Political Debate about Forest Sequestration

Politics and Controversy - Where it All Began

Carbon sequestration is one of the most significant science and policy issues of our time, as well as one of the most divisive, as various influential stakeholders around the world look to influence the mediation of carbon via forest sequestration.  In the U.S., there is a long history between the logging of old growth forests, and the replacement with new growth forest.  The debate is between leaving old growth intact, because the trees’ biomass make for an excellent carbon sink, and the removal thereof to replace it with younger forests which can sequester carbon at a higher rate, as several studies have shown.

Logging Debates of the 80s: Environmentalist vs. Timber Giant

New Forestry was an approach introduced in the late 1980s as a compromise between the timber industry and the environmentalists with more of a preservationist approach ("Will 'New Forestry' Save Old Forests?" N.T. Gregg).  This was a concept where the timber companies would be allowed to reduce overall yield, however, ecosystems would be left in place.  This way, the timber companies were able to cut down old growth, but also made a specific effort to leave sustainable and viable ecosystems intact.

This approach did not last long with the introduction and consequent passing of the National Forest Implementation Act of 1991.  It designated lands as ancient forest reserves under permanent protection (Politics of Old Growth Forest Policy" G. Gray.)  This was essentially a moratorium placed on all logging of any old growth forests. Needless to say, this set the timber industry back financially for almost 20 years as areas available for logging decreased.

Harvesting in 2000 and Beyond

Kyoto Protocol.  This international agreement between nations was negotiated in 1997 and was formally put into effect in 2005.  It calls for nations to reduce levels of emissions which add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.  One of the nations that met its Kyoto Protocol targets is Canada.  It did this via its “Forest 2020 Plantation Demonstration and Assessment.”  This Canadian initiative helps various landowners establish plantations of fast growing trees, the emphasis being on young growth forests, which studies have shown to sequester more carbon than old growth forests.  

With this "new science" on the horizon, the U.S. timber industry felt revitalized once again, as they saw the potential in lobbying Congress for long term gains.  In the past, it was legislation such as the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act and the National Forest Planning Act that had dictated terms for the timber industry's survival.  Yet, with new science supporting the development of younger forests, there was a chance for the industry to reassert itself and “help” with the process of clearing old growth forests.  According to various studies conducted by S. Luyssaert, there is strong evidence that support the notion that young forests are much better at sequestering carbon, whereas old growth forests have reached their potential and would not be able to maintain such levels of sequestration as in earlier stages.      

According to John Helms, former president of the Society of American Foresters, industry leaders have promoted that idea, positioning themselves as “tree planting experts”.  Considering that the timber industry has been losing approximately $1-$1 billion USD annually, as established by the IPCC, they needed someone powerful to influence stronger legislation.  Enter Weyerhaeuser.

Former Enemies, New Allies

The issue of carbon sequestration can make for some strange bedfellows indeed, as evidenced by the roster of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (“USCAP”).  Among its members, USCAP prides itself as a coalition of well-placed industry leaders in the energy sector that help form legislation and define caps for emissions. Such prominent pro-industry names such as Dow Chemical Co., Duke Energy and DuPont have aligned themselves with pro-environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute.   One such member, The National Resource Defense Council (“NRDC”) has recently applauded the actions of a forest and paper products giant, Weyerhaeuser, who joined USCAP in March of 2010.   It has joined the distinguished ranks of its members and is promoting itself as a major partner in USCAP.  Weyerhaeuser wants to participate in finding ways to promote legislation to limit carbon dioxide emissions, while  strategically positioning itself as a leader within a revitalized timber industry, all while toeing the line between stewardship and economics.  The timber industry once again has found itself to be in an offensive position, with Weyerhaeuser at the helm.