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How Research on Working Forests Changes the Climate Change Conversation

Ask any fourth grader and they’ll tell you: Trees absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. For over a decade, scientists have known that forests function as “carbon sinks,” effectively mitigating climate change.

But now, those students will have something new to share: As they might put it, “My house stores carbon, too.” A study led by University of Washington Associate Professor Indroneil Ganguly has evaluated what happens to the sequestered carbon (i.e., the carbon sink within trees) after trees are harvested. And thanks to the efforts of the Pacific Education Institute (PEI), Washington state K-12 students will be some of the first in the U.S. to learn about his findings.

Research on Working Forests and Climate Change Mitigation

In a study supported by the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA), Professor Ganguly and his colleague Dr. Pierobon, a post doctoral research associate, highlighted that even after trees have been harvested and turned into lumber, homes, furniture, etc., wood products continue to keep a large proportion of the tree carbon in a sequestered form. As a result, wood products play an important role in combating climate change — one that previously was ignored in climate mitigation assessments.

“When we look at the beneficial aspect of keeping the carbon sequestered in a functional form in the economy rather than in the atmosphere, the role of wood products is as big as the role of the standing biomass,” Ganguly said. Even after all of the emissions generated through harvesting and processing timber are factored in, the net carbon benefit remains.

He is careful to point out that the study applies only to working forests which grow and harvest timber for wood products, an abundant resource within the Pacific Northwest and Washington in particular.

“More aspects are associated with forests than just carbon,” Ganguly noted, “such as biodiversity, wildlife, flora and fauna, and whole ecosystems. I’m not saying go harvest old-growth forests or those with sensitive ecosystems, but rather plantation and industry forests, which include both the state and private forests.”

Working Forests and “The Washington Way”

Those “working forest” lands comprise 9.3 million acres of non-federal forests and 60,000 miles of streams, all of which are governed by Washington’s Fish to Forest law. The policy is unique within the United States, based on a combination of factors that don’t exist elsewhere in the country, according to Cindy Mitchell, senior director of public affairs for WFPA. Prominent among them: Respect for tribal treaty rights. “They’re not only very important, they’re law,” Mitchell said.

Then, there’s what former Governor Christine Gregoire referred to as “The Washington Way.” “It’s a way of working things out together,” Mitchell explained. “Rather than going to court and filing lawsuits which will always result in winners and losers, we’ve chosen to have a collaborative negotiating framework which includes all the other stakeholders.”

In the 1990s, tribal nations, private landowners, environmentalists, and state agencies worked together to hash out how to meet the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act. Now, Mitchell said, the entire forested landscape includes protection for buffers, streams that protect fish and water, sensitive areas, and wildlife areas. Working forests within the region are some of the best-managed in the world, making them a reliably sustainable supply for the never-ending demand for wood products and jobs for rural communities.

For that reason, Ganguly’s discovery has implications not only for climate science, but also for industry, workforce development, and education. The commercial and residential building sector accounts for 39 percent of carbon emissions each year. To lower that number, using home-grown wood products should be part of the conversation, he maintains, for two reasons.

First, demand for timber isn’t going anywhere. Should builders stop using wood harvested within the U.S., which has stringent forest management laws, it will come from elsewhere. “If we push our demand on to some of the less developed countries where they have weaker governance and they cannot manage their forests as well as we do, we may end up causing deforestation in other places,” he warned, citing the example of China which has reduced its own timber production since 1992 while demand has increased ten-fold.

The supply burden has shifted to countries like Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where Chinese corporations are decimating natural forests at up to 19 times the rate considered sustainable, according to the watchdog non-governmental organization Global Witness. Similar scenarios are unfolding in Southeast Asia and central Africa.

In response, some suggest using other materials to build. Not so fast, Ganguly urges. “You might say, ‘Let’s make a house with concrete and steel. But those are huge emitters of carbon,” he explained. “Our whole idea of a green economy should be trying to reduce our consumption of those energy-intensive products. We’re trading a wood product that is environmentally friendly for an extremely burdensome product. This is completely unacceptable.”

Conversations within the industry are one thing, but educating the public about working forests and the timber industry remains a challenge, Mitchell said. “If the forest industry suffers from anything, it’s understanding that there really is science, technology, engineering, and math happening every day in the woods,” she said. “I think we have a long way to go to people realizing that this isn’t your grandfather’s forestry.”

Pacific Education Institute Spreads the Word

That’s where the Pacific Education Institute (PEI) comes in. The Olympia nonprofit brings together schools and districts with conservation groups, resource management companies, and other community leaders to deliver real-world, outdoor-based STEM education rooted in local ecosystems and the industries that have grown around them. In June, PEI hosted three Project Learning Tree’s Forest and Climate Change workshops in regions across the state where K-12 educators learned about the Ganguly’s research.

Including industry in the mix is an unusual step an organization focused on environmental education — and a fundamental one, according to Executive Director Kathryn Kurtz. “Any environmental issue has a plethora of perspectives and, often, when groups gather to discuss what they believe and the way they feel, they gather with like-minded people. That tends to exacerbate the angle that they’re coming from without all the information that might sway or move their perspective a little more,” she said. “PEI’s work is bringing all voices to the table as long as they’re not hateful or have no basis in fact.”

Ganguly’s work is a perfect example of that approach, she said. “We use cutting edge science or the latest research and we’re always looking for those examples of information that the general public doesn’t know because it didn’t exist before it was published. In the case of carbon sequestration, other research that has had similar information didn’t follow the downstream products, so that adds a component that we haven’t seen before.”

Mitchell believes PEI’s approach is essential to preparing a workforce that both understands the natural world and can adapt to new information. “The idea that PEI is holding out a place for all natural resource management means they recognize that, as people, we are going to interact with the landscape and, if we don’t understand it or know how to make decisions, we’re going to be at the whim of our next Twitter feed,” she said.

PEI plans to include Ganguly’s research in more upcoming workshops. “We will use this to inform what we’re doing across in our forest literacy work,” Kurtz said. “Our facilitators and our coordinators have all taken time to familiarize themselves with Indroneil’s research and/or heard from him in person. Now it’s part of what we’re incorporating into the conversation.”

That means K-12 students throughout Washington will benefit from this knowledge, allowing them to be part of the solution. Perhaps today’s fourth-graders will become the generation that innovates its way out of society’s greatest challenge.

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