On June 25, President Obama delivered his most significant speech on climate change. “As a president, as a father, and as an American,” he stated, “I am here to say, we need to act. . . . I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
Quinault Rain Forest, Olympic National Forest (cc) Wildcat Dunny @ flickr.com
In his address, the President laid out a three-pronged approach that balances short-term and long-term strategies: to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, to increase federal funding for developing renewable energy, and to help states and cities respond more proactively to rising sea levels, storms, and droughts. The administration’s goal is to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from their 2005 levels by the year 2020. That’s only 7 years from now.
Missing from the President’s otherwise laudable comments was anything about our nation’s forests. This oversight was disappointing but perhaps not surprising. The importance of forests in mitigating the impact of climate change is often overlooked—not only by presidents but by the general public.
In 2007, the U.S. Forest Service published a wide-ranging report on U.S. forests, titled Forests Resources of the United States. You can find this important document at http://www.nrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/7334. Authored by forestry specialists in the Forest Service, the document paints a comprehensive picture of American forests today.
One of the topics it highlights is the importance of our forests in absorbing and storing greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide. According to the report, the United States has about 750 million acres of forestland. These forest ecosystems, as well as the wood that is harvested from them, store an immense amount of carbon. In 2005, forests and wood products stored approximately 699 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. They capture similar amounts of carbon every year. By way of comparison, the United States emitted about 5.9 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in 2011.
Deschutes National Forest – Oregon (cc) Dougtone @ flickr.com
Yet American forests today are in deep trouble, which is why we wish that President Obama had talked about them in his speech. Destructive wildfires are raging throughout the West this summer. Just a few weeks ago, fires north of Colorado Springs destroyed 511 homes and caused the deaths of two people. In the San Juan National Forest, wildfire has attacked 83,000 acres.
To stop this onslaught of fires, the Forest Service now spends 40 percent of its annual budget on firefighting. In 1993, it devoted only 13 percent of its budget to fighting fires. To make matters worse, the federal budget sequester has cut the Forest Service budget to the bone.
As a result, the Forest Service has far less money to maintain the health of America’s national forests. When forests burn, they release carbon into the atmosphere. The Forest Service has fewer resources to clear away underbrush, cull mature and diseased trees, and plant new trees. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden told the New York Times, “[W]hen the big fires break out, the bureaucracy steals money from the prevention fund and the problem gets worse. The Forest Service has become the fire service.”
Since the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, the United States has done a remarkable job of restoring and maintaining its forests. A century age, global warming and climate change weren’t issues at all. But since then, the earth has warmed, and forests have helped slow the rate of warming by absorbing carbon. If we don’t act now to protect our forests, we will only be destroying one of our major tools in mitigating climate change.
In President Obama’s next speech on the environment, we urge him to acknowledge the critical role that forests must play in protecting our planet for future generations.
Christopher Johnson is a writer with extensive experience in education and publishing. He has written numerous articles on nature and the environment for American Forests, Appalachia, Chicago Wilderness, E: The Environmental Magazine, Snowy Egret, and other magazines and journals. In 2006, the University of New Hampshire Press published his book, This Grand and Magnificent Place: The Wilderness Heritage of the White Mountains. He is a member of the Forest History Society.
David Govatski is a forester and environmental consultant who worked for the U.S. Forest Service for more than thirty years. He has conducted forest inventories, developed and supervised forest management plans, and written assessments of the environmental impact of forest plans and policies. From his base in New Hampshire, he conducts field inventories and prepares management plans for endangered plant and animal species. He is also a professional trip leader and leads canoeing, birding, and hiking expeditions throughout the United States and Canada. David is past president of the board of Weeks State Park in Lancaster, New Hampshire, the summer estate of John Wingate Weeks, the cosponsor of the Weeks Act. He is a member of the Forest History Society.