Forgotten forests in the fight for climate stability

Calapooya Mountains in Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. Courtesy USFS, Wikimedia Commons

Cool, temperate rainforests, such as those found in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, store more carbon per acre than many of their tropical rainforest counterparts.

However, their world-class carbon storage is still little recognized by the public or policy-makers. In a new book, Temperate and Boreal Rainforests of the World: Ecology and Conservation, scientists are urging that the policy world take stronger action to protect our high-carbon forests before they disappear.

Temperate rainforests can be found around the globe. Australia, northern Ireland, Japan and Siberia all host important swaths of such forest. But as author and scientist Dominic DellaSala noted at the book’s release, our coastal rainforests in the U.S. and Canada are a big sponge for carbon. “The redwoods and coastal forests up into Alaska have to be the best carbon storage on the planet, along with the Australian rainforest."

The world is only slowly waking up to the direct connection between the preservation of our vast forestlands – temperate and tropical – to the preservation of our planet. The degradation of these forest systems comes in many ways – from deforestation and conversion to developed land, to fire suppression where fire is a critical aspect of forest health, to the continued logging of old-growth trees instead of transitioning to a forest economy based on restoration.

But the cumulative effect has been devastating. "The great temperate rainforests of many other countries are long gone," said Paul Alaback, professor emeritus of Forest Ecology at the University of Montana and one of the book's co-authors. "The U.S. has some of the most significant remaining temperate rainforests on federal lands in the world and has the responsibility to move swiftly to protect them."

This book provides deep scientific underpinnings for an earlier analysis by The Wilderness Society which highlighted the remarkable carbon storage features of our wet, cool national forests (see The Wilderness Society analysis of the Top Ten Carbon-Storing National Forests in America).

The amount of carbon stored in these 10 forests alone approaches twice the amount released into the atmosphere each year by fossil fulefuel burning in the United States.

The climate challenge is immense. We cannot rely on our forests to free us from the folly of an energy economy base on allowing polluters to dump their industrial wastes into the atmosphere. But while reducing emissions of these excess gases must be the highest priority for the world, we must also prevent the dismantlement of the natural systems on which all human health relies.

Read more from David Moulton

Photo: Calapooya Mountains in Umpqua National Forest, Oregon. Courtesy USFS, Wikimedia Commons.