Op/Ed

Climate Matters: As climate crisis rages, Green Mt. National Forest misses the boat

HOWARD JENNINGS

A year ago, the Green Mountain National Forest staff (GMNF) requested public comments on a proposal for logging almost 12,000 acres at Telephone Gap east of Pittsford. The project has now advanced to the Environmental Assessment stage of approval, and we have a chance to comment again by midnight April 8 (details below). 

It is widely understood that cutting mature forests is bad for the climate. Last year the public responded with over 1,300 comments against logging and less than 100 in favor. This was a record. In addition, petitions were circulated by groups around the country who were concerned about the Telephone Gap project; and over 13,000 signatures against the logging were submitted to the GMNF. Clearly the public is very concerned about climate change and the role of logging in accelerating it. 

Apparently the GMNF is not, based on the very minimal changes made in this new round of the proposal. They still propose logging almost 12,000 acres — in aggregate an area larger than the city of Burlington. Most of the stands proposed for cutting are 80 to 150 years old. 

The Save Public Forests coalition, of which I am a member, believes we must stop it. The GMNF staff are good, dedicated professionals who care deeply about our forests, but they are trapped in a box of outmoded science, backward policies and perverse incentives that compel them to do the wrong thing for climate change now, when we critically need them to do the right thing.

In addition to their climate benefits, our old forests also are very complex ecosystems that support a huge variety of species of plants and animals, many of which are under threat and some nearing extinction. The Forest Plan talks about promoting biodiversity through cutting older forests to create early successional habitat, but this is mostly for the benefit of non-endangered game species for hunting, not true biodiversity. The world is in the beginning of the sixth mass global extinction, this one largely human-induced, and we are threatening the very food chain of which we are a part. Intact forests also provide critical flood control and protect our water quality.

The importance of old forests in stopping climate change

I appreciate the thinking behind some positive tweaks of the GMNF proposal, but these are just tweaks, and they leave the vast amount of logging of older forests in the proposal. Old and mature forests are unequivocally one of our best weapons in slowing climate change. Globally forests take out of the air about 30% of the worldwide carbon emissions that cause climate change. A 2023 study led by a forest carbon expert, who spent a career at the U.S. Forest Service, found that northeastern United States forests could double their stored carbon by 2100 if we simply allowed them to grow older. We can’t win the climate fight if we keep cutting them down. When we cut a forest, the areas that are logged flip from being huge carbon sinks to sources of carbon released to the atmosphere for about 20 years after cutting. 

Even then the small amount of carbon taken up by the young trees is nothing compared to what was sequestered by the huge old trees, and they won’t catch up for many decades. Watch this 8-minute PBS Terra Weathered video about the science (click or type into your browser): tinyurl.com/forest-Carbon.

In 2022 President Biden signed an executive order directing the U.S. Forest Service to protect mature and old growth forests to mitigate climate change. The Forest Service is the largest steward of old and mature forests in the country; but instead of conserving them, they are accelerating logging and climate change, counter to the executive order. Certainly, we need wood products, but we should not be cutting more than our needs. Nationwide and in Vermont we are cutting more timber than we use and exporting much of it to other countries. We also burn much for biomass electricity generation, which is more polluting than coal, not carbon neutral as claimed. Our position at Save Public Forests is that we should preserve our forests on public land and let the private forests cover the need for timber.

Climate crisis more urgent than ever

Scientists have been warning for decades that we would face a “tipping point” of possibly no return if the global average temperature exceeded 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above the baseline. In 2022 it was projected we might exceed that as early as 2030 — a scary eight years away then. Last year was the hottest on record and we nearly passed 1.5 degrees! In 2024 it is entirely likely we will pass that point. We won’t all die if we do, but the worldwide and local damage will be huge, and it will be much harder and more expensive to bring it down if we overshoot 1.5. Here is an ominous PBS Terra Weathered video about tipping points. tinyurl.com/36mztmta (click or type into your browser). This is not an abstraction or a future event. It is affecting millions of people globally, nationally, locally and personally. My grandson Arlo, who is now three, and all our young people, will live in an increasingly degraded world. Here are some examples of what that means.

Globally the UN says that as many as 100 million people will need to migrate to escape flooding and untenable conditions in the very near future. In the Southwestern U.S., drought and reduced river flow are threatening water supplies, crops and whole cities. At the current rate of depletion, in five years the Lake Powell water reservoir above the Grand Canyon, will be so low it will be unable to provide water or electricity to much of the surrounding region. That will be crippling to regional economies and have ripple effects for the U.S. economy. People are already losing their homes and their life savings. 

Ironically, as the land gets hotter and drier, the atmosphere becomes loaded with moisture (atmospheric rivers) and dumps it periodically in catastrophic floods such as we saw in Vermont last summer and the winter before in California. Wildfires in the West Coast and Canada blanketed much of our country in harmful, lung burning smoke. 

The insurance industry is struggling with mounting losses from fires and hurricanes, and many insurers are pulling out of California and Florida and other states. My own insurance agent warns that this will be a growing crisis everywhere, as companies struggle to survive and refuse to insure properties or deny losses. The economic consequences of this are mind-boggling.

We are beyond the 11th hour in the climate crisis, and every sector of our economy must do its part to avoid disaster. Failure is unthinkable. The forestry sector is no exception, and Telephone Gap is where we must draw the line in Vermont.

Please join this climate fight! For the sake of our young people, failure is not an option.

—————

Here is what the GMNF proposes and the action you can take:

As required under the National Environmental Policy Act the GMNF Environmental Assessment has put forth alternatives:

Alternative A – Do nothing. Save Public Forests believes the GMNF should choose this alternative and put Telephone Gap on hold at least until early 2025, when the US Forest Service will do a nationwide Forest Plan amendment process. That will update agency stewardship of mature and old-growth forests, spurred by President Biden’s Executive Order. The current GMNF Plan that Telephone Gap is based on was done in 2006 before much of the current best science on climate and forests had been done. We strongly support Alternative A.

Alternative B – The Modified Proposed Action preferred by GMNF drops 41 acres of proposed logging identified as “old forest” by Vermont Fish and Wildlife. This is a positive tweak but not meaningful against almost 12,000 acres, so we reject this alternative.

Alternative C would drop 661-acres that were identified with “late-successional” characteristics, but this is not in the Proposed Action.

Alternative D proposes to reduce harvest intensity and the amount of road construction to lower the fossil-fuel impact of logging operations.

We applaud the concepts considered in both alternative C and D, but these changes are only being considered across a relatively small portion of the project area and are not incorporated into the Modified Proposed Action preferred by GMNF.

Three things you can do by Monday April 8 at midnight (eclipse day):

1. Submit an official comment tinyurl.com/m8uyf5ye (even a couple of sentences) expressing your feelings on the alternatives above.

2. Sign our Petition. tinyurl.com/ye4fuk5v This is less official but still very meaningful.

3. Call or write our Senators and Representative. This is a federal matter, and they want to know how we feel.

• Rep. Becca Balint: 202-225-4115, balint.house.gov/contact.

• Sen. Bernie Sanders: 202-224-5141, sanders.senate.gov/contact/contact-form.

• Sen. Peter Welch: 202-224-4242, welch.senate.gov/email-peter.

Please join this climate fight! For the sake of our young people, failure is not an option.

Bristol resident Howard Jennings is the former research director of Mobility Lab, a transportation think tank in Virginia. He is now volunteering with Save Public Forests, a collective effort of scientists, researchers, ecologists and individuals from many organizations seeking practical, science-based solutions to climate change, forest degradation and the biodiversity crisis.

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