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Does Climate Change Have Time for Transition Plans?

[fa icon="calendar'] Jun 24, 2014 9:24:25 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

The USDA Forest Service is pushing through the sale of nearly 6,200 acres of Tongassrainforest rainforest’s old growth timber for 10-15 years of logging, claiming that’s what the timber industry needs to “transition” to second-growth timber management. Only the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department’s investigation of possible violation of the endangered species act is forestalling the tragic event.

Forgive me if I’m cynical about transition plans, particularly in this irreplaceable natural treasure, where ancient giant trees greater than 10 feet in diameter can grow for many centuries, and support the habitat for five species of Pacific salmon, Steelhead, brown bear, black bear, wolves, Sitka blacktailed deer, river otter and marten.

The USDA’s 2013 Tongass sale was announced in a press release as “the logical transition to young growth timber harvests.” But back in 2010, the same U.S.D.A.Secretary Tom Vilsack pledged over three years to “end large-scale, old-growth timber harvest while…supporting bright spots in the regional economy such as fishing, tourism, visitor services, mariculture and alternative energy.”

In fact, old-growth logging is less than 1% of Southeast Alaska’s economy. Fishing brings in $6.4 billion, employs 94,000 people. Tourism accounts for another $2.42 billion and accounts for one in eight Alaskan jobs. Both industries are vulnerable to the proposed habitat destruction of logging.

Yet here we are. Again.

The struggle between the Tongass temperate rainforest and timber interests has been ongoing for 25 years. Didn’t The Tongass Timber Reform Act put in place in 1990 for practical purposes end logging in Tongass and force the two pulp mills there to shut down? Didn’t President Clinton, in 2001, pass protections for roadless areas?  And didn’t the house add an amendment to the Act in 2007 to specifically ban road construction in the Tongass forest?

So why now?

The New York Times reported that the Forest Service needs to raise money because it overspent fighting wildfires at the 2013 season peak and diverted $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas.

The drought was caused by climate change, which rainforests are uniquely designed to counter.

The irony is overwhelming.

To add a truly Kafkaesque twist: the Forest Service does not make a profit overall on Tongass timber, and by one analysis, has lost $1 billion since 1990.

Tongass timber companies have had since 1990 to “transition” out of old growth. Now they’re getting another 10-15 years. This in a country whose democratic capitalism demands constant reinvention. So when I hear that word “transition” applied to other climate change legislation, it sounds alarms.

Those alarms were clanging loudly when EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touted the new power plant regulations plan for an “orderly transition” from coal.

Writing in this week’s Time Magazine, Michael Grunwald examines the plan’s 2030 goal: to reduce emissions from power plants by 30% from 2005 levels and coal generated electricity by 30% as well. But electricity from coal is already down 20% and another 10% of coal plants are scheduled for retirement. Its projections for renewable development are absurdly low.

In Grunwald’s words, the plan “undershoots the current pace of decarbonization in electricity.”

The EPA justifies its less than ambitious plan by asserting that its “transition” plan will forestall objections and lawsuits, especially from the big coal states. And objections have been muted so far. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity contends the rules will stress state-based power grids, increase electric bills and increase the risk of rolling blackouts, but so far, it’s just a PR gambit.

Lawmakers in fossil-fuel rich Louisiana are also condemning the plan, with Bill Cassidy, who is currently running for the Senate on an anti-Obama platform, summing up objections: “President Obama is proposing regulations that hamstring the economy, raising utility costs for families and destroying tens of thousands of jobs.”

As for potential lawsuits, that door was effectively closed Monday when the Supreme Court sustained EPA regulation of power plants by a vote of 7 to 2.

Maybe I’m wrong to be suspicious of “transition” plans that pull us back from where we were already headed. Certainly the Tongass old-growth sale, if it goes through, reverses course. Then again, sometimes, if you just stall, people sort things out for themselves. Obama stalled for 6 years on climate action against power plants, and even so, we’re already half-way to a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030. Now, there is an appetite for serious reduction in coal.

And Tongass? On June 10, with the summer timber harvest season about to start , a group of environmental NGOs brought suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for delaying Endangered Species Act protection for the Alexander Archipelago wolf, a rare and visually stunning creature found only in the old-growth forests of southeast Alaska.

