"Buy local" applies to forests, too

January 17, 2008

by Dean Keith Gilless

Frozen pipes never concern San Francisco residents, but Minnesotans insulate the pipes around their homes every winter. The West Nile virus scares many Californians but doesn't alarm Scandinavians at all. Where you are in the world goes a long way toward determining the things you worry about.

Some Californians shy away from using wood for fear of contributing to the deforestation so frequently associated with global warming. But relying on imported goods means burning fossil fuels to bring those goods to market, which increases greenhouse gas emissions. The arguments to promote "locally grown" are no more or less valid when considering one's consumption of lumber and other forest products.

Furthermore, while deforestation in tropical regions is a significant cause of greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation is not a significant problem in California or elsewhere in the United States. Americans have about the same amount of forestland as we had 100 years ago. In California, there is about 1.5 times more wood being grown than harvested on private forestlands, and on some of the state's public forestlands nearly six times more wood is grown than harvested.

Many tropical forests, however, are disappearing and adversely affecting global warming. This deforestation follows a classic pattern: It starts with logging, but harvesting in and of itself does not necessarily result in an increase of greenhouse gas emissions. What happens to the harvested material, the material left behind and the way the land is used after harvesting, all factor into determining whether or not greenhouse gas emissions increase.

Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store the carbon in wood fibers and release the oxygen. If the trees become lumber, plywood, furniture or other wood products and the land is replanted, there is a net reduction of carbon emissions and the cycle of carbon absorption continues. If the forest is cleared, the wood burned in open piles and the land converted to non-forest uses, there is a net increase in carbon emissions.

The typical pattern in the tropics has been to clear the forest for agriculture, which can lead to a decrease in soil fertility before the land is ultimately converted to cattle pasture. A modern twist on this model involves clearing the forest for biofuel cultivation, especially sugar cane for ethanol.

Either way, the result is an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, but not one tied to California's consumption of wood. In fact, Chinese markets have a far more direct impact on tropical forests than California does. Our consumption tends to affect the Pacific Northwest, Canada and our own forestlands more than the tropics.

Still, Californians may want to examine the impact of their consumption on global warming and the world's ecosystems.

Consumers choosing to use less wood to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for instance, may have the exact opposite effect. Alternative nonrenewable building materials such as steel, concrete and plastic emit greenhouse gases during their manufacture.

There's also the ethical question to consider regarding whether it's appropriate to export the impact of our consumption - that is, is it OK to meet our demands with someone else's resources? Foresters on California's private lands adhere to some of the highest environmental standards in the world. State law protects water quality, wildlife habitat and soils, and our forestlands are managed using advanced technology and science. Our practices mean forestry removes carbon and conserves resources more efficiently in California than in most corners of the globe.

Yet California imports about 75 percent of the wood used in the state. That means a lot of wood we use is coming from places where Californians have no say over environmental practices.

As consumers look to make "green" choices and policymakers struggle to define markets that might provide a financial incentive to store more carbon in forests, it would be wise to recognize that wood is a renewable resource and forests are inextricably integrated into California's economy. Dozens of communities are dependent on sustaining forests for their quality of life.

Consumers have clear options and will send signals to the marketplace by virtue of their purchases. Choosing California grown wood can help remove greenhouse gases from our air, encourage the planting of more trees and keep our forests healthy for generations. It will also keep the impact of our consumption close to home.

Global warming has focused attention on California's forests in an unprecedented manner. Time will tell if Californians will support sustainability with actions, not just words.

This OpEd originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 17, 2008.