Editors note: this is an excerpt from Train Wreck Earth, a scientific novel designed to educate the public about climate change so that citizens will demand action, David H Harman and Dr. Harvard G Ayers, Authors.
Ian had met Danna at a conference a few years ago and was chatting with her as they walked down the hall from his office to the classroom. As they entered, everyone got quiet and focused on her.
Ian and Danna both remained standing as Ian began, “Hello, everyone. Today it’s my great pleasure to introduce Danna Smith who will speak to us on the imperative to restore forests around the world if we are to succeed in slowing the accumulation of carbon dioxide and eventually to reduce it from the atmosphere.
“Danna is founder and Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, an award-winning nonprofit that mobilizes diverse voices to protect the forests and communities of the Southern US South from destructive industrial logging. For 20 years, she has been at the forefront of the global forest protection movement, working at the local, regional, national and international level. Connecting the dots between social, economic and climate justice and industrial logging, Danna is a leading voice challenging the status quo and pushing for forest protection in the US at a scale necessary to meet the sustainability challenges of the 21st Century. Prior to founding Dogwood Alliance she worked for Greenpeace as a campaigner.
“She earned her Bachelor’s in Political Science from the University of South Carolina and her JD from Emory University School of Law.
“Her accomplishments include co-authoring in 2017 The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency with world renowned climate scientist Dr. Bill Moomaw, with research assistance provided by Sam Davis, PhD. That important paper is the basis of her talk today.
“In 2016, she led the development of the Wetland Forest Initiative, a coalition of 22 organizations working to advance the protection of millions of acres of wetland forests across 14 Southern States. Beginning in 2013 up until the present, she developed and launched a high-profile, global campaign with an international coalition focused on stopping the use of wood as a primary fuel source for generating electricity which has made international headlines and is influencing EU climate policy. From 2012-2017, she served on the Board of Directors of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the US, the most stringent wood products certifications system in the world. From 2007 to 2010, in partnership with Staples, she led the development of the Carbon Canopy Project, which engaged large corporations including Coca-Cola and The Home Depot, as well as landowners and conservation organizations in developing one of the first forest carbon projects in the nation to meet the stringent requirements for improved forest management under the California Global Warming Solutions Act. She has many more notable accomplishments which are listed in your materials.
“Importantly, she has been quoted by NPR, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Daily Mail, Politico, CNN Headline News, Jim Lehrer News Hour, LA Times, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Charlotte Observer, Raleigh News and Observer, Mother Jones, CBS News, ClimateWire, and Reuters.
“Speaking Engagements include guest lecturer at Yale University School of Forestry, American Academy for the Advancement of Science, National Academy of Sciences, EU Parliament, Society of Environmental Journalists, FSC International Conference on Paper and Forests, International Taiga Forest Conference in Moscow, and National Environmental Law.
“Let’s give Danna Smith a warm welcome. (polite applause).”
“Thank you, Dr. Mitchell, and thank you for that nice welcome. I’m the one who is most delighted to be here as one of your guest lecturers. Your professors have done something quite unique in assembling such a renowned list of speakers, and I’m honored to be included.
“I do believe that I have some really important information to share with you, and it’s about forests—but not the standard conversation about the tropical rainforests. Those areas are vital, of course, but I want to talk about the vast forests elsewhere on this planet, with a focus on the forests of the American South. When I’m through, I hope you will know that our current practices of what we call sustainable forestry are not enough. We could talk literally all day about this issue, but I’m going to condense quite a bit of this discussion for brevity because I’m on my way to a forestry conference in Vancouver and need to be on my way. Anybody who wants to know more can reach out to me at the Dogwood Alliance anytime. We’re in Asheville.
“In 2016 the Mauna Loa Observatory recorded for the first time since humans have lived on Earth that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeded 400 ppm. Since carbon dioxide, once emitted, can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, we must now not only cut emissions but also reduce the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Standing forests are the only proven system that can remove and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the scale necessary to get back to safe levels of 350 ppm and keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius this century.
“I’m going to give you my executive summary first, and then I’ll proceed to tell you why it’s true.
If we halted deforestation, protected existing forests, and expanded and restored degraded forests, we
could reduce annual emissions by 75 percent in the next half a century. If fossil fuels were rapidly
phased out during this same time period, we could reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,
meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and avoid catastrophic climate change. But, we cannot solve
the climate crisis without a major scale-up in forest protection and restoration across the planet. We
must not only protect remnant primary, intact forests, but also conserve and restore less pristine
landscapes. Yet, to date, forest protection commitments and funding are too narrowly focused on
“The United States is home to some of the world’s greatest forests. Spanning from the temperate rainforests of Alaska and the ancient redwoods of California, to the mixed-mesophytic forests of Appalachia and the cypress tupelo forests of the coastal South, American forests are among our nation’s most valuable natural assets. From removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it to providing natural flood control, stabilizing fresh water supplies, and protecting some of the greatest diversity of wildlife and plants on the planet, our health and well-being are integrally tied to the ecological health of our forests.
