By Steve Baragona
ELKINS, WEST VIRGINIA —
Mist rises from the ripped-up and muddy earth as moist soil meets chilly morning air. This field deep within in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest looks more like a Game of Thrones battleground than a woodlands restoration project.
This is how Chris Barton is bringing forests back to Appalachia’s old strip mines: with a bulldozer tearing up the soil with meter-long metal teeth.
“We’ve had a lot of people kind of look at us twice,” he laughed.
Barton is a forest scientist at the University of Kentucky. On these former mines, he’s found that before he can plant a forest, he has to ravage a field.
“The really interesting thing is, after we do it, there’s no question that that was the right thing to do,” he said.
More on that later. First, Barton’s work lies at a crossroads for Appalachia, and for much of the world.
Not rocket science
Coal mines have stripped away roughly 400,000 hectares of Appalachian forests.
Burning coal for energy is adding more and more planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. As the planet heats up, experts warn that simply cutting greenhouse gas emissions won’t be enough to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of global warming. CO2 must also be removed from the atmosphere.
Currently, experimental machines that pull CO2 directly from the air are too expensive to be practical.
However, a new report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine says effective carbon-removal technology already exists.
It’s not rocket science. It’s forests.
The report says planting trees and managing forests, along with carbon-absorbing farming and ranching practices, are among the most cost-effective strategies that are ready for large-scale use today.
Taking advantage of these natural systems could take care of more than a third of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to prevent devastating climate change, according to another recent study.
By Andy Newman
Though it appears destructive, fire in the New Jersey Pinelands is a force of renewal.
On April 22, a spring wildfire roared through Penn State Forest in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, sending 100-foot flames shooting from the crowns of the pitch pines. The fire consumed half a square mile in 40 minutes and could be seen from space. By the time the New Jersey Forest Fire Service got it under control, it had burned 843 acres, an area the size of Central Park.
A week later, even as ash still swirled through air heavy with the creosote scent of burned resin and a cedar log smoldered at the edge of a swamp, the forest was being reborn. Pine cones that open only under extreme heat had released their seeds. Though the trees themselves were charred, almost all survived the fire. Where chest-high blueberry and huckleberry had burned down to pointy stubs, tufts of grass were sprouting.
Destructive fires in the West dominated the news this summer, but for eons fire has been not just an inevitable feature of the landscape, but essential to the forest’s health and continuity. In the vast wilderness of the Pine Barrens, the forest regenerates so fast that scientists studying the physics of fire use it as a laboratory.
Eleven weeks after the fire in Penn State Forest, at the height of summer’s greening, new blueberry bushes were already shin high. A grass that flowers only after fire had put forth purple-brown seeds. And scattered all through the fire site, bursts of bright-green pitch-pine needles grew straight out of scorched trunks.
By Henry Fountain
The country lost most of its trees long ago. Despite years of replanting, it isn’t making much progress.
The country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now Icelanders would like to get some of those forests back, to improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, help agriculture and fight climate change.
But restoring even a portion of Iceland’s once-vast forests is a slow and seemingly endless task. Despite the planting of three million or more trees in recent years, the amount of land that is covered in forest — estimated at about 1 percent at the turn of the 20th century, when reforestation was made a priority — has barely increased.
By Kathleen Masterson
A new University of Vermont study finds that harvesting trees in a way that mimics old growth forests not only restores critical habitat for animals and plants, but also stores a surprising amount of carbon…
The “old growth” engineering technique succeeded in creating diverse habitats. But the kicker, Keeton says, is that it has also allowed the forest to store a significant amount of carbon, much more than several other conventional tree selection harvesting techniques. That’s key to fighting climate change.
Now, forests that are left alone — with no trees harvested — store the most carbon. But Keeton’s study is finding that it is possible to manage the forest to maximize carbon capture, and still keep it a working forest.
“This greater amount of carbon storage as compared to the conventional treatments was actually a combination of having left more trees behind in the first place, and growth rates that were actually 10 percent higher in this treatment as compared to the conventional harvest,” Keeton says. “And that was really surprising.”
Keeton says after 10 years, the old growth forest management plot stored nearly as much carbon as the unlogged control forest. It came within 16 percent of carbon storage in the unharvested plots.
By T.H. DeLuca, dean of the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation at the University of Montana
In this age of changing climate and declining forest health, I believe there’s an enormous opportunity to find common ground through sustainable forest management and mass timber products—specifically, through cross-laminated timber.
During the latter part of 20th century, US forestry leaned toward maximum production and away from the conservation ethic that spawned the establishment of the National Forest System. From the 1950s to 1980s, the practice of conservation forestry as envisioned by inaugural Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, was overtaken administrators’ economically driven focus on achieve maximum allowable yield, with only localized emphasis on the health of the environment. Predictably, the capacity of the federal forest system to deliver ecological services (clean water, habitat, and aesthetics) quickly declined.
As the impacts of these practices became clearer, the public began to equate forestry with other extractive industries, such as mining and oil exploration. This shift in public perception fueled demand for greater conservation of public lands, and also helped drive major policy changes to federal forest management. The result was an abrupt reduction in forest harvest on federal lands from the mid-1990s to today (timber harvest in Montana is about 20 percent of what it had been in the 80s), leaving what were once heavily managed forests in a state of unmanaged regeneration. The impetus for these changes—preserving our forests—was fully necessary, yet wholly unmanaged regeneration, without the purifying and random influences of fire or wind-throw, has created widely spread over-stocked forest stands that are neither appropriate as wildlife habitat nor productive as forests.
