Changing Planet

Not All Forestry Is Carbon Equal

By Justin Adams, Global Managing Director for Lands at The Nature Conservancy

The UN’s International Day of Forests is on March 21. While some people might see this as merely a day for tree-huggers to crunch their granola a little louder, this day is important for celebrating one of the most valuable ecosystems — not to mention commodities — that our planet has. Forests clean our air, enhance water security, support critical biodiversity and serve as the world’s oldest and most proven carbon storage technology.

But on this International Day of Forests, as the world continues to see significant forest loss globally, I want to spotlight one important issue: we can’t ensure a sustainable future for forests by simply striving to protect them from development. We must also engage the forestry sector in sustainable forest management.

We rely on these forest businesses to deliver products such as timber and paper that we use every day. And whether we like it or not, we also rely on them to safeguard our forest resources, and ideally enhance the environmental services these working forests can deliver. Too often this does not happen, as economic gain is put far ahead of the forest’s other crucial contributions to the environment and society. This is where we must focus our collaborative energy.

The power of sustainable forestry is that it balances the needs of the environment, communities and economies — and the good news is that it is possible. Research conducted by a team of scientists including my Nature Conservancy colleague Bronson Griscom, shows that selective logging can retain 85–100% of a forest’s biodiversity and at least 75% of its carbon (Putz et al., 2012). Plus, well-run production forests also do a better job of safeguarding surrounding protected forest areas from illegal logging. In other words, one of the best forms of forest protection is managing better forest production.

To be clear, there remain important challenges to achieving sustainable forest management. But exciting new developments — new science, technology and tools, and business models — are enabling us to address many of these challenges today.

Science and technology take on the carbon challenge

One important scientific challenge has been measuring accurately the carbon emissions caused by logging. It’s easy to see and measure a large section of standing forest, or destroyed forest for that matter, by using satellite imagery. But it’s much harder to see and reliably measure what’s happening under the canopy of a managed forest — even if the degradation is dramatic on the ground. Compiling this crucial data requires precise measurement tools, careful monitoring of the forest floor, and collaborations at multiple levels of the industry across the world — a massive effort.

My colleagues Bronson Griscom and Peter Ellis have made a significant step forward in the area of measuring and monitoring by recently developing a carbon equation model that calculates a margin of error for each of the many scientific variables in play on the ground. This more finely tuned model is a big move toward achieving higher quality information needed to effectively inform and influence forestry decisions.

Equally important is including that data in forest management carbon baselines so that we can then determine successful carbon reduction over time. Many forest operations haven’t yet made room to include carbon emission values in project plans and evaluations. But successful forest management isn’t just about the number of trees standing. By accounting for carbon emissions data as well, forest managers will have a more detailed and accurate snapshot of a forest’s environmental role and economic potential. All comparisons of sustainable forest management practices versus intensive commercial logging operations should be making space for this data.

One sustainable forest management practice that has me particularly optimistic is Reduced-Impact Logging for Carbon (RIL-C). The strategy balances environment, community and economy by reducing forestry impact while maintaining the timber commodity and providing jobs. RIL-C investigates multiple aspects of logging — such as the width of skid trails, the direction that trees land when they fall, and even the extraction equipment loggers use — and optimizes them to minimize landscape damage while keeping carbon emissions down. In Indonesia, for example, we believe that we can cut logging carbon emissions by 40 percent through greater adoption of RIL-C.

But, to prove out RIL-C success, we again need reliable measuring and monitoring. One exciting tool, LiDAR, has the potential to literally sweep across the globe — LiDAR involves flying a specially equipped airplane that beams lights to generate a three-dimensional map of forest cover. The tool quickly produces highly accurate maps that can help in identifying sensitive habitat and landscape features that hamper wood production. To support our sustainable forest work in Indonesia, we have combined satellite forest loss data using satellite LiDAR with forest degradation data obtained from field monitoring to estimate net carbon emissions for the entire 2.1 million-hectare district of Berau (or 5.2 acres, an area roughly the size of New Jersey) from 2000 to 2010.

While upfront costs for LiDAR are a consideration, these costs are coming down with economies of scale and the introduction of new technologies for deployment, such as drones.

Recently harvested FSC certified logs during Winter logging operations in the woods of the Saint John River watershed of Maine. In the 1990s, The Nature Conservancy bought 286 square miles of forest around the Upper St. John River. While much of the forest is set aside as an ecological reserve, sustainable logging continues as a critical part of the local economy. In an effort to preserve the landscape and provide jobs, the surrounding Conservancy lands have been certified under the sustainable forestry guidelines of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), ensuring that all wood harvesting is carried out in an environmentally sound and socially beneficial manner. Photograph taken for The Nature Conservancy's ÒDesign for Living WorldÓ project and exhibit. PHOTO CREDIT: ©Ami Vitale

Economic gain holds the key to scale

The last challenge I’ll touch on is the scaling up of sustainable forest management. This hinges on our ability to demonstrate the short-term and long-term financial benefits of these practices.