“Did you know that the United States is the world’s largest wood producing and consuming nation, with forest disurbance rates from logging four times that of South American rainforests in the Southeastern region alone? On top of wood and paper, over the last few years, the US has become the largest exporter of wood pellets to Europe where they are burned as a ‘climate friendly’ fuel alternative to coal in power stations for electricity generation, even though burning wood for power releases up to 50% more carbon into the atmosphere per unit of energy generated.
“In spite of the growing need to accelerate protection and restoration of forests, government policies and forest markets are still largely stuck in the past, driving the replacement of diverse natural forests with single-species tree plantations, characterizing non-merchantable trees as ‘low value’, or ‘waste wood’, and measuring sustainability largely in terms of a continuous supply of forest products to commercial markets. The United States has yet to acknowledge forest degradation from logging, nor has it stepped up to protect and restore forests’ diminished ecological functioning across large landscapes.
“Since the Industrial Revolution, society’s energy use has pumped increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At the same time, destroying forests for development and agriculture, and consuming ever-increasing amounts of wood products has contributed to the high concentrations of carbon dioxide currently in the atmosphere. Equally as important, but often overlooked, forest loss and degradation from logging continue to significantly compromise the ability of our forests to help stabilize the climate. Yet, climate strategies in the United States ignore this important function of forests, and policies are too narrowly focused on only one important aspect of the climate equation—reducing emissions from fossil fuels.
“Failing to acknowledge the need to scale up forest protection will thwart our ability to effectively avoid catastrophic climate change. Simply put, we cannot ‘log’ our way out of the climate crisis, and substituting wood in place of fossil fuels for energy will move us away from a climate solution. Here are some key facts and priorities to consider:
● The United States reports that our nation’s forests are removing an estimated amount of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere equivalent to roughly 13% of annual emissions, far less than global average of 25%.
● Logging accounts for 85% of emissions from US forests, more than five times the emissions from conversion, fire, wind, insects and tree mortality combined.
● Carbon emissions from logging in the US are greater than the combined fossil fuel emissions from the commercial and residential sectors, and logging is diminishing the net US forest carbon sink by at least 35%. If soil emissions associated with logging were counted, these numbers would be significantly higher, as many forests would shift from being characterized as net carbon sinks to net emitters.
● Burning trees in place of fossil fuels for energy not only releases more carbon than coal per unit of electricity generated but also degrades forests’ ability to remove and store carbon and provide other ecosystem services.
● More than half of the carbon lost through deforestation and harvesting in the United States from 1700 to 1935 has yet to be removed from the atmosphere. Reports that forests are ‘offsetting’ fossil fuel emissions are therefore misleading since forests are not, nor can they, offset emissions from fossil fuels when they have yet to offset past emissions from forest loss and degradation.
● The international framework used by the United States for reporting carbon emissions from forests is masking emissions from logging, over-representing the extent of U.S. forest climate mitigation benefits and enabling the world’s largest forest industry to avoid accountability for climate impacts.
● Carbon dioxide emissions from logging are not measured or reported by the government the same as other sources of emissions. Instead, all forest emissions are essentially reported as ‘offset’ by annual forest growth, masking critical information necessary to inform climate policy.
● Ongoing degradation of forests from logging compromises critical ecological functions, such as water storage and natural flood control, which buffer our most vulnerable communities against the worst effects of natural disasters.
● Natural disasters, which threaten the well-being of our communities, cost billions of dollars annually, with the United States suffering two of the most costly disasters in the world in 2016. These are threats that could be mitigated and costs that could be reduced by expanding protection for forests along rivers.
“We need to invest in protecting and restoring intact, old forests across large landscapes for carbon storage, flood control, water purification, and biodiversity. Treating forests as an unlimited, renewable, extractable commodity that can support infinite growth in the forest products industry is an outdated business model that must yield to a new way of doing business that values standing forests. A major transformation in the forest economy is necessary so our consumption of wood products is brought into alignment with the ecological limits of forests, and the critical climate stabilization and other life-supporting functions they provide.
“We can solve the climate crisis by scaling up forest protection while we rapidly drive down emissions from fossil fuels and transition toward clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind. Achieving the scale of forest protection and restoration needed over the coming decades may be a challenging concept to embrace politically; however, forests provide a proven means for atmospheric carbon removal and sequestration that can operate at the necessary scale and time frame to keep the world from going over the climate precipice. Forest protection, restoration and expansion must therefore become a top priority in America’s climate agenda.
