It’s Autumn. It’s a time of change for trees. The growing season is coming to a close, though in walking around one can see some species are just now coming to fruit or seed. Leaves are beginning to turn and fall. It’s the end of wildfire season. Forests that have burned stand scorched and too dry. It’s Autumn. This is also a time for human reflection as the year slows down and moves to a close.
Just two days ago, I read an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, its author someone once again debating, disputing, and attempting to debunk the science of proof of global warming. I’ve moved on; I’m not going to waste my time debating the reality. Instead, I’m going to look at what works to solve the problem.
As I look out my window, I see foliage that I know will be gone in a month, leaving my view barren and cold. At this glance, I’m reminded of what trees do; I mean, how they function as part of the system of nature. In the simple version, the sixth-grade science version, humans breathe out, and trees breath in. It is the most basic symbiotic relationship. To add a layer, trees breathe in the carbon dioxide cars breathe out. The mechanism of trees breathing in carbon and storing it is called carbon sequestration. As I reflect on this changing season, I see a solution to climate change—reforestation, you know, tree planting.
The city in which I live, Portland, Oregon, has a tree-planting—or urban forestry—program. It is a partnership between The Bureau of Environmental Services and a local non-profit, Friends of Trees, for the simple purpose of increasing the city’s canopy cover—the portion of the city covered in trees. This program grew out of a study conducted through Portland State University—a thirty-year inventory (1972-2002) of the city’s urban forest. The recommendation from the study is a 47% cover in residential areas and 12% in commercial/industrial areas. This means Friends of Trees has to get planted 16,000 trees in three years. Each of these trees can absorb as much carbon in a year as a car produces while driving 26, 000 miles. One benefit of urban trees is that the grow more quickly than rural trees, so can start storing carbon more rapidly. Friends of Trees operates as a Citizen Forestry organization—volunteer, outreach-oriented. Residents purchase trees for a small fee, participate on a planting crew for a day, and weekend after weekend, the city becomes more lush and leafy.
Portland also has a Climate Action Plan, with a component for Urban Forestry and Natural Systems. This plan suggests canopy coverage (by 2030) of 30% of the city, with special attention given to streamside coverage. The city’s approach is much broader than that of Friends of Trees. It includes safe-guarding against tree loss during development; treating trees as part of the infrastructure of the city; putting in place codes and policies to maximize preservation; expansion of private and public urban forestry programs; removal of regulatory obstacles. As well, the city’s plan sets the goal to reduce what is called the urban heat island effect.
The relationship between trees and global warming is much like shade and open areas on a hot day. When the sun is blazing, people and animals become too hot, and will seek shade under a tree, to cool off. Same thing for cities, and for the planet. The sun is beating down, and trees can help with cool-down—all the while taking in that extra carbon dioxide. Not only do trees sequester carbon, helping to keep global temperature from rising, trees also provide other services to humans and nature. Trees trap storm- and rain water, helping with flood control and keeping rivers clean. Trees help to regulate heating costs and protect from wind. Trees are beautiful. They provide habitat for birds and small animals. They produce oxygen as they breathe out, which in turn humans breathe in.
I’m an Oregonian, so I can speak to the notion that, in a colloquial sense, it’s loggers, ranchers, and city folk who comprise the population here. We pride ourselves on clean rivers, big trees, clear skies, and good salmon runs. All of these things come from healthy forests. Even so, Oregon forests are suffering the effects of over-logging, wildfires, and other forms of human impact and degradation, just like anywhere else. Even though our state is pretty green and lush, recent reports speak to the need for a denser tree buffer along streams where logging occurs so that salmon can spawn, and to bigger and more frequent forest fires on the dry side of the Cascades. Researchers at Oregon State University continuously look at the long-term effects of tree harvesting for wood products.
Before the idea of sustainable forestry came into practice, about 88% of our forests were considered degraded. Because of these past acts of over-use, the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted in 1993, largely to protect old-growth forests, mainly as non-human species habitat. Since then, harvests have decreased 82%. A newly released study by David Turner of OSU takes a look at carbon dioxide sequestration in Oregon’s forests since the NWFP was put into action. Turner and his team found that private forest lands are now close to carbon-neutral, and that the forests in the study area absorb almost half of the state level of carbon emissions from fossil fuel. In contrast, the national average of forest carbon sequestration is about 15%. Again, the give-and-take mechanism seems simple; plant trees where they ought to be, and let them breathe.
Even though the idea of carbon exchange is simple, the situation of trees living on earth isn’t. While many places have vibrant urban and wild forests or thriving tree plantations, many have been cleared, over-logged, deforested to the point of harm, as happened here in Oregon.
Scientists, climate change experts, and policy-makers around the globe are studying how to use trees to stave off further global warming. A part of the Kyoto Protocol, developed in 1997, the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) works to pay developing countries for afforestation and reforestation efforts. Recently, a similar program called REDD—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, was established. The difference between the two programs is that CDM pays for stopping logging and for replanting of logged areas; REDD pays for forestry that allows for harvest of logs, but within a rate that still maintains carbon sequestration. In simple terms, industrial nations are buying carbon sequestration from the countries that are planting trees, creating and managing forests as CDM and REDD projects. This is called carbon mitigation. These projects, in general, are called Community Forestry. A study conducted by Daniel Kloosterat, at Florida State University, and Omar Masera, Department of Ecology of University of Mexico, concluded that community-based forest management programs address social and economic sustainability as well as provide carbon mitigation.
