Forest Carbon 101
See how a scientist measures the amount of carbon in a tree.
As a teenager in the early 1900s, my grandfather and his father jockeyed a portable, steam-driven sawmill along the Ohio shore of Lake Erie, working with the industry of beavers to turn hardwood forests into factory-ready lumber. Not a stem was left standing when this father-son team went through a forest: hickory was for brush handles, basswood for beehives, pine for the local paper mill.
When I was a child much of the vast forest that my grandfather knew had been plowed under for farms or paved over for suburbs. When I asked him, 75 years after he put down his axe, if we should have left some of those forests standing, he waved off the question.
“Nah,” he said. “The land was worth more cleared.”
In his day, a forest was valuable only when it was cut down. Most people today take a broader view. Trees give us oxygen and shade, of course, but forests also cool the air and filter the water that runs into the lakes and streams that we use for drinking water. And now we know more about the important role forests play in keeping our climate stable by capturing and storing carbon dioxide, the most common of the greenhouse gases.
Clearly, a living tree has a lot to offer beyond the makings of a kitchen cabinet. But knowing the science isn’t enough. My grandfather cut trees because he could make money at it. He looked at a tree with a merchant’s eye, seeing its future in house framing, flooring or furniture. Throughout the world, deforestation continues to be seen as a pathway to economic success.
That’s the case in Indonesia, where tropical rainforests are being cut down at an alarming rate to make way for profitable palm oil plantations. These practices produce 80 percent of the country’s carbon emissions and place it among the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases. Deforestation is likewise a threat throughout the Appalachian forests of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, where thousands of acres of forest habitat and the region’s finest native brook trout streams are threatened by shale gas development.
Here, and in other places around the world, the Conservancy is helping landowners and communities find ways to balance competing values, to go beyond “man versus nature” and find ways to protect forests precisely because they are valuable to all living things – including all of us.
By accurately measuring the amount of carbon that is captured and stored in these forests, for example, the Conservancy is helping landowners and communities exploit the growing demand for carbon credits – allowances that can be traded on the open market to help balance carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere in the world.
In Pennsylvania, the Working Woodlands program is leading to better managed private forests and protection against development. In Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, we’re working to develop and test a set of guidelines and practices that will be aimed at balancing economic and energy needs with the needs of nature and forest communities.
And from Indonesia to Bolivia we’re working with landowners and governments to benefit from the demand of carbon trading – ensuring a future livelihood for local people while at the same time protecting water quality and habitat for endangered wildlife.
I have my own grandchildren now, but they’re still too young to know much about forests, except that they’re a fun place to walk in, listen to the birds and sneak up on deer. My hope is that they will grow up knowing that a forest does far more than provide timber – and will be inspired to protect it.
Randy Edwards is a Senior Media Relations Manager with The Nature Conservancy