“We must rethink forestry in the United States. Protecting mature, high-biomass forests and remaining old forests, allowing young forests to mature, and halting the conversion of natural forests to plantations may solve many of our current forest carbon problems. First, we need to protect mature, high-biomass forests that already store large amounts of carbon. Many old-growth forests in the United States, which hold the highest densities of carbon, are vulnerable to logging.
“In Alaska, the U.S. Forest Service is currently embroiled in litigation with several environmental groups over the decision to log old growth in the Tongass National Forest, one of the most carbon-dense forests in the world. Similar fights have occurred across the United States as the Forest Service attempts to log rare ecosystems critical to the survival of endemic flora and fauna. In the Rockies, organizations fight off regular attempts to log old growth and habitats critical to large carnivores. Older forests on private lands also lack protection. The clear-cutting of mature wetland forests in the Southeast for wood pellets to fuel power stations in the E.U. has recently been the subject of national and international headlines.
“Second, allowing young trees across the globe to grow and mature could remove up to 2 billion metric tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year. Anytime a forest is cleared, it is converted to a younger stand, taking many decades to mature, creating a carbon debt for up to a century, depending on the age at harvest. In contrast, allowing forests to grow old increases the amount of carbon removed and stored long-term. Countless studies have shown that old-growth forests are more valuable than young-growth forests for long-term carbon sequestration.
“Forests in the United States are currently very young and very fragmented. The potential lifespan of a tree is several hundred to thousands of years old. Yet, only 15 percent of the nation’s forests average more than one hundred years. One study found that ending commercial logging on US national forests and allowing forests to mature instead would remove an additional amount of carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to 6 percent of the US 2025 climate target of 28 percent emission reductions. Yet, the US Forest Service is proposing to increase logging on national forests to 1980 levels, which by some accounts would increase emissions by 6 percent.
“In fact, the US government promotes logging on public lands under the auspices of forest ‘restoration’ as a climate solution. In 2014 the United States signed onto the Bonn Challenge, a non-binding global agreement to ‘restore’ 500 million hectares of forests by 2030. Pursuant to its restoration agenda, the Forest Service has increased timber production on national forests from 2.5 billion board feet (bbf) in 2011 to 2.8 bbf in 2014 and has plans to increase this number further in 2015 and 2016 with targets of 2.9 and 3.2 bbf respectively, based on funding levels in the president’s budget request. Fire hazard is often used as justification for ‘restoration’ logging of national forests in the West; yet, countless scientific studies reiterate the importance of fire for ecosystem health and expose the numerous negative impacts that US Forest Service post-fire and fire prevention logging projects actually have on fire-dependent ecosystems and species as well as on carbon emissions.
“In the US South—the world’s largest wood producing region—half of the forests are less than forty years old. The intensity of logging in the US South is visible from space. Satellite images of global forest cover loss documented that from 2000 to 2012, the rate of disturbance of southern US forests from logging was four times the rate of South American rainforests.
“In addition, tens of millions of acres of some of the nation’s most diverse natural forests in the US South have been converted into highly managed monocultures. In the last sixty years, pine plantations in the South have grown from zero to over 40 million acres. In the same time span, the South lost over 30 million acres of natural forests. Though globally, tree plantations make up 7 percent of the world’s forests, in the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, plantations make up 27 percent of the ‘forest,’ more than one in every four acres. Scientific studies show that natural forests that are converted to plantations emit carbon and reduce the yearly carbon storage for that area by up to 68 percent. Plantations that are harvested and re-planted sound good, but for carbon storage, not so much.
“Okay, now I want to shift the focus to what we call ecosystem services, those other benefits that forests provide to us. A forest, when left standing, provides a whole host of benefits beyond carbon storage, including wildlife habitat, recreational value, water and air purification, flood control, and pollination that support human resiliency in the wake of climate change. Some of these, especially flood control and water stabilization, will be increasingly important as climate change continues to exacerbate droughts and floods. Weather-related disasters are also costly, with annual costs in the United States rising into the billions over the past decade.
“Industry and some in the government often argue that we need to increase markets for wood products to prevent the loss of forest to another use. But, the logic that we must degrade forests to protect them is not sound given the impacts of forest degradation on our economy, climate, water, biodiversity, and other ecological services. Listen to this—forests don’t only have value when logged for wood, pulp, mulch, or pellets—they also have tremendous economic value when left standing. Yet, these values are not fully recognized in current government policies or by our economic system. Our economic system and associated government policies must begin to recognize both the value of forest ecosystem services as well as the costs of forest degradation.
“Permanently protecting forests with high conservation values and restoring degraded forests will not only help remove additional carbon from the atmosphere, but will also lessen the harshest effects of climate change, such as more frequent and severe flooding and droughts. Severe storms and associated flooding in the United States are among the most costly impacts of climate change, resulting in $115 billion in direct costs from 1960 to 2005. Flooding disproportionately impacts cities, towns, agriculture, and transportation networks located along rivers and in floodplains.