The Green Belt Movement in Kenya was one of the earliest such programs, started by Dr. Wangari Maathai. She began planting trees in response to government corruption and over-cutting of trees, and as a way to create income, clean water, and fuel for people in her village. She created a work force of women, many of whom were arrested for planting trees. For this work, Dr. Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Friends of Trees had this to say about her, upon her recent passing, “she left a legacy of peace and women’s empowerment through her tree-planting movement in Kenya.” One woman with a simple idea created change across her country and for the world.
Community-based forest projects are happening successfully in Nepal, Tanzia, Mexico, and Cambodia, as well as other Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Common features of such programs are that they work with traditional practice, local and territorial knowledge to create social arrangements from which the forests are managed. As Klooster and Masera explain, “community forest management must remain a central component of strategies to create synergies between carbon mitigation, biodiversity conservation, and rural development.” Supporting agencies such as the East-West Center also cite these common factors; for community-based forestry projects to work, they must operate from localized control—the systems of which will look different from place to place, provide economic return to the forest dwellers and communities themselves, and must foster carbon sequestration. These forestry management practices are distinction different than the Business As Usual (BAU) concession model, in which an outside company leases the land from the forest dwelling community, plants and manages a stand of trees, makes the harvest. Maybe replanting for another round, maybe not. In this model, the forest community serves as a low-paid, expendable workforce, and the profits go to the concession-holder. This is none other than a form of colonialism.
Klooster and Masera’s paper, “Community Forest Management in Mexico: Carbon Mitigation and Biodiversity Conservation through Rural Development, gives encouraging statistics on the socio-economic and environmental benefits of the community forestry model in San Juan Nuevo, Michoacan, Mexico. From 1988 to 1997:
• Local employment tripled, with permanent jobs increasing from 571 to 950;
• Infrastructure improved from a saw mill, carpentry and workshop to those attributes improved, addition of a chip mill, furniture production, and chemical processing plant for resin;
• Social infrastructure of a community store and tortilleria to include a library, four buses, farm supplies store, technical advise station, and a recreational facility;
• On the 814 acres of forest, production of seedlings increased from 140,000 to 3,200,000, while protected areas increased from 155 to 459 acres.
These figures, along with all of the research, affirms the effectiveness of community-based forestry projects. As well, it confirms the need for policy that supports this model. Largely, projects that fail do so because of government systems that favor the BAU model and sabotage community efforts—just as the Kenyan government saw fit to imprison women for planting trees without a permit…because it infringed on the big-business, un-localized profiteers who were over-cutting and degrading forests there. Projects in Laos have also fallen prey to systems of government corruption that would rather keep the people poor and dependent on outside economic powers than self-sufficient and ecologically effective.
Here in Oregon, we have a pioneering spirit; it’s the philosophy the state was built upon. By no accident, the state motto is, “Under the power of her own wings.” So it was no surprise that I found two community-based forest management projects:
In 1966, the Warm Springs Indian tribe bought back the forestry concession on their reservation land to create Warm Springs Forest Products. With the moniker of, “Striking a balance between quality lumber products and environmental pride,” WSFP bases all marketing decisions on the principles of the Chain of Custody Certification of the Forest Stewardship Council. As well, they are Rainforest Alliance certified.
The Siskiyou Project focuses on the non-commercial restoration, enhancement, and climate-change resiliency of area forests. It operates with an ecological focus, developed from local input, with the aim of creating jobs as it builds forests.
While these policy negotiations can be detailed, and BAU can get in the way, the route to action doesn’t have to be. As is stated on the OSU Forestry Department homepage, “Humans are a forest-dependent species.” This unites us—all of us—around the globe.
This morning, on local community radio, I heard commentary from Anodea Judith, author of, Waking the Global Heart: Humanity’s Rite of Passage from the Love of Power to the Power of Love. Judith spoke of the need for people to find these reconciliatory and democratic—as in the participatory power of the people—kinds of models for business and living. Citizen- and Community- Forestry offer a new kind of civic duty. One in which the power structure serves the people doing the work, serves the place in which the work is done, and telescopes out to positive global effects, such as carbon sequestration as part of the solution to global warming. While listening to Judith, I was reminded of an author I read as an undergrad, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenyan author and scholar. One of Ngugi’s over-arching themes was that Africans, and I’ll change that up to mean people, need to decolonize the mind; to let go of those systems of power and corruption that serve some and disadvantage many. Today, that message has strong environmental implications, as Dr. Wangari Maathai understood. As global citizens, we can no longer let our trees be chopped down simply for big-company profit, and with no plan for the future.
People and forests are symbiotic in nature. Even though I can’t single-handedly stop climate change, I can plant trees.