A Trillion Trees in Rep. Westerman’s Hands Means a Trillion Stumps

Photograph Source: Sam Beebe – CC BY 2.0

In an effort to springboard off President Trump’s recent pledge to join the global community in planting a trillion trees to increase the amount of carbon drawn out of the atmosphere and help us to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis, Rep. Bruce Westerman, a pro-logging advocate from Arkansas, along with several Republican colleagues introduced legislation entitled the Trillion Trees Act.  While planting trees, especially in urban areas, can indeed have climate benefits, from absorbing CO2 to providing shade to lower energy use, the real contribution to be made by trees in drawing down atmospheric carbon comes from protecting them as part of existing forests ecosystems here in the U.S. and around the world.  If forest ecosystems are protected from logging and development they can actually contribute between one-third and one-half of our carbon/climate mitigation goals (Griscom et al. 2017, Erb et al. 2018).  Unfortunately, not only does Rep. Westerman’s bill literally miss the forest for the trees, it doesn’t really even acknowledge the trees themselves, only the wood that they contain.

Exploiting the language of climate change while never actually acknowledging that human-caused climate change is happening, the Act purports to put the U.S. on a mission to assess the maximum amount of carbon that can be stored through increased “wood growth” and “wood volume”, and then devise a plan to ensure that these so-called ‘targets’ can be met.  Sounds good, right?  Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, and here is where the trillion trees morph into a trillion stumps.  The Act does not define “wood growth” or “wood volume” but it becomes clear that the Act means wood products–i.e., lumber. Also, the Act directs that any plan that is developed to maximize carbon storage in trees is prohibited from containing recommendations that would curtail or inhibit domestic logging levels, and all recommendations must stimulate the domestic and international timber markets and increase logging levels each year (Sec. 102).  Hmmm.  The Act goes on to direct the creation of a lifecycle analysis (a model that will be utilized to come up with the carbon storage potential targets) which conveniently leaves out of its equation the carbon emissions that are associated with the logging activities themselves.  Id., Sec. 103(b).  A bold move to be sure, considering that the logging of trees for lumber actually results in the emitting of about 80% of the carbon that had been stored in a given tree.  This figure, high as it is, still fails to account for carbon sequestration loss associated with killing mature live trees, nor is the figure adjusted to include the carbon cost that results from damaging the ecosystem with logging equipment and removing nutrients from the forest.  A recent study found that logging in US forests emits over 600 million tons of CO2 each year, and reduces CO2 absorption by a similar amount annually (Harris et al. 2016), creating an adverse climate impact that is similar to annual US coal consumption.

The Act claims to establish a reforestation program, while never actually mandating the planting of a single tree. Title I, Sec. 104.  It also amends other laws, like removing a provision to analyze “[urban forestry] opportunities to mitigate the buildup of atmospheric carbon and reduce the risk of global climate change”. Instead, it replaces this language with a directive to analyze the “potential for increased atmospheric carbon storage through forest wood products and biproducts”.  While it is unclear why an act that purports to want to plant trees would eliminate from analysis the climate benefits of planting trees in urban areas, it is equally as clear that under no scenario can a wood product increase the amount of carbon stored above the amount stored in the tree (alive or dead) from which it was made. Title II of the Act helps to illuminate the true purpose behind these changes: the fact that at its heart the Trillion Trees Act is simply another Westerman logging bill.

Title II of the Act includes catch-all categories for any type of logging activity (hidden behind words such as restoration, reforestation or active management), with enough categories to ensure that all public lands logging could fall under this section, and then eliminates key environmental procedures under the National Environmental Policy Act, including the need to address significant new information, provide notice to the public of planned logging operations or accept and respond to public comments. Title II, Sec. 201. This title of the Act also interferes with a judge’s ability to weigh the evidence when considering a request to stop illegal logging activities (Title II, Sect 202) and attempts to make permanent a falsehood that has infected the appropriations process for years – that burning woody biomass for energy is carbon neutral. It would actually be hard to get farther away from the truth than this statement takes us.  Title II, Sec. 302. Not only does logging our forests to generate energy decimate the very ecosystems which, if protected, could bring us up to 50% closer to meeting the atmospheric carbon reduction goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, but burning woody biomass generates more CO2, for the amount of energy produced, than burning coal. Logging for biomass is not carbon neutral.

Finally, weaved throughout Title II is yet another tired attempt to pit natural processes, such as wildland fires and cyclical tree mortality from drought and native bark beetles, against logging, falsely implying that logging is the true solution to our climate crisis, claiming that emissions from these ecosystem fluctuations are greater than the carbon emissions and loss of forest sequestration capacity which logging creates.  Of course, this is an easy claim to make, when you attempt to create a forest carbon storage model that never even looks at the carbon costs of logging.  In reality, logging in US forests emits 10 times more carbon than forest fires and bark beetles combined (Harris et al. 2016).  Steeped in mythology, the Act further intimates that forests do not grow back after natural disturbance events, and thus reforestation is required, when in reality it is not the natural disturbances which impede a forests’ return, but the clearcut logging which often follows them. Forests naturally regenerate vigorously after fires, including very large ones (Owen et al. 2017, Hanson 2018).

Naturally regenerating unlogged forest in the Rim Fire burn area, Stanislaus National Forest.

Rim Fire burn area that was logged after fire under a “restoration and reforestation” plan.

Rep. Westerman’s singular focus on increasing the creation of wood products and enlarging timber markets, combined with his failure to gain traction with a straight-up logging bill, has culminated in this attempt to legislate climate denial.  Don’t be fooled.  While some trees may be planted under the Trillion Trees Act,  many more will be killed and removed from our public lands and globally.  We simply do not have time to waste counting stumps while pretending that logging will clear the way to climate salvation!

Rachel M. Fazio is associate director and staff attorney at the John Muir Project.