So the question is, “How can forestry and an engineered wood product simultaneously bridge our ecological and social divides?”
A quiet revolution in wood building products began is just now reaching the US. That revolution is the generation of mass timber products—extremely strong panels and beams created from the glue lamination of boards and slabs—that can be used as structural components in large buildings. These panels help create buildings that are structurally sound and that are actually more resilient in the face of earthquakes or fires.
Because CLT is built from small dimensional lumber, one can use smaller-diameter trees in their manufacture. This creates greater value for trees from restoration or fuel-reduction harvests in western and central Montana and creates an economic incentive to conduct habitat-improving activities that might not happen otherwise.
In the last few years, this wood product has brought together foresters, environmentalists, lumber mills, green architects, urban planners, and agency personnel around a shared vision for a sustainable future. This group might be formerly have had very different or even antagonistic interests, but are now sharing a unifying goal of balancing sustainable forest management with green building, rural community well-being, and reduced suburban sprawl.
There’s still a lot more to learn about CLT, and how best to build an industry that will uphold the many values that need to be served, but perhaps the agreement around CLT exemplifies what is needed to overcome polarization and accomplish shared goals through a lasting bond.
By Peter Aleshire
Fire season looms.
Every high country community quivers on the cusp.
So the U.S. Forest Service will on Thursday hold a meeting on its plan to use thinning projects and controlled burns across a million acres of Rim Country to dramatically reduce both tree densities and wildfire risk.
One little problem: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) the plan envisions has fallen years behind schedule and is struggling to make a dent on the hundreds of thousands of acres of projects already approved.
The Forest Service awarded the first 4FRI contract five years ago for an initial 300,000 acres out of a total of 2.6 million eventually targeted. The Forest Service shifted the contract from Pioneer Forest Products to Good Earth AZ after a year, with no projects completed. So far, Good Earth has completed thinning projects on about 8,500 acres out of the 60,000 called for in the original schedule. Good Earth has said it plans to thin 30,000 acres annually, but so far has had trouble lining up enough trucks and capacity at small-wood sawmills to come anywhere near that pace.
WATCH: Scientists protect a vast carbon store by chopping down millions of trees in Scotland.
by Peter Aleshire
That’s what you want.
Whether it comes to bark beetles, forest fires, migrating birds, elk or deer — what you want are forests with patches thick with trees, open areas and hillsides burned decades ago.
This conclusion has emerged from a series of recent studies on bark beetles and tree densities.
The studies support the underlying logic of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), an ambitious effort to use a reinvented, small-tree logging industry to thin the forest and diversify the landscape.
The project has lagged far behind the schedule needed to thin the first installment of 300,000 acres, mostly because the 4FRI contractor Good Earth has struggled to build up the infrastructure needed to thin 30,000 to 50,000 acres annually.
However, recent research validates the underlying blueprint for 4FRI, which would dramatically lower tree densities in the ponderosa pine forests, while creating a landscape with denser patches separated by a wide-open, thinned forest.
By Jennifer Mcnulty
Tropical reforestation is an important part of the global effort to mitigate climate change, but ecologist Karen Holl says current international goals may be overly ambitious.
“The science and practice of restoration are often quite separate, says Holl, an expert in tropical forest restoration. “Scientific research takes place at a small scale, and we’ve rarely tried to integrate results on the broad scale people are talking about. There’s a mismatch between these really big goals and what’s being done on the ground.”
For decades, tropical forests around the world have been cleared to make way for agricultural and wood products, leaving a wake of environmental devastation behind. Tropical deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change, generating 12-15 percent of global carbon emissions.
To turn that around, the international environmental community has embraced ambitious forest restoration goals: Thirty countries have signed on to restore areas equivalent to the size of Venezuela by 2020; participants at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit set a global target of nearly four times that by 2030.
Given the current scale of scientific research, those goals may be unattainable, warns Holl, who advises nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and policy makers around the world and recently authored a “Perspectives” column in Science magazine on this topic.
Most scientific studies are done on relatively small plots—typically a few acres—and results are literally rooted in local conditions, making them difficult to scale up to anywhere near the scope of international agreements.
Restoring vast amounts of forest will require major shifts in planning and science, says Holl.
By Desmond O’Boyle
The Forests to Faucets partnership originally began in 2010 as a response to a series of wildfires, namely the 1996 Buffalo Creek and 2002 Hayman wildfires. Since its inception, the partnership’s goals have grown to not only reduce catastrophic wildfires, but to also restore forests impacted by reservoirs, erosion and beetle devastation. On Monday, Feb 27, Forests to Faucets was granted a $33 million extension to continue its ongoing projects.
Lawrence Lujan is the regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Region of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the organizations involved in the partnership. He says the specific strategies will be identified in a 5-year plan.
“Some of the tools in the toolbox include, thinning, prescribed fire, replanting trees, especially in areas that have been impacted by previous fires,” said Lujan. “We’ll be decommissioning roads, taking actions to minimize erosion and sedimentation of reservoirs.”
Locations for forest restoration and wildfire fuels reduction projects include Dillon, Strontia Springs, Gross, Antero, Eleven Mile Canyon, Cheesman and Williams Fork reservoirs. The partnership anticipates treating more than 40,000 acres of land.