Illustration by Chelsea Lovejoy

Sinking Carbon

Amid Legislative tension, loggers and environmentalists fight over the definition of sustainability

Normally, when the Oregon Logging Conference comes to town, the conservationists at Oregon Wild just ignore it, along with its big logging rigs, pro-logging discussions and chainsaw competitions. But this year, something caught their eye.

This time around, the conference’s theme is “Working Forests: Carbon Keepers.”

The 82nd Annual Oregon Logging Conference (OLC) will be at the Lane County Events Center Feb. 20-22, but some environmentalists, like Oregon Wild, take issue with its sustainability theme. Tensions are already high as politicians and others object to a deal between the timber industry and environmentalists, cap and trade works its way through the Oregon Legislature, #TimberUnity rallies are held at the Capitol and threats linger of another Republican walkout over climate change legislation.

Representatives for OLC claim that “working forests” — forests that are logged and harvested to make wood products — store carbon effectively and keep carbon out of the atmosphere.

But forest conservationists say this is, at best, a misinterpretation of carbon science.

Oregon Wild, alongside other conservation groups such as 350 Eugene, 350 PDX and Cascadia Wildlands, will host a rally outside the Events Center to “question the narrative” of the conference on Friday, Feb. 21.

“The industry is really relying heavily on misinformation or spin that they’re putting on information to try to claim territory of logging being good for sequestering carbon,” says Jason Gonzales, former forest waters protection coordinator for Oregon Wild. “And there’s just no way that’s true.”

Carbon Science

Oregon Logging Conference president Greg Statton says in an emailed statement that the theme was picked because “trees store carbon at the highest rate when they are actively growing. Once a tree begins to mature, it slows its carbon intake.”

While this is true, technically, it misses a lot of context, says emeritus Oregon State University carbon scientist Dr. Mark Harmon.

Harmon says the effects of a system like a working forest need to be compared to not doing anything at all. He gives an example: “You take an old forest, which isn’t gaining a lot of carbon, and you convert it to a young forest, which is gaining a lot of carbon.”

“You would say, ‘Oh well, we should convert it to the forest that gains a lot of carbon and that would be the solution.’ Right — makes sense. The problem with that, though, is that to go from older forests with a lot of carbon to a younger forest with less carbon, you have to have lost carbon.”

While Oregon forests are currently taking on more carbon than they’re losing, almost three-quarters of that carbon is being sunk into public — mostly federal — forests, which have stricter harvesting laws, according to the Oregon Global Warming Commission’s 2018 Forest Carbon Accounting Project Report.

When compared to not harvesting a forest at all, logging isn’t all that sustainable. According to a 2018 study out of OSU, emissions from logging and creating wood products have reduced the total store of carbon in Oregon forests by 34 percent between 2001 and 2015.

The majority of logging in the state happens in private forests, which make up only 36 percent of total forests in Oregon. The rest are public, the majority of which are federal.

OLC president Stratton says these public forests are “unmanaged” and “leave trees to either die from bug infestations, competition from younger, thriftier trees, wildfire or other natural disasters.”

“The only option that does not guarantee the release of the carbon back into the atmosphere in a relatively short time is using the wood in products that will store the carbon until the product or structure is allowed to decay or burn AND replanting trees for the next generation, in other words ‘Working Forests,’” Stratton says in his email.

However, most of the carbon sequestration — 79 percent — in Oregon forests is done by those on public lands, according to the Oregon Global Warming Commission. That could be because trees on federal land sequester carbon almost four times longer on average than trees in private forests.

“The evidence is that significant amounts of carbon are lost at each stage in timber harvest and processing into wood products, and in decomposition at the end of useful product life,” the commission says. “Meanwhile, trees remaining in forests are actively withdrawing carbon from the atmosphere. The forest stores and conserves carbon more effectively and for longer periods of time than do most products derived from harvested trees.”

Harmon says the best way to sequester carbon is to stop harvesting entirely, but that “ignores that people need wood and they use wood,” he says, which isn’t practical.

He adds that the best option right now is to find a forest management system both the timber industry and conservationists can live with, and then look for ways to improve it.

“Once you’ve got a system that you want in a particular place,” Harmon says, “then you can start thinking about, ‘Well, how will I manipulate the system to store more carbon and still meet my primary goal?’”

Gonzales and Oregon Wild Western Oregon field coordinator Chandra LeGue say that is why the nonprofit is holding the rally outside the conference.

“A lot of people within the timber industry don’t ever really get an opportunity to hear the straight science without the industry spin on it,” Gonzales says.

What Oregon Wild advocates for is longer intervals between harvests and cutting down fewer trees in each rotation, which would allow Oregon forests to store more carbon for longer periods of time. 

Forests on private lands are harvested every 45 years, on average, according to the Oregon Global Warming Commission. But Oregon forest carbon sequestration peaks at between 80 to 125 years, another OSU study says.

Oregon Wild says that students also attend OLC, and the group picked the time specifically to coincide with when many schools will be attending.

“I’m trying to really make sure the students have the opportunity to see that there’s an alternative set of information to what they’re going to hear at the logging conference,” Gonzales adds.

At the rally, there will be a conversation tent where people can ask questions and talk to climate activists, as well as a tent with cookies and beverages.

The New Green Deal(s)

The logging conference and rally come during the Oregon Legislature’s short session, during which Oregon Democrats have presented a new cap-and-trade bill.

Senate Bill 1530 would set a cap for total greenhouse gas emissions allowed per year and allow businesses to buy and sell carbon credits to offset their emissions beginning in 2022. The bill would regulate emissions released by natural gas, imported fossil fuels and electric companies, without affecting logging companies.

