With all signs pointing to rising global temperatures and ever larger fires consuming our nation's trees — some studies projecting a fivefold rise in the number of burned acres by century's end — scientists at the U.S. Forest Service have increasingly become caught up in the fight over global warming. While we've often heard talks of carbon sequestration, fuel cells, hydrogen and biofuels over the last few months, the potential for trees to soak up large amounts of greenhouse gases has gone largely unnoticed by Congress.
The statistics are damning: the number of major forest fires has almost quadrupled since 1986 while the percentage of the Forest Service's budget dedicated to fighting fires has risen to 50 over the same period. Researchers believe forests could absorb nearly 500 million tons of carbon dioxide a year — equivalent to a third of the carbon dioxide produced annually by the U.S. — through photosynthesis alone. The question remains now as to how best to handle this growing problem.While Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell has proposed clearing out underbrush and thinning old stands in addition to planting new trees as part of a new global warming-related forest management plan, environmental groups such as the Sierra Club have suggested placing the onus on replanting previously logged areas. Much of the environmentalists' criticism has been directed at the Forest Service's practice of including mature trees in its logging sales — a practice Kimbell defended as necessary to attract bidders.
The timber industry has now jumped into the debate, expressing a desire to reduce greenhouse gases by fostering an increase in the number of replanted trees. Their plan: cut down the old trees — which they claim will produce lumber and products that can store carbon for up to 100 years — and plant younger ones. While it's true that old trees hold less carbon dioxide than younger ones, cutting down trees itself leads to a high release of carbon dioxide.
As groups like the The Wilderness Society stress, it would probably be a better idea in the short-term to focus on replanting trees in burnt down areas while conserving our remaining forests by strategically suppressing fires.
See also: ::Forest Service Takes Aim at Nature Deficit Disorder, ::The Burn Belt: Fire Predictions 'Out West', ::Christmas Trees Add to Global Warming
Image courtesy of marklarson via flickr