Toward the end of the 19th century, the fear of forest depletion became engrained in America’s psyche. As our country neared the end of our westward expansion, advocates like Franklin Benjamin Hough lobbied for forest preservation. Hough, a predecessor of Gifford Pinchot and known to some as the “Father of American Forestry,” saw dangers of the relentless taking of forests. His quote:
"The experiences of pioneer life, as regards the timber, present little that can be commended and much that can be blamed. It has been observed in all countries and at all periods, that trees furnishing products demanded by commerce, or standing in the way of cultivation, become an object of inconsiderate waste, and not unfrequently to such degree that the markets are overstocked, and ruin is brought upon the greedy but thoughtless adventurers in a business liable to bring an over-supply."
This was the mindset of some preservationists at the time. Since then, mankind has used our forests for a variety of uses, always taking, not much giving. Yet science has recently shown our forests and grasslands to have another role in our global welfare, one of carbon sequestration, a role which helps mitigate climate change. For years now, the Gallatin Wildlife Association has been raising alarm bells urging the U.S. Forest Service to change their paradigm from one of indoctrination of Multiple Use Concept to one emphasizing more protection.
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We need to allow the forests to fulfill their role in sequestering carbon. Of course, this needs to be a nationwide effort. Laws need to be changed and it needs to be inclusive, not just the Custer Gallatin National Forest, but all forests. This will take time. Therefore, we offer another solution. Instead of scrapping the Multiple Use Concept altogether, let’s incorporate carbon sequestration into one of the management directives under the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act utilizing a stronger emphasis.
The ability of our forests to sequester carbon indicates our forests are on this planet for a greater purpose than just to provide goods and recreation for mankind. Perhaps, through science, we’re comprehending more fully how our planet really works.
Literally within the last few days, a new science research paper found in an open access journal by Nature Portfolio called Communications, Earth and Environment published an article: “Strategic Forest Preserves can protect biodiversity in the western United States and mitigate climate change.” Authors of Law, Beverly E., et al, state our forests are multifunctional in their importance, critical to life as we know it on this planet. Some of the summations in the article include:
• “Forest preservation is crucial for protecting biodiversity and mitigating climate change.”
• “The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) jointly recognized the intertwined nature of climate and biodiversity.”
• “The federal government owns more than half (61–62%) of high preservation priority forestland in the region, while states own 4 to 5%, comprising the lands most readily available and identified for permanent protections under the US Geological Survey (USGS) Gap Analysis Project.”
• “Notable high vulnerability areas with high biodiversity occur in the Southern Rockies, the Sierra Nevada, and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”
• “Depending on preservation priority, if 30% of forestlands were preserved, they would currently store 3.60–3.94 gigatonnes of carbon (32–35% of total) and could accumulate another 0.74–0.91 gigatonnes by 2050. (1 metric gigaton = 1 billion tonnes)”
• “Preserving 50% of forestlands would triple the amount of carbon that is currently protected.”
• “We found that generally less than 20% of each animal and tree species’ regional forest habitat is currently protected, yet this could increase to ~30% and ~50% for each species if the 30 × 30 and 50 × 50 targets were met by preserving high priority forests.”
• “To meet preservation targets, new permanent protections are needed at the highest levels for forests in the western US.”
This highlights the fact that our forests can grow into their full sequestering potential by allowing our forests to become mature. While forest sequestration of carbon is not the only answer, it needs to be part of the answer. Time is fleeting; it’s time to allow our forests to return to their destiny.
Clinton Nagel is president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.