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Don't Cut The Trees? Not So Fast...

In this carbon-concerned world, imagine three trillion contraptions that remove carbon from the environment and retain it as a useful substance. Sounds like science fiction. Not really, they are something we see all around us - trees. Armchair activists look at this and come to a hasty conclusion, “For the sake of our planet, don't cut the trees!” That is easy to say until you start to think about it a little more.

People like to think that trees are somehow permanent fixtures on our landscape, but they are not. Most of us will see trees grow and die in our lifetime - and hopefully see replacements flourish. Forests are a great carbon sink, but trees are only temporary. As they grow, they retain carbon, and when they decompose, they release it. Presuming a healthy, ongoing forest, it only nets out.

In short, trees are carbon positive until they become carbon negative and all the potential they created is wasted. Put that way, selectively taking mature trees, and turning them into lasting wood products makes a lot of sense. Why not use wood rather than other non-renewable materials? Those amazing carbon trapping "contraptions" can be, and are, used to create the things we need in our lives. Isn't that the definition of sustainability?

"Saving the trees", defined as let them grow until they die, seems like the less logical idea. A recent study, reported on Nature.com, found that the global release of carbon from decaying trees accounts for slightly more carbon than the burning of all fossil fuels.

As with anything, there must be a balance. It would not be a hard leap to justifying tree plantations. That would be a mistake because natural forests offer too many other benefits - wildlife habitat, clean air and water, recreation, and more. The prudent practice, as generally happens in our region, is planned selective harvests. This practice leaves the forest viable and able to continuously regenerate.

Another thing to remember, forests are nothing new and do not solve anything new. They are part of the current carbon baseline and, short of destruction, no changes in forest management are going to rapidly change their impact to the carbon equation. An informed, smart use of our forests is more of a solution than either destroying them or locking them away.