Tree farming cuts greenhouse gases, creates green jobs

In many circles these days, it’s fashionable to criticize forestry. Critics say tree farming, cutting trees and salvaging logs for lumber, paper and thousands of other products we need every day is wrong and clearly bad for the environment. They are wrong.

Washington has a long tradition of tree farming. In fact, the nation’s first tree farm was designated near Montesano in 1941 and since then the American Tree Farm System has grown to 65,000 family woodland owners managing 26 million acres of forests. These families make their living by growing, managing, harvesting and replanting trees which in turn provide wildlife habitats, protect water quality and freshen the air we breathe. If these owners are not good environmental stewards, they fail as farmers.

In a day when we are all concerned about climate change, well-managed working forests improve the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — and producing oxygen. That CO2 is locked in the trees and surrounding soil — a so-called “carbon sink.” And researchers have found that younger, faster growing trees and trees in thinned forests metabolize CO2 rapidly.

While many tree farms are small, some are quite large. For example, Weyerhaeuser manages millions of forested acres in Washington alone.

One of Weyerhaeuser’s larger tree farms is adjacent to Mt. St. Helens. When the volcano erupted on May 18, 1980, nearly 68,000 acres (about 14 percent of the tree farm) were devastated. Within a month, the company determined how to reforest the area. It began by recovering usable logs and digging through the ash to plant trees. At its peak, more than 600 truckloads of salvaged logs were removed each day. By November of 1982, 850 million board feet of timber was milled into enough lumber to build 85,000 three-bedroom homes.

Today, Weyerhaeuser’s forest has recovered and it is a lush canopy of vigorously growing fir trees. In fact, the first logs out of the reforested area went into lumber for Habitat for Humanity to build homes for families in need. Meanwhile, publicly managed forests in the surrounding volcanic area were left to reseed naturally and reforestation is much slower.

Tree farms are popping up in unusual places. If Lewis and Clark passed through the area around Pasco and Umatilla, Ore., today, they would see poplar tree farms. Poplar trees grow 15 times faster than Douglas fir and can be harvested every 12 to 15 years. Because faster-growing trees metabolize more CO2 cleaning the air, that makes poplar plantations a valuable tool in the battle against global warming.

In the early 1980s, Crown Zellerbach experimented with fast-growing hybrid poplar which could be harvested every seven to 10 years for pulpwood. The project was on the bottomlands along the lower Columbia River. With Crown Zellerbach’s success, Boise Cascade and Potlatch Corp. began planting it on irrigated lands in southeastern Washington and northeast Oregon. What once was desert and dry land is now a lush working forest.

In addition to oxygen, poplar plantations have another positive by-product: jobs.

Greenwood, a private equity fund, purchased 35,000 acres of Potlatch’s poplar forests and is financing building a $35 million sawmill at Boardman, Ore. That mill will cut poplar into wood for window- and door- frames, pallets and door cores. The new mill is a shot in the arm for eastern Oregon’s sagging economy where the forest industry was hard-hit by a large withdrawal of timber sales from U.S. Forest Service lands in the adjacent Blue Mountains.

Trees are America’s renewable resources. We know how to manage forests for a variety of mutually co-existing uses. Forestry is truly a “green” industry that we all need to encourage. Healthy forests are essential to dealing with global climate change and harvesting trees is a good substitute for costly wildfires which drain the country’s treasury, rob people of jobs and add to the world’s carbon footprint.

Don C. Brunell is the President of the

Association of Washington Business

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