This is a big topic, as I’ve written here. But one thing is certain: the historically maligned carbon credit conversation needs to significantly evolve. It is high time that we begin to value the crucial role our forests play in delivering a suite of environmental services, from cleaning up the air and storing more carbon to enhancing water security and protecting biodiversity in addition to the economic value of logs produced and jobs created. This requires that we align incentives and put a price on these environmental services so that forest owners and operators optimize production and protection practices based on a broader picture of economic opportunity that includes profitable environmental benefits.

Today I’ll point to one promising example. California’s Climate Change law includes a market mechanism that allows companies to buy carbon credits from anywhere in the United States — and potentially from other countries in the future — that can include credits from sustainable forest management.

The Nature Conservancy’s Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program has seen its own sustainable forestry progress accelerate due to the California climate law. The Clinch Valley program closely tracks carbon emissions across more than 22,000 acres of managed forest in Virginia and Tennessee. Over 50,000 carbon credits have already been received, which is roughly equal to the carbon dioxide emissions from 5.6 million gallons of gasoline.

As I’ve written before, carbon markets are helpful in leading change, though insufficient on their own. But when we create opportunities to align multiple incentives for switching to more sustainable management, this can garner global forest conservation a new level of attention. For example, forest products certified to be under sustainable management practices carry demonstrably higher price premiums. Combining forest certification with carbon markets means even greater financial returns.

Forests to protect, cherish, and celebrate

The key to tapping into the potential of sustainable forest management is seeing that it doesn’t just impact one stand of trees — it impacts economies, communities, and the environment. In just the past two decades we’ve taken great strides in making sustainable forest management a reality in different places around the world. But we’ve still really only scratched the surface. Much of this isn’t glamorous work. And the scientific details and economic incentives remain critically important to get right. But with the promising progress we’ve made and the new science, tools and financial models emerging today, I can envision a future International Day of Forests that gives us truly global cause for celebration.

By Justin Adams (@JustinCMAdams) is Global Managing Director for Lands at The Nature Conservancy. See his latest thinking at

Protect. Transform. Inspire. The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to be a leader in taking on the most complex challenges facing the planet. Our place-based projects in over 40 countries serve as living laboratories where new ideas to protect nature are tested, perfected and adapted for other places. We engage businesses, governments and communities in delivering these on-the-ground results – demonstrating how conservation innovations can transform how our food, water and energy are produced. And by empowering more leaders and communities all over the world with solutions that work, we will inspire action at the scale of the challenge.
  • Gifford Pinchot

    Don’t misuse the term “forestry” by interchanging it with the logging or lumber industry. The term “forestry” is synonomous with “sustainable forest management “. “Forestry is the science and craft of creating, managing, using, conserving, and repairing forests and associated resources to meet desired goals, needs, and values for human benefit. Forestry is practiced in plantations and natural stands.” – Wikipedia

  • Bob Perschel

    Calculating the carbon effects in the forest of different approaches to forest management is complex enough and it is encouraging to hear the progress TNC is making. However, we need to add even more complexity to the equation. Carbon retained in the forest is only one variable in a longer equation of how forest practices effect climate change. We need to look at albedo and PVOCs to name two variables in a long list. And then we need to consider the climate effect of what the wood is eventually used for. Using solid wood or engineered wood in construction to replace steel and concrete provides a climate mitigation effect on par with our best strategies. Forest management can leave less carbon in the forest and still have a better climate effect depending on where the wood goes. We better check it out. The New England Forestry Foundation’s Build it With Wood program http://www.builditwithwood is prepared to dig into these aligned variables and bring some new numbers to the table.

  • Joel

    “It is high time that we begin to value the crucial role our forests play in delivering a suite of environmental services, from cleaning up the air and storing more carbon to enhancing water security and protecting biodiversity in addition to the economic value of logs produced and jobs created.”

    You seem to be forgetting the vast areas of forest that we do value for these non-economic benefits, which are set aside in parks and protected from logging. You also seem to ignore the many areas within our working forests that are protected, such as riparian zones, or anywhere that endangered species are detected or around significant cultural and archaeological sites, etc. Please don’t pretend that as a society, we only value the economic values of forests. That is simply untrue.

  • Carsten W. Glaeser

    Trees are Good. As an urbanite amid the urban forest of the City of New York one can not help realizing the grand benefits and services that large trees directly provide to all those that pass beneath them. Yet, while deforestation seems to be understood as a human phenomenon occurring in some distant hinterland, a denuding of the urban forest is occurring here as well, one tree at a time little noticed by the millions that are walking around it. City officials that turn a blind eye to the allowed anthropogenic impacts like construction, diminishes the trees ability to provide the very long term services for which they were planted decades earlier. Celebrating the urban forests such as by The International Day of Forests is one way to grab the attention of elected officials who might wish to make a difference.

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