Will efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions affect forest management?

Convection column Pioneer Fire
Convection column on the Pioneer Fire, August 30, 2016. Photo by Nick Guy of the University of Wyoming.

In case you came to our website yesterday and saw the green banner saying the site was closed for the day to recognize the global #ClimateStrike, we are back in service as you can see.

On Friday millions of people across the world, many of them young,  assembled to help bring awareness to what I and others are convinced is an emergency — a climate emergency. The more scientists learn about the changing climate the more serious the situation looks. A few years ago we were hearing that we had to reach net zero carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2050. That is a long way off and many of us will not be around then. But the young people marching today will be stuck with the results of what we do between now and then.

We still need to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, but we can’t wait until 2049 to begin making changes. Scientists are saying that to reach that goal, emissions would have to start dropping well before 2030 and be on a path to fall by about 45 percent by 2030. The longer we wait to begin making significant changes, the more difficult it will be to meet the 2050 goal.

Scientists estimate that wildland fires make up 5 to 10 percent of annual global CO2 emissions when taking into account renewed forest growth in the burned areas. Fires also release other greenhouse gasses such as methane. Experts estimate that the wildfires in California’s North Bay in October of 2017 emitted as much CO2 in one week as all of the state’s cars and trucks do in one year.

Up until now fire management in developed countries has virtually received a free pass when it comes to CO2, at least compared to what it could become in the next 10 to 15 years. There is world-wide pressure now to rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels. It is only a matter of time before we start hearing a chorus saying all vegetation fires are “bad”, including prescribed or “good fires”, using a term now being used by some U.S. Forest Service personnel.

Land managers should be thinking about how to deal with strong pressure to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from burning vegetation. Part of the answer is additional firefighters, engines, dozers, helicopters, and air tankers. The U.S. Forest Service budget for wildland fire has remained flat for the last several years, while the costs of suppression infrastructure has increased. In light of the climate emergency, allotting fewer real dollars to suppression is counter intuitive. Congress and the President need to take action on this budget issue.

Fuel treatment projects, including mechanical projects and prescribed fires, can reduce the size and resistance to control of wildfires. However, pressure to reduce CO2 emissions could make it more difficult to obtain approvals to conduct prescribed fires even though the results if done on a large enough scale can reduce emissions from wildfires over the long term. But it will be difficult to develop the formula for the right mix and priorities of mechanical treatments, prescribed fires, wildfire suppression, or doing nothing.

There are many irons in that fire, so to speak, such as dealing with smoke, protecting communities, restoring forests, conserving water resources, wildlife, endangered species, and of course the amount of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses coming out of our forests as they burn one way or the other. It remains to be seen if all of those goals can be satisfied as we move closer to the climate emergency tipping point. Some of them may have to be de-emphasized. Land managers might be accused of being selfish if they insist on attempting to accomplish all of these traditional objectives that may exacerbate the climate for the entire planet. As well meaning as de-emphasis might me, unless skillfully implemented using the best science, the unintended consequences could actually increase CO2 emissions over time.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

8 thoughts on “Will efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions affect forest management?”

  1. Will efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions affect forest management? I sure hope so.

    To be clear, aggressive forests management [i.e., thinning, fuels reduction, prescribed fire] will ensure effective fire management and that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

    Yet, there seems to be so much apathy regarding forest management. For example, recently a petition was developed on Evergreen Magazine [http://chng.it/bGsyZvSb]. To date, 437 have “signed-on.” The petition strives to advance forest management across the country, especially in the west, so wildfires can eventually become smaller instead of destructive behemoths that destroy everything in their path.

    437! While I am very pleased that 437 signed on, why isn’t there a million; five million?

    The other day I was reading about a person in New York City that was circulating a petition to rename a street. In three days, she had 500,000 signatures. I guess renaming a street is more important than saving lives, towns, and landscapes.

    Now, we are facing the conservation issue of our time — horrific health, infrastructure and economic impacts due to the lack of forest management. Yet, less than 500 people are willing and able to say, “…Enough. The lack of forest management over the past 25+ years is helping cause large, intense wildfires that have such profound negative impacts on our lives, on our communities and indeed, on our planet. We are at a tipping point. Now is the time to do something about it.”

    Less than 500! That’s a shame.

    What is happening does not have to be. A more collective voice will matter. Now is our time.

    1. One reason a “million” people have not signed the petition is the shear length of the document — 2,755 words that will take the average person over 21 minutes to read. In my humble opinion, it is far too long to get thousands of people to read it.

      But most importantly it was difficult to find in the document exactly what you propose. People need to know what they are signing up for.

      1. Thank you. Please then, allow me to summarize the 2,775 words:

        In the “Foreword” of the petition, there is a “Call to Action” being proposed. The goal of the “Call to Action” is “to aggressively manage America’s forests along the complex rural to urban land gradient, so the destructive nature of large, high intensity wildfires will be reduced.” The “Call to Action” asks for a “National Commitment.” The “National Commitment” requires additional funding. The funding amount and investment strategy is included in the petition.

        Very respectfully,

  2. Bluntly put, efforts to reduce carbon emissions will affect everything if they are to be effective. The basic problem is simple — our underlying economic model, that we base all of our decisions on, relies on both an increasing population and increasing consumption and that is simply incompatible with reducing carbon emissions.

    Are there technological solutions? Potentially there are for some aspects of our economy but there’s no magic solution to meeting the life needs of an ever-growing population that is always striving to better their individual economic position without altering the biosphere in ways that are catastrophic. Our current administration is a classic example of wanting to make as much personal wealth (for the already wealthy) as possible with the old economic model in whatever time is left before the collapse. It is stupid, short-sighted, and selfish.

    In a nutshell, we’re screwed because we (the collective we) refuse to change. The protest is a great sign of hope in an otherwise abysmal outlook for the future. But the real change will have to be cataclysmic in order to force us to move us away from a shareholder-driven capital business model that prioritizes short-term profits over everything else.

  3. Most of North Americas ancient “forests” would be classified as savanna or woodland by today’s ecologists, and were maintained by frequent, low intensity fires. CO2 emissions from burning in these communities were more than offset by soil building, as is shown by the high organic carbon levels in savanna and associated sunny wetland soils.
    Selectively thinning our overgrown forests to return them to savanna conditions and putting the harvest into construction materials stores carbon in lumber and soil, while greatly reducing fire severity. It’s a win, win, win situation. All we need are the resources to perform frequent, low intensity fires, the time to thin overgrown forests, and the understanding of communities that it will be better in the long-term.

  4. Wildfires are a necessary evil, unless you can come up with a way to thin forests to reduce the catastrophic fires we have had in years past. Net 0 is an unrealistic goal, we may be able to get net zero on petroleum burned emission but forest fires are a natural reaction to forest growth.

    1. We should work on the things that can be realistically fixed. Pouring many billions of dollars into reducing the impacts of all wildfires is not attainable. Unless someone has Mother Nature on speed dial, she is probably going to continue with her lightning and volcanoes.

      Man-caused ignitions are something we can do a better job on. Our land managers are trying, but it seems that the public at large is our biggest problem. Do we need Tannerite exploding targets? Can railroads and utility companies spend a little more on prevention programs? Do ATV users need unfettered access all the time? And what about other things in our daily lives? Do we need our big, air-hauling pickup trucks? Can we improve the efficiency of our homes? Carpooling?

      ps: I own a Dodge Ram 1500 – don’t drive it a lot. But I should be looking inward at the choices I make. I think we all can look inward and make little changes that will add up at a societal level.

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