“Standing natural forests mean less frequent and less intense flooding for low-lying flood-prone areas, like the Mississippi valley and Southeastern Coastal Plain. Increased protection of forested wetlands and forests along rivers needs to be a national priority.
“Much of the western and southeastern United States are already experiencing more frequent droughts. Intact forests not only help to stabilize water supplies, but also act as filters, ensuring clean, fresh drinking water. Over half of the variation in water treatment costs can be attributed to the state of surrounding watershed forests.
“Here’s another takeaway from our research: two-thirds of America’s fresh water supply filters through forests. Forests can store large amounts of water, preventing or lessening the harsh effects of drought. These water benefits, in addition to carbon benefits, are more than enough reason to protect and restore our natural landscape. Yet, according to a recent analysis by the World Resources Institute, the degradation of forests across the United States has put many watersheds at high risk.
“I know that Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Oswalt have talked about climate justice in various lectures, or you have read about it in several papers. Let me add my views on climate justice from the perspective of forests.
“Climate change is already happening, disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable populations. The year 2016 was documented to be the hottest globally on record, the third record-breaking year in a row to achieve that distinction. Even unnamed storms have had catastrophic effects in the United States. These extreme weather events affect all Americans, but especially those who live along our coasts in economically depressed areas and where industrial logging is concentrated.
“The Southeast has had more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters than other parts of the country, disproportionately impacting large populations of African Americans and economically disadvantaged communities. In fact, two of the five most expensive natural disasters in the world in 2016 were due to storms that caused severe flooding along rivers in the rural southeastern United States. Restoring degraded forests in communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change will ensure equitable access to clean water, flood control, and the myriad of other benefits that forests provide. As it currently stands, rural communities in the coastal plain of the US South bear the brunt of the impacts of industrial logging, yet protected areas are few, regulation is lacking, and economic opportunities are restricted. Other economically disadvantaged communities in other heavily logged regions of the United States are also impacted. For these reasons, forest management in the United States is not only an issue of climate science but also climate justice.
“So, what must we do? It is time for the United States to embrace a forest economy that addresses the ecological sustainability challenges of the twenty-first century. Yet, as of today, forest management is largely influenced by the outdated policies and market approaches of the early twentieth century.
“We must align government and corporate policies behind a forest economy that is restoration-based and one that promotes the highest and best use of limited forest resources. A recent study published by the University of North Carolina found that for every million dollars spent on restoration, up to thirty-three jobs were created, an amount comparable to other industries. In addition to jobs, other economic benefits associated with ecosystem protection include higher property values and tax revenues, increased revenue from tourism and recreation, and cost savings associated with improving ecosystem services.
“We must start measuring and quantifying forest degradation and setting ambitious targets to protect and restore forests. This will require a transformation in the way we think about the forest-based economy, forest industry and government policies related to forests, climate change, and land use. With a concerted effort, a willingness to change, and an innovative mind-set, we can restore ecological function across large landscapes in the United States.
“Over the next two decades, we must:
● Permanently protect carbon-rich, old-growth stands on both public and private lands;
● Set and achieve aggressive targets for restoring degraded natural forests to older, more complex, and connected ecosystems, especially biodiverse forests and those that provide critical ecosystem services, such as wetland forests and forests along rivers;
● Halt the conversion of natural forests to plantations and restore some of these lands to a mix of native species;
● Prioritize forest protection efforts in economically disadvantaged communities most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change;
● Implement a transparent accounting system that accurately measures the actual dynamics of carbon flows and long-term carbon storage that are taking place within the natural world
“Aligning corporate and government policies behind these five principles would go a long way toward ensuring the United States is doing its part to hit the ambitious temperature-limiting goals of the Paris Agreement. It would also have the added benefits of reducing the costs and impacts of natural disasters for communities most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, while providing equitable access to life-supporting ecological services. In addition, a transformation in public and private sector policies will drive business innovation and create new economic opportunities, as has been the case in the energy sector.
“There are many potential pathways for achieving an aggressive scale-up in forest protection in the United States. Over the next decade it will be important to focus on global climate change policy, domestic energy policy, state and federal forest policies, restorative economic development, strategic land acquisition, technical support and training, corporate action, and addressing consumption and waste.
“I hope some of you in here have heard something today that resonates with you and that you will focus some of your attention to forests as you study sustainability and appropriate technology or as you go forth to live your lives. It will be up to your generation to take the progress we’re begun to make and take it quickly to the next level. Thank you for your attention.”
Ian stood up and faced the class. “Let’s show Danna our appreciation for this astounding presentation. I have to admit that I learned a lot today, and I plan to read her complete paper that this condensed summary came from. I hope you’ll do the same.