Timber Industry: Cutting Down Trees Helps Environment

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The U.S. timber industry is offering its own solution to climate change: Cut down more trees. By aggressively managing forests, the U.S. would soak up huge amounts of carbon dioxide, the theory goes. Environmentalists are skeptical.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

In a few minutes, a museum in Detroit is trying to be user-friendly by glossing over much of the history behind the artwork.

BRAND: But first, the timber industry says it has a partial solution for climate change. Here it is: cut down more trees. No surprise, environmentalists are just a little bit skeptical.

As part of our year-long series, Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Jeff Brady takes a closer look.

JEFF BRADY: Could this really be the sound of reducing greenhouse gases?

(Soundbite of chainsaw)

BRADY: The timber industry says it can reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by doing what it's always done.

Mr. CHRIS WEST (American Forest Resource Council): Using a chainsaw to improve the health of these forest ecosystems is a viable tool.

BRADY: Chris West is with the American Forest Resource Council. He says all of those overgrown forests that burned last summer released tons of carbon dioxide. But he says if timber companies had gotten there first, the loggers would have thinned the trees and the forests might not have burned.

Mr. WEST: To just let Mother Nature have her way with these ecosystems is not going to help us as we try and deal with the issue of climate change.

BRADY: So, West says, why not give Mother Nature a hand by removing much of that wood and using it to build houses?

Bruce Lippke says those homes could be like a big carbon savings account. He's a researcher at the University of Washington College of Forest Resources.

Professor BRUCE LIPPKE (University of Washington): That carbon in the products gets stored for a long period of time, and ultimately there's more carbon stored in the products in the buildings than there is in the forest.

BRADY: New trees are planted in the cut forest, starting the process all over. And after each rotation, Lippke says a little more carbon goes into the savings account. The timber industry hopes this idea will convince Congress that it should be rewarded for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Right now members of Congress are developing a carbon-trading system. It'll allow polluters to offset their emissions by buying credits from those who reduce greenhouse gases. The timber industry wants to make money selling those credits. Environmentalists raise a collective eyebrow anytime the timber industry comes up with an argument for cutting more trees.

Ann Ingerson is with The Wilderness Society.

Ms. ANN INGERSON (Economics Research Associate, The Wilderness Society): Big old forests are tremendous carbon storers, and they're doing a great service for us and we don't want to be tinkering with them without quite understanding how the whole cycle works.

BRADY: Ingerson says more research is needed in pretty much in every area of forestry at issue here. And she says lost in this whole debate is the fact that the U.S. is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. Ingerson says rather than looking for ways to offset the country's emissions, why not burn less fossil fuel.

Ms. INGERSON: In the long run, what we really need to focus on is handling less material, moving less stuff around, moving ourselves around less, and becoming more efficient in the way we run our economy.

BRADY: But there are going to be more houses built. And Bruce Lippke at the University of Washington says the world's climate would benefit if they were constructed of wood.

Prof. LIPPKE: When you use wood, you're basically using it instead of some other material.

BRADY: Usually concrete or steel.

Prof. LIPPKE: Both of them are much more fossil intensive. Therefore, anytime you use those materials, you're contributing large carbon emissions to the atmosphere.

BRADY: But most homeowners don't know that. And in recent years concrete has stolen market share from wood. Nearly one in five new homes is concrete. Thanks in part to advertising.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: A log cabin in the woods may look romantic and something out of a fairy tale, but it's downright impractical.

BRADY: This promotional video touts the benefits of concrete and points out all the problems with wood, like termites and dry rot.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: But there is a smartest solution to avoid these problems: a concrete home.

BRADY: These home builders also were quick to mention no trees are cut down for a concrete home. But research shows that building a concrete house consumes more energy than a wood one. That means more greenhouse gases.

Concrete does redeem itself slightly once a building is demolished, says Martha VanGeem. She's a structural engineer in the concrete industry.

Ms. MARTHA VANGEEM (Construction Technology Laboratories, Inc): Wood will decompose and emit CO2. Whereas the concrete, when it's ground up at the end of its life cycle and used as a recycled material, it's absorbing CO2.

BRADY: So when it comes to overall carbon dioxide emissions, wood houses are the winner. The question now is whether Congress will include the timber industry and their aggressively managed forests in the carbon trading program, or will Congress limit the program to forests that are mostly off limits to loggers.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

BRAND: You can find out a lot more on climate change at our Web site, npr.org/climateconnections.

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