Recent litigation over the Black Ram project on the Kootenai National Forest shouldn’t discourage the Forest Service from implementing projects that reduce the risks of severe wildfires and help protect our communities.
Active forest management can help mitigate climate change impacts and improve forest health and resiliency while supporting thousands of family wage jobs in Montana rural communities. Failing to manage our forests will only result in more severe, carbon-emitting wildfires that degrade wildlife habitat and water quality.
In his court opinion on the Black Ram project, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy determined the Forest Service failed to document to supposed climate impacts of thinning overstocked and fire-prone forests. However, there is an abundance of good science illustrating the need for forest management in reducing net carbon emissions.
Unmanaged forests are touted by some as the best solution for climate change. Yet emerging research is finding that many western forests are losing their ability to sequester and store carbon as they age and succumb to severe wildfires, insects and disease. Due to these factors, a new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finds American forests may convert from being carbon absorbers to significant carbon emitters.
Forests currently absorb 11% of U.S. carbon emissions, or 150 million metric tons of carbon a year, equivalent to the combined emissions from 40 coal power plants. However, starting in 2025, their ability to hold carbon may start plummeting and could emit up to 100 million metric tons of carbon a year as their emissions from decaying trees exceed their carbon absorption. Without action, forests could become a “substantial carbon source” by 2070, the USDA report suggests.
Untreated insect epidemics and disease are resulting in significant tree mortality, which directly contributes to massive carbon-emitting wildfires. The carbon released from this year’s Canadian wildfires, for example, is roughly the equivalent to Indonesia’s annual emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
The Black Ram project would utilize the kind of science-based forestry tools such as prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, hand thinning and stream restoration, which are needed to promote the health and resiliency of our forests. As Forest Service projects continue to be stalled by litigation and bureaucracy, it is no coincidence the agency is falling behind in reducing fire risks and carbon emissions.
According to a May 2023 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report on National Forests System (NFS) lands, “Hazardous fuels can significantly affect wildfire behavior, and contribute to wildfires becoming more intense, severe, and difficult to contain.” The CRS notes that 63 million acres of Forest Service lands were at high or very high wildfire hazard potential in Fiscal Year 2022, yet “In the same year, the [Forest Service] reports the agency completed hazardous fuel treatments on 3.2 million acres on NFS and adjacent lands.”
According to CRS, “At this pace, it would take nearly 20 years to eliminate the backlog of treatment needs, not accounting for maintaining treated acres to the desired resource conditions. In addition, some estimate that hazardous fuels are accumulating three times faster than the rate of treatment.”
This means at least 63 million acres of the National Forest System represent a significant carbon emissions liability to the American public and U.S. government. If, or when, these millions of acres of forests burn and die, hundreds of millions of tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere. The Forest Service should do everything in its power to avoid this carbon emissions ticking time bomb.
Further, forest management provides wood products that support rural manufacturing and jobs. Wood also provides climate benefits because half the dry weight of wood is carbon. That’s why the continuous cycle of forestry- the continuous planting, growing, harvesting and replanting of trees, combined with the use of long-lived wood building materials, offer substantial carbon sequestration and storage benefits compared to simply locking up our forests through litigation and hoping a severe wildfire never comes.
Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization supporting active forest management on federal lands. He also serves as public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association representing the forest sector in Montana and four other Western states.