This is the 7th blog in our Examining Climate series, where CCJ staff members and others will be sharing their favorite (or least favorite) climate solution, looking at the benefits and the costs in the hope of sparking an honest conversation about how we address the climate crisis and keep our focus on environmental justice. This blog was written by CCJ Outreach Coordinator Kristen Locy.
Pennsylvania is not called Penn’s Woods for nothing! Our state is rich in natural resources with dense hardwood forests, in addition to our fossil fuels below the ground. According to Penn State data, Pennsylvania is the nation’s top hardwood producer. Additionally, forest-based recreation and tourism is the state’s second-largest industry. Approximately 60% of Pennsylvania’s land is forested, and 70% percent of that land is privately owned. While those do seem like large percentages of forestland, we must also remember that prior to European colonization, Pennsylvania was almost entirely forested and these forests continued to be threatened by numerous factors.
Forest fragmentation is a threat to the health of the forest ecosystem and certain species that reside there. Forests continue to be fragmented in Southwestern Pennsylvania due to many factors including industrial activity like oil and gas extraction and coal mining and residential/commercial development. Due to our globalized world, many invasive species are threatening forest ecosystems including plants like garlic mustard, insects like the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, and fungi like the Chestnut Blight. Over 100 years ago, the Chestnut Blight was introduced from East Asia to Europe and North America, completely wiping out one of the most numerous and important trees in Pennsylvania forests. In the past decade, the Emerald Ash Borer moved through Pennsylvania and has completely decimated our ash species. Beech and Hemlock are two other incredibly important “keystone species” also threatened by Beech Bark Disease and Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, respectively. Hemlock (also Pennsylvania’s state tree!) has dense evergreen foliage that helps insulate and shade forests and streams, creating unique ecosystems that cannot be replicated by another tree. Native brook trout love the cool, shady streams surrounded by Hemlock. The oldest recorded Hemlock was in Tionesta, Pennsylvania, and was at least 554 years old! However, due to human pressures and the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid, the Hemlock, once one of the most numerous species in Pennsylvania, is now listed as “near threatened”. This is all to say that Pennsylvania has very valuable forests that are also under a huge amount of pressure.
All of these pressures facing forests are inextricably intertwined between human pressure, globalization, and climate change. As our forests will only continue to face more and more pressures and stress as climate change worsens, we must protect and manage the forests we do have. Additionally, forests are considered a “carbon sink” meaning that they absorb and store carbon. After all, some of the fossil fuels getting us into this mess are just ancient forest carbon! So just as logging, forest fires, and burning fossil fuels release carbon, preserving our current forests and planting new ones will help to absorb carbon. It is also important to note the difference between conservation and sustainable forestry or management. Conservation means just protecting what is there. But as forests are facing so many unnatural pressures from climate change to invasive species, human management is an important key to help forests stay healthy. Additionally, wood products are an important part of our economy. We need wood; there is no way around it. But there is a way to do it sustainably and even help forests thrive. According to the most recent IPCC report:
The IPCC defines sustainable forest management as the stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality, and their potential to fulfill now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions at local, national and global levels. The report clearly affirms that sustainable forest management aimed at providing timber, fibre, biomass, non-timber resources and other ecosystem functions and services, can lower GHG emissions and can contribute to adaptation. Managing forests in a sustainable way can maintain or enhance forest carbon stocks and maintains forest carbon sinks. It can also prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation. This also brings socio-economic benefits. Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
An example of sustainable forestry includes “worst first” management. This means harvesting only the most unhealthy and undesirable trees such as diseased trees or non-native species. These trees may be perfectly fine for timber, but removing them is actually beneficial for the forest as a whole and will help the healthy trees thrive. This is also very important for rural communities that rely on timber; pure conservation of the forests, where trees are not harvested and forests are not managed, would harm the livelihoods of local people. You can read more about this type of management here from a wonderful Pennsylvania organization, The Foundation for Sustainable Forests. In Washington County, approximately 40% of the land is forested and 91% of that land is privately owned. This shows the influence private landowners can have on the forests they own through sustainable management.
Forests are one of Pennsylvania’s greatest assets, yet they are facing many threats. As someone who lives and grew up here, forests are what define Pennsylvania and what I love so much about the state. Sustainably managing these forests will help them adapt to climate change, mitigate climate change through storing carbon, and benefit rural communities.