they joined dozens of other local, regional, and national organizations around the county to form a new coalition advocating for the protection of mature and old-growth forests and trees as climate mitigation. The coalition includes a number of high profile organizations like the Sierra Club, Earthjustice, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Protecting America’s old-growth forests, and letting new giants grow, is one of the biggest single steps we can take to combat climate change,” said Steve Pedery of Oregon Wild, one of the coalition member groups.
As of this writing, the Biden administration has yet to follow through on its promise to actually protect mature and old trees from logging. The Executive Order, which requires an inventory of old trees and forests on federal lands, is a key step, but does not include any substantive protections from logging. It didn’t even mention logging as a threat.
In retrospect, Biden’s promise seems hollow. In January 2022, the US Forest Service announced its intention to log 50 million acres of forest over the next ten years, much of it old growth. In June, the US Forest Service approved clearcutting thousands of acres in Kootenai National Forest in northwestern Montana, including mature and old-growth trees. In Kaibab National Forest north of the Grand Canyon, the Forest Service is logging centuries-old ponderosa pines, and in Oregon, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are logging old-growth stands in the Cascades and near the state’s southern coast. And in Stanislaus National Forest in the Sierra Nevada, the Forest Service is logging mature and old-growth trees over 10 feet in circumference under the guise of “thinning.”
“The Biden administration is doing exactly the opposite of what it promised,” Hanson said. “They are logging mature and old trees by the tens of thousands on public lands.” This is what climate change denial looks like in the twenty-first century, he added. “These are people who claim to believe climate change is real, but are proposing things that will make climate change a lot worse.”