A Green New Deal for Cascadia’s Forests?

The Green New Deal has become a topic of national debate in the last year. It’s widely touted as a solution, not only to runaway climate change, but also to the growing economic inequity that has been strangling our nation’s working class. This enthusiasm is encouraging, but while this vision takes shape in national conversations, we need to consider what this plan will look like on the ground in our bioregion of Cascadia; for those of us who live in the Pacific Northwest, forests must be at the heart of any Green New Deal.

Unlike theoretical tech-fixes such as Carbon Capture and Storage and seeding the ocean with iron pellets, our forests are already here, and they are already pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it safely in their wood and soil. In fact, recent studies at OSU indicate that Cascadia’s temperate rainforests are unmatched in their ability to suck up, or sequester, carbon. They pull it out of the atmosphere at a faster rate than any other forest ecosystem in the world. Forests sequestered 70% of the carbon annually emmitted in Oregon between the years 2011 and 2015.
Sadly, this healthy vision of our future is being undercut by big timber.
While the intact forests of our bioregion are a carbon solution, the logging and wood products industry is our number one carbon polluter. The Oregon Global Warming Commission reported in 2016 that the wood products sector contributed 50% more pollution than the transportation and energy sectors combined. Clearly, something is rotten in the timber industry.

If you look at the state of our forests, drive through the backcountry or catch an aerial view from a plane ride you will see a patchwork of barren moonscapes like something from a dystopian film. Private land managers have successfully transformed the awe-inspiring old growth of legend into clear-cuts, slash piles, and tree farms. This isn’t just something that we are seeing on private timberlands. Forest management is still dictated by profit margins on our public lands, with an ethos that getting the cut out and hitting board-feet quotas is more important than protecting our communities and safeguarding our futures.

As a result of this revenue focused management, less than 10% of Cascadia’s native old growth forests remain intact. Gone are the days of primordial groves with trees so huge that it took a team of loggers to fell just one. No longer can we pretend that timber is an inexhaustible resource. The 40-50 year cycles in which the industry is currently cutting and replanting produces small, weak trees, and denudes the landscape. What’s more, due to less viable timber stands and increased automation, the industry’s worker base is shrinking and logging jobs are becoming fewer.

Against this backdrop, the Green New Deal offers an opportunity for us to rethink forest management and create an alternative vision for how we relate to our forests.

What if under a Green New Deal, we can employ people to fight climate change, defend forests and create good-paying union jobs in the process? What if those currently employed to destroy our forests could instead be employed to protect them?

It’s also important to remember that a Green New Deal must offer a path to livable employment for those currently working in the industry of climate chaos. This doesn’t mean that the days of working in the woods are over — rather, it’s an opportunity for a paradigm-shift to sustainability and solidarity throughout the bioregion.

Instead of clearcutting and pulling out large carbon storing trees, let’s employ people to assist young plantations in transitioning into healthy forests. Instead of logging public lands deep in the backcountry, let’s train elite fire-rangers to use prescribed burning as a tool to manage fire and defend homes and communities. Instead of simply using forests for timber-extraction, let’s employ community members to lead hikes, mushroom forays, plant identification and ecosystem education. What could a new economy look like if we begin to value conservation, recreation and carbon storage over timber revenue?

Forests can offer so much more than just timber. Our forests provide drinking water, critical species habitat and countless opportunities for exploration, education and adventure. And they are our bioregion’s solution to climate chaos.

This vision of a workforce employed to protect Cascadia’s carbon stores is not only possible, but it is necessary. A Green New Deal for Oregon’s forests means shifting our values from profit margins to a focus on our future, and doing this right looks like green jobs in the woods for all who want them.

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