That hasn’t stopped Timber Unity, an Oregon political action committee and advocacy group that is directed and partially funded by the CEO of Stimson Lumber, from protesting the bill. Its supporters held a Feb. 6 rally with a fleet of log trucks in Salem.

“Cap and trade is nothing more than a tax,” says Todd Stoffel, vice president of Timber Unity. He adds that the bill will raise the cost of gas and energy, which will in turn increase costs for loggers.

Stoffel will be speaking at OLC at a panel called “Your Voice and Vote Counts” about getting the vote out in rural Oregon.

In June 2019, Senate Republicans walked out over a similar carbon-cap bill to prevent a quorum, and the bill died. Republicans have threatened to walk out again if SB 1530 is put to a vote.

Timber Unity helped orchestrate last year’s walkouts through fundraising and rallies. 

Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger, whose office said his schedule was too full when Eugene Weekly requested an interview, says in a press release: “The Democrats are forcing the issue of cap and trade, an economically disastrous bill that promises increased fuel costs for all Oregonians, while simultaneously giving unlimited power to unelected bureaucrats, who will be exempt from transparency and oversight through public records requests.”

Rep. Marty Wilde, a Democrat who represents central Lane and Linn counties, says that “passing cap and trade would be a tremendous success.”

But if Republicans do walk out on the bill, “everything dies,” he says. “There is effectively no chance that we would pass any significant legislation at that point.”

He continues, “I just see a lot of legislation that would pretty much automatically die if they, they walk out.”

“Frankly, I hope they don’t,” Wilde says. “But if they leave, I mean I hope the voters take that into account when they vote.”

As of press time SB 1530 was still in a Senate committee, and a copy of the bill was introduced in the House in order to give Republicans a chance to read it. Nonetheless, Republicans did not show up to a Feb. 18 evening floor session in the House after the bill was introduced. 

Media reports deemed it “the first walk out” of the session.

A new agreement announced Feb. 10 between the timber industry and Oregon conservationists may throw a wrench into future walkouts.

Highlights from the deal include a 50-foot buffer around streams for aerial spray and real-time notification of pesticide application for neighbors of the land being sprayed. The agreement must be passed by the Legislature during this short session, which ends March 7. Otherwise the deal expires. It does not directly affect the cap-and-trade bill.

The Memorandum of Understanding was signed by representatives of 26 timber industry and conservationist groups — including Oregon Wild.

 “It’s a positive step forward towards reform,” LeGue of Oregon Wild says, adding that the science is in their favor. “It sets up this process for what I think could be significant gains,” she says.

Though Timber Unity VP Stoffel says he wasn’t involved in the agreement, the PAC called it a truce that was the “best possible outcome” in a Facebook post.

The agreement was designed to end the costly battles to put competing initiatives on the 2020 ballot. Environmental groups petitioned for two sets of initiatives and timber industry representatives submitted their own set, but Oregon Secretary of State Beverly Clarno rejected all of them for not complying with the Oregon Constitution. Both sides appealed the decisions.

As part of the deal, both parties must withdraw all pending litigation except the first set of petitions submitted by the environmental groups, as they are pending in the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Some aren’t happy about the compromise.

Gonzales resigned from Oregon Wild the Friday before the agreement was made public in protest of what he calls the “protest penalty” — a presumptive fine for anyone caught intentionally interfering with a helicopter spraying pesticide of $1,000 for first offenders and $5,000 for any subsequent offenses. He says the language of the provision is vague, and he’s concerned that simply documenting the pesticide sprays could result in a fine he can’t fight.

“I’m very unsupportive and supportive of the environmental measures that they agree to, which I think are grossly inadequate,” he says. He noted that the buffer zones required in the MOU are only a fraction of the 500 feet they were seeking in the initiatives they put forth.

LeGue says she understands the frustrations. “Any time a compromise is hammered out, nobody gets everything that they want,” she says.

But she says there was no guarantee that a ballot initiative, which is expensive and unpredictable, would have passed, and there was a possibility that the timber industry’s initiative would pass too.

“We’re getting something that is assured in the short term, and a process for looking to make further changes,” she says. And if the MOU doesn’t pass through the Legislature, they will likely go forward with the initiative process.

Oregon Republicans aren’t thrilled with it either. Baertschiger says in a press release that the new agreement between the timber industry and conservationists will make it harder to protest the new cap-and-trade bill.

“The corporate timber industry sold out to the Democratic supermajority, hurting small timber businesses in the process, and have undermined all past and future efforts by the Senate Republicans to address cap and trade,” Baertschiger says in another press release. “Cap and trade needs to go to the ballot. Let the people decide.”

Wilde also thinks the MOU will improve the chances of cap and trade passing, adding that he hopes the Republicans stay and work together to pass the bill with bipartisan support.

But Gonzales — who does not support the cap-and-trade bill, which he calls very “moderate” — says he thinks the agreement may make it harder.

“I think this will probably be used as an excuse to not pass cap and trade,” he says. “They can pass this bill one day and walk out on cap and trade the next day.”

Ultimately, neither the cap-and-trade debate nor the new agreement will stop the OLC or the rally from going forward. In light of his recent departure, Gonzales hasn’t decided if he’s attending the rally himself, but he is continuing to help plan it and says he thinks the attention on environmental causes from the agreement could help the rally.

“We want to be able to engage the industry and the supporters with smiles on our face, and science in our mouths,” Gonzales says. “We can resist the misinformation of the industry without it being an unpleasant situation.”

The Oregon Logging Conference is Thursday, Feb. 20, to Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Lane County Fairgrounds, 796 W. 13th Avenue in Eugene. The Climate Truth rally is 10 am Friday, Feb. 21, outside the conference, at 13th Avenue and Monroe Street.

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