The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently held public hearings in Atlanta on the agency’s proposal to curb power plant carbon dioxide emissions. This historic rule gives states guidelines to combat climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 30 percent by 2030.
There is another climate solution we can put to work right now to soak up carbon in the atmosphere: forests. We can tap the power of forests — particularly privately owned woodlands — to capture carbon dioxide emissions and protect natural resources like drinking water and clean air, which are threatened by climate change.
Right now, forests soak up nearly 13 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. They also help reduce emissions by supplying renewable energy and wood products. Family-owned woodlands store 14 billion tons of carbon in total, which equals the emissions of more than 13,000 coal-fired power plants in one year.
Healthy forests also contribute to healthy communities, especially in rural areas. These renewable resources produce timber, pulpwood, chips and wood fuel. These, in turn, are used to make lumber for homes, paper products and furniture. Family forests also produce jobs and promote economic growth through recreation, tourism spending and hunting leases.
Georgia boasts 24 million acres of forestland, covering two-thirds of the state. Nearly all of it — 92 percent — is privately owned. According to a Georgia Tech report, the forest industry contributes nearly $29 billion to the state’s economy and provides vital ecosystem services, including clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.
When it comes to climate change, we can take steps to further increase carbon capture by keeping existing forests as forests — not converting them to strip malls or row crops — and improving active forest management, increasing the use of wood for construction and maintaining tax incentives that support working forests, among other measures. By investing in woodland stewardship, we can spur economic growth, create jobs and tame the climate crisis.
The EPA predicts that with strategic forest conservation and improved forest management practices, forests could store up to 20 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions. To do this, we must equip family forest owners with the resources they need to better manage their woodlands and keep forests healthy for the long run. Drought, catastrophic fire, invasive species, hurricanes and other threats mean keeping our woods healthy is an active enterprise, not a passive one.
If you own woodlands, get the tools you need to keep your forest healthy; www.mylandplan.org is a great resource. Support woodland owners as they harvest trees to combat invasive species, create a healthier mix of trees or pay their bills. If you are a policymaker, reward woodland owners for the clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and other values they create.
As Georgia, other states and the federal government create a blueprint for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, let’s broaden the conversation to factor in family forests as a critical piece of the solution.
This article appeared in the 8/13/2014 issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.