What does that mean for transition plans? Maybe they’re just another part of climate change itself — unpredictable, sometimes Kafkaesque, often devastating and in the end, inevitable. Hopefully, the inevitability of both climate change and their politics will converge in time to save the planet.

Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,900+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,900+ companies from 135 industries in 102 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 325+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in Alaska, Alexander Archipelago wolf, Bill Cassiy, climate change, decarbonization, logging, USDA Forest Service, Uncategorized, Michael Grunwald, power plant regulations, Tongass rainforest, The Tongass Timber Reform Act, Carol Pierson Holding, Tom Vilsack

Why Logging US National Forestland to Sell Timber to China is a Really Bad Idea

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 16, 2011 1:45:33 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Mist above Sol Duc falls smCountries around the world are working harder than ever to save their forests. Brazil's president recently announced that the country's 80 percent Amazon deforestation reduction target will be met by 2016 -- four years earlier than promised. In 1998 China banned tree cutting to preserve its forests after the loss of trees caused flooding along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. The ban is now extended to 18 of its 23 provinces, according to CQ Global Researcher. Here in the US, environmentalists backed by the EPA’s Endangered Species Act have reduced national forestland logging by 75 percent from its peak 20 years ago.

So imagine my shock when I opened the Seattle Times and saw the headline “GOP seeks more logging on national forestlands.” The GOP’s goal: to set minimum requirements for timber sales and annual revenue for each national forest. In other words, to force logging.  And also driving home its favorite issues: cutting federal subsidies and rolling back environmental regulation.

The GOP’s truly unassailable argument? The bill creates U.S. jobs! Not in sawmills or other finishing stages that require skilled labor — US lumber demand is so low that many sawmills are closed, at least here in the Pacific Northwest — but in cutting down trees to sell to China.

That’s right, we’re logging our national forests to export raw timber to China. According to a Fox News article, exporting timber is a “surprisingly bright spot in the US economy.” Exports to China grew by 300 percent in the first half of 2011. And in these desperate times, it’s all about the economy.

But is selling our natural resources really the way to go? The logging industry's 2010 net profit after tax was only 1.1 percent, according to a Western Washington University study.

These low profits are from timber harvested on private forestland, where costs are already lower. Writer/entrepreneur Christopher Swan, who specializes in infrastructure design, explains that, “The reality is that forestry strategies are driven by the cost of roads.”

Private land carries no restrictions about where roads can be built. Logging in national forestland, where road building is restricted, increases costs, cutting into the already slim profits from timber. In some years, the US Forest Service actually loses money on timber sales – as much as $15 million in 1997.  So it’s not a good investment from a financial or tax revenue perspective.

Why then would lawmakers in Washington State, home to so many rabid tree-lovers, lead the charge to log national forests? Because the new bill calls for an irresistible incentive: paying localities 75 percent of logging revenue, as opposed to the 25 percent they’ve gotten historically under the forest-payment program.

Originally, the program generated enough to fund schools and other rural services. But after logging declined, the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act was established to allow affected counties to opt in to a payment program that did not depend on US forestland timber sales. Some Washington counties like Skamania, which the Seattle Times reports is 90 percent national forest, still rely heavily on the program. Without it, the county would have to close half of its school districts.

Big Dougas Fir smFederal officials often cite recreational opportunities as rationale for protecting forests, but the benefits of forests go much further than that. Two Japanese studies recently reported on the health benefits of “shinrinyoku” or “forest bathing” – a practice we call walking in the woods. The studies found that shinrinyoku lowered pulse rate and blood pressure and caused a reduction in the stress indicator cortisol. Other studies have demonstrated an increase in cells that fight cancer and a reduction of glucose levels in diabetics. Forest walking is practiced all over the world. While Americans go hiking, China is building “Forest Bathing” resorts.

Forests are our treasures whose value to recreation, health and happiness is immeasurable. With financial returns from logging our national forests uncertain at best, how can we even think of cutting them down?

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHUB.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University. 


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[fa icon="comment"] 2 Comments posted in corporate social responsibility, CSR, logging, Uncategorized, republican, socially responsible investing, sustainability, Carol Pierson Holding, corporate responsibility, CSRHub, SRI

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