Science shows that Lands Commissioner’s strategy on climate and forests will actually accelerate climate change

Nov 14, 2023

Today, Washington state Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz is highlighting a project that would stop harvests in state forests in order to store CO2. Scientific research demonstrates that these projects actually increase CO2 emissions and the risk from climate change.

There are reasons to stop harvesting in some forests, including providing wildlife habitat, but scientific research consistently shows that sustainable timber harvests are the best way to reduce atmospheric CO2 and stopping harvests may increase CO2 emissions.

Commissioner Franz claims stopping harvests in state forests allows trees to grow and remove CO2 from the air. While working at the Washington state Department of Natural Resources, I led the push to ban old-growth harvests on state lands. I appreciate that there are reasons to protect forest habitat for wildlife and salmon. This proposal, however, is misguided and unscientific.

Sign up for the WPC Newsletter

Science from the United Nations, the U.S. Forest Service, the State of California, and the University of Washington all agree that stopping harvests actually increases CO2 emissions.

  • Forestry researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pacific Northwest Research Station have consistently found that locking up forests ends up emitting more CO2 than sustainable harvests. Dr. Jeremy Fried notes, “When the full energy benefits of harvested wood products are considered, well-managed forests typically create more total climate benefits than does any scenario intended to reduce the harvest.”
  • A study released earlier this year confirms that finding, noting that forest growth models used to claim climate benefits from reducing harvests is exaggerated. The study found the models “overstate the carbon that can be sequestered under light-touch or caretaker management, potentially leading to management decisions that fail to deliver the expected carbon sequestration benefits ....”
  • Data from California confirm these findings. In 2019, California’s survey of forests found the only forests that are emitting CO2 are those in “reserve” status. Forests that are being harvested and are “unreserved” are all absorbing and storing carbon.
  • Additionally, wood products displace more carbon-intensive building materials like concrete and steel, reducing total CO2 emissions. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that using wood instead of concrete and steel is a good way to reduce CO2 emissions. The scientists at the U.N. wrote, “Recent studies suggest that, where technically possible, substitution of wood from sustainably managed forests for non-wood materials in the construction sector (concrete, steel, etc.) in single-family homes, apartment houses, and industrial buildings, reduces GHG emissions in most cases.”