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California’s “Carbon Sequestration” Failure

Until the latter part of the second millennium, giant redwood stands stretched from southwestern Oregon to Monterey Bay. Primordial Douglas firs groves were also commonplace. All were a product of the region’s moderate temperatures and plentiful rainfall, and also helped produce our climate.

Before the advent of logging, Northern California and the Pacific Northwest housed an “unprecedented carbon budget,” according to Jerry Franklin, a University of Washington professor of ecosystem analysis who is known as “the father of old-growth research.” As Franklin explained at a conference sponsored by the Pacific Forest Trust in Arcata this past August, the conifer-dominated “Pacific temperate rainforest,” which runs from Prince William Sound in Alaska through the British Columbia Coast to California’s Central Coast, contains the largest mass of living and decaying material of any ecosystem in the world.

Redwood forests, he noted, exceed the capacity of any on Earth to store carbon “by a factor of three or four.” The mixed Douglas fir and hardwood forests that grow adjacent to the redwoods, as well as the montane-mixed conifer ecosystems of the Cascades and Sierra mountain ranges, among other forests of the so-called “Pacific slopes,” also play a notable role in regulating atmospheric carbon.

“What we have is a region full of superlatives, with the redwood piled on the top of them,” he said. “In the North Pacific coastal regions, which run from the Bay Area all the way up to Gulf of Alaska, are numerous moist forests with an extraordinary capacity to sequester carbon, capable of making a real difference globally when it comes to climate change.”

When Euro Americans arrived on the West Coast in the late 1700s and early 1800s, they quickly sought to capitalize on the enormous forests stretching around them. The government seized lands from native peoples without compensation, often following incidents of genocidal violence, converting it to private property through giveaways and auctions, often to fraudulent buyers. As the Bay Area expanded, loggers vacuumed old-growth trees out of the region’s forestlands, and furnished high-value timber to markets around the globe.

By the 1980s, large timber corporations, such as Maxxam and Louisiana Pacific, had initiated one of the most intense logging waves that California’s North Coast had known. But they were met by deep ecologists who had moved into the area during the previous twenty years and who believe fervently in a forest’s inherent right to exist. In addition, scientists had developed new ways of measuring the forests’ societal and ecological worth. Professor Franklin’s research, for example, helped reveal the ecological importance of old-growth redwoods to numerous critters — including the spotted owl.

In the Eighties and Nineties, logging companies were met with various forms of resistance, including lawsuits and fantastical direct actions similar to one that occurred in the Mattole Forest of Humboldt County in 2014. By the late-Nineties, protests in remote logging towns were attracting thousands of people rather than dozens, and the music at the protests was being performed by members of the Grateful Dead rather than by local dudes with guitars. Eventually, nearly all of the remaining old-growth redwoods — a mere 3% of California’s original total — were protected by parks and conservation easements. The other 97%, however, were collectively more degraded than they had ever been.

The timber industry has traditionally viewed forests in terms of “board feet,” the unit of measurement that represents a forest’s potential financial value in lumber. And when the Fisher Family of San Francisco purchased Louisiana Pacific’s 228,000 Mendocino County acres in 1998, the heavily cut-over lands’ board-foot volume averaged just 10,000 per acre. By contrast, at the time of Euro American settlement, the board foot volume of the same forests ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 per acre, according to estimates by biologists.

Patrick Gonzalez, a US National Park Service climate change scientist and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center For Forestry, is one of the world’s leading experts on carbon sequestration. He notes the importance of studying remaining old-growth forests to establish a benchmark for how much carbon the degraded lands could store in the long run. “Published field research shows that old-growth coast redwoods in Humboldt Redwoods State Park attain the highest carbon densities (tons of carbon per hectare) of any ecosystem in the world,” Gonzales wrote to me in an email, referring to the forest directly adjacent to the Mattole Forest (of which the Fisher family owns roughly 30,000 acres in total). “They achieve such high densities because they attain the tallest heights of any tree in the world.”

Gonzales is an advisor to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He also helped lead an effort sponsored by the California Air Resources Board to inventory the carbon in all of California’s ecosystems, and to estimate their changes over time, thus providing a scientific foundation for the role of forests in meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals of the 2006 California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32).

California has arguably taken stronger legislative steps to address climate change than any state in the union. AB 32 mandates that the state reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. California is also the first state to inaugurate a cap-and-trade program, which allows companies to cancel out their emissions by buying carbon emission reductions somewhere else on a commodities exchange. A portion of those credits, or offsets, comes from carbon sequestration in forests.

But the cap-and-trade program is fraught with problems, one of the most glaring of which are its provisions concerning forests, according to environmentalists. For example, cap and trade currently allows timber companies to generate carbon credits even when they clear-cut a forest, so long as the cut is no larger than forty acres and no more than 40% of their forested acres in trees less than 20 years old.

Thus, are California's landbases actually storing more carbon owing to the state's much ballyhooed leading-edge climate change policies? No. According to a California Air Resources Board study led by UC Berkeley Forestry Professor John Battles, released last year, the amount of carbon sequestered on California’s landbases — mostly meaning forests — diminished by nearly 4% from 2001 to 2008.

In the coming years, carbon sequestration will become a larger focus of California climate change policy. In 2016, the California Natural Resources Agency is set to unveil its “Forest Carbon Plan,” which will set clearer proposals for storing carbon in trees, and which are likely to be profoundly shaped by the timber industry. When the Air Resources Board released its carbon offset standards, which include the 40-acre clear-cut provision, the document was essentially edited into its final form by the timber industry. 

(Contact Will Parrish at

One Comment

  1. izzy February 6, 2015

    Trading one destructive practice for another with a nicer name could be seen as part of the “bargaining” described in the Kubler-Ross scale, with two steps yet to go. Meanwhile, legislative jargon and gymnastics aside, our actual physical environment continues to decline in myriad ways, with no Planet B available.

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