Healthy Forests Lead To Clean Air

Posted: April 25, 2012

Source: North Idaho Business Journal   By: Mike Patrick

Wildfires improve healthy forestsThere is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the last 400,000 years. “That’s not in dispute,” says Dr. Jay O’Laughlin. “What is in dispute is the role of carbon dioxide emissions in affecting global warming.” No, the good doctor isn’t going to go there. He has better things to do than step gingerly between an SUV and a Prius speeding toward a head-on collision in the ongoing global warming dispute. But he will say this: “I think we can all agree that there are better places to store carbon dioxide than in the atmosphere.” O’Laughlin should know. He can see the forest for thetrees.

Dr. Jay O’Laughlin is a professor of forestry and policy sciences, and since 1989, he’s been director of the Policy Analysis Group in the College of Natural Resources for the University of Idaho. In 2010, O’Laughlin received the prestigious national SAF Award in Forest Science, which recognizes individual research leading to the advancement of forestry. As Idaho forestry experts go, particularly when it comes to the symbiotic relationships between trees and mankind, perhaps none stands taller than O’Laughlin. His works and manifold publications focus on public land management policies, endangered species conservation, sustainable forest management, risk analysis, water quality best management practices, and the focal point of our story today, air quality and prescribed fire emissions policies.

Remember that trees are basically 50 percent carbon, and imagine, then, the impact of carbon-belching forest fires on the atmosphere. No, don’t imagine: Consider a few of O’Laughlin’s facts.

  • Each year between 2002 and 2006, forest fires in the lower 48 states emitted an average of 59 million metric tonnes of carbon as carbon dioxide, and 2 million metric tonnes as particulate matter. A metric tonne is equal to 1,000 kilograms; a kilogram weighs 2.2 pounds.
  • In an average year in Idaho, carbon dioxide emissions from wildfires are the equivalent of 3.6 million cars.
  • In 2006 — a bad year for Idaho forest fires — Idaho wildfire emissions were the equivalent of 6.4 million cars.

One more fact that might let you exhale:

  •  Because of tree growth, Idaho’s forests will offset 88 percent of all fossil fuel combustion emissions in the state in an average year.

If you added up all those numbers and concluded that healthy forests in Idaho are a good thing, Dr. O’Laughlin will give you an A and you may continue reading this story.

Forests are better off today than they were, say, 20 or 30 years ago because environmentalists, scientists and the timber industry aren’t fighting like they used to, O’Laughlin says. He estimates that eight diverse groups are piloting projects statewide that could further bring disparate interests to many of the same conclusions and practices. “The idea of forest health is much more widely accepted now,” he said, adding something an environmentalist told him: “‘Stumps are OK but not if you can stand on them.’ The idea is, it’s OK to trim small-diameter trees.” Further: “Active forest management can improve the situation out there on the lands. We can’t stop all forest fires, but we can reduce the size and intensity of some of them.” Small-growth trees, shrubs and other renewable energy sources, called woody biomass, are part of the problem, O’Laughlin says. When they form dense undergrowth they become “ladder fuels” that propel fires on the ground up toward the crowns of trees. And that’s the crown of forest fire disaster. But the woody biomass is also part of the solution, according to O’Laughlin. “We need active management to trim those forests and reduce those ladder fuels,” he said, openly disagreeing with people who believe Mother Nature should be the sole manager of forestlands. So what does active forest management look like? Three things, O’Laughlin said, with the added big bonus of reduced carbon emissions in the atmosphere.

  1.  Active management improves the forest conditions and makes them more resilient to fires. Yes, fires will still happen but with active management, they won’t be as big or as severe.
  2.  Active management creates valuable renewable energy resources — woody biomass. From an economic perspective as well as environmental, generating and using more biomass makes sense, he says. Fossil fuels, powering vehicles and many manufacturing plants, are dirty and expensive. By comparison, biomass is abundant, cheap and, properly managed, much more clean. O’Laughlin says 2 percent of U.S. energy today comes from the combustion of wood; Idaho taxpayers save about $2 million a year because UI heats the campus by burning sawmill residue.
  3. Active management creates jobs: “It puts people to work,” O’Laughlin says. Those are powerful words anytime, but considering today’s economy, it’s particularly pertinent.

O’Laughlin calls those three points “triple win,” helping virtually everybody — and everything.