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Close to Home: Use coast redwoods to store carbon

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Trees are good for the environment, especially redwoods. All trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; the larger the tree, the more is absorbed. The carbons become part of the plants and the soil and thus are nature’s way of challenging global warming. Healthy forests absorb huge amounts of carbon; the larger the forest the more carbon that is saved.

The focus on forests until now has been largely on the tropical forests of the south; it’s been on the sheer wonder of these great forests. While this is justified, it has overlooked the value of the great northern boreal forest, the massive Pacific coastal temperate rainforests that stretch from Northern California to the Alaska Panhandle.

Cal Winslow
Cal Winslow

These forests are now understood to have the capacity to store vast amounts of carbon, none more than the redwood, but also Douglas fir, western hemlock, cedar. The 50,000-acre Jackson State Demonstration Forest in Mendocino County sits at the southern fringe of this forest. The state purchased this land in 1947 with the intention of developing better logging practices. Today, this forestland, managed by the Cal Fire, is much like the private, commercial timberland that surrounds it. Little attention has been paid to conservation or forest ecology, let alone climate change. Rather, Cal Fire has come to count on revenue from the forest, while outsourcing forest management to commercial logging firms driven by the bottom line.

The old growth is virtually all gone, and much of the land left is severely distressed — the scars of clear-cutting are to be found throughout the forest. Nevertheless, there remains considerable second growth and these forests if left alone will recover.

I’m writing from the Redwood Coast at the southern tip of the great forest. The redwood is, of course, iconic for its height, ability to resist fire and longevity — old-growth trees live 2,000 and longer. Thriving on wet winters and cool, foggy summers and stretching in a narrow band from Santa Cruz to the Oregon border, ancient redwood forests are one of the wonders of the natural world. Only now are we coming to understand that they sequester more carbon than any other tree on Earth.

Here along the coast these groves — second growth, some more than 100 years old, 150 feet in height — are cherished by those who know them, above all by the original inhabitants, the Pomo people who consider them sacred, the habitat of their ancestors. This is also true for coastal residents who hike, walk their dogs, ride their bikes and find mushrooms and inspiration in them.

Alas, these forests are to be logged. Cal Fire, after a long pause brought on by legal challenges, has timber harvest plans in process to renew logging operations in a dozen sections of the forest. One, the “Caspar 500” abuts up to residential neighborhoods. Here the forest will be “closed” while the largest trees, that is the most valuable, are taken.

The local response has been dramatic. Opposition is widespread and diverse — ranging from Pomo Indians to school kids from the village of Mendocino. In May, two tree sitters set up shop in a grove of giant trees. Since then, there have been blockades, invasions of sites to be logged and protesters, on foot and on bikes, as well as by random holiday hikers who have wandered unknowingly into closed areas.

Activists have used whistles to let workers know that they are there, knowing the danger this implies for all. There have been appeals to local, county and state representatives. More than 50 Northern California university environmentalists and forest scientists petitioned the governor to stop the logging. This seems to have succeeded in forcing a pause in logging the Caspar 500 section of the forest, with an intention of further engagement with the community.

We Mendocino locals are doing our best to engage with our community, though for us this is far from just local. We love the redwoods, and so do visitors from near and far. More importantly, we now understand our challenge to be just one link in the worldwide climate action community. COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, helped get forests, deforestation and restoration onto the climate change agenda.

And closer to home, it’s good news that President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill includes millions for trees and forest restoration. The 30X30 concept — conserving 30% of U.S. land, water and ocean by 2030 — is a great idea, but it must become practice. What better way than to begin here on public land in Mendocino County?

Cal Winslow is director of the Mendocino Institute. He lives near Caspar.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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