In 1900, McCall was sequestered in the forest, a common geography for many of the resource based communities in the Western U.S. Economics linked the remote location to the external world through the products made from the materials of the area. Mills produced lumber and railroad ties that literally supported local mines and the transport of farm goods to larger cities. The railroads returned the favor by bringing tourists to sequester themselves near the solitude and beauty of mountain lakes.
Over a century later, a renewed economic interest in forestland gains momentum. But this time, sequestration carries a very different meaning - the forest's natural ability to capture, and hold in seclusion, carbon dioxide. On February 24th, President Obama's address to Congress included a request for "legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America". Astutely timed before and after the address, three organizations issued policy frameworks for the role of forests, both in a cap and trade market and as a source for renewable energy. The three organizations are: USDA Forest Service, Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, and the Forest-Climate Working Group (see Reference Section below for published documents).
if forest activities are included as acceptable offsets in a cap and trade program.
The three policy frameworks discuss the importance of ecosystem services sustained by healthy forests. A composite list of services identified includes: a carbon sink, water for human consumption (drinking, agriculture, and industry), wood fiber for products, outdoor recreation, feed for livestock, and biodiversity. Of these services, the policy frameworks focus on carbon because of the potential incentives to private landowners in a carbon market -
Potential forest activities that could offer offsets are :
Management above specified standards
Avoided deforestation, caused by land use conversion.
Substituting biomass for fossil fuels as an energy source
Substituting wood products for materials with greater fossil fuel consumption in their production.
Ten years ago, researchers suggested carbon sink capacity could be doubled in the U.S. with modified management regimes. The policy frameworks advise caution regarding those expectations.
The policy frameworks identify the need to enhance the sink capacity of forests. The Forest Service Framework tempers the ability of forests to mitigate carbon emissions. The authors of the Forest Service framework temper that objective by also acknowledging the dynamic nature of forest landscapes. To enhance the capacity of a forest to function as a carbon sink, managers must adapt prescriptions to incorporate the changing conditions. Managing by looking in the rear view mirror will not be an effective strategy.
For example, the WFLC reports that Western Forests are a carbon emission source some years, not a sink, due to large wildfires. The volume of carbon dioxide emitted during large regional fire years is large and intense (emissions occur in a short time period). Forest managers must address the large wildfire potential in order to maintain carbon sink capacity. Management regimes need to adapt in order to sustain an ecosystem service that provides a mitigating offset to industrial carbon dioxide emissions. Recent forest fire research concludes that a pattern of earlier springs that alter the timing of snow melt lead to drier conditions over a longer fire season. Combined with high fuel loads, the Western forests could very well become a long-term source without significant investment in forest management.
The change in the growing season also contributes to insect activity. Outbreaks increase tree mortality, and subsequently heighten the risk for large wildfires. The need for adaptive management poses an interesting issue for carbon markets. One of the principles of forest carbon offset accounting is called additionality. The landowner must demonstrate that the management activities produce outcomes above a baseline measure of sequestration. Considering the changing landscape conditions, some forest managers might identify with Alice's Queen in Wonderland:
"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" Will forest managers need to run twice as fast in order to qualify for credible carbon credits?
The journal Science recently published a a forest vulnerability index; the data indicates there is nowhere else to run - regardless of speed. Although communities on the edge may feel relatively remote at times, the forest management issues are anything but sequestered in isolated locations. The central themes of the policy frameworks recognize the importance of mitigation, adaptation, and slowing the conversion of working forests to other uses. Manycommunities, landowners, and conservation groups are running fast. Their initiatives in emerging ecosystem markets are stories of place. Beginning with this newsletter issue, Spatial Interest will track news about their efforts, and the strategies to manage ecosystem services.