There's gold in them hills, only this time it's in the trees


Of the many background sounds emitted in the forest -- birds tweeting, creeks gurgling, trees whispering -- one of them isn't ka-ching. But that could change any year now.

Oregon's Willamette National Forest ranks No. 1 in the nation in its quantum storage of carbon dioxide. And it is but one of 10 Northwest forests -- in Oregon, Washington and southeast Alaska -- that lead all federal forests in the United States in locking away the greenhouse gas.

That's a doozy of a calculation, made recently by The Wilderness Society, because CO2 containment and reduction are bywords of the world's strained conversation about halting global temperature rise. As governments scramble to impose CO2 limits, containment promises cash value: If you can't meet your target, like China or a domestic coal-burning industry, you just might need to boost the credit you receive by paying someone who can really sock the carbon away. Like us.

...But complication sets in. Do you log a forest or leave it alone? Younger industrial forests grow fast and "bank" more carbon in doing so. Old-growth forests capture at a slower rate yet already are stuffed vaults; cutting them would leave a decaying site that releases carbon and, once replanted, would take decades to "pay back" what was lost.