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Carbon Conundrum
Article #349 August 2023
By Bill Cook

    Carbon programs garner an increasing amount of popularity in the public eye.  However, my eye remains skeptical, but hopeful

    If (and this is a big “if”) companies are truly interested in helping to mitigate climate change, which is a noble goal, then forest carbon programs might have some value.  However, these companies were borne of “Wall Street” and “Wall Street” is not known for altruism. 
    As pools of carbon money expand, how much of that will be shared with forestowners?  I doubt that I will ever know the answer to this question.
    Rather than examining only the money trail, I tend to focus more on the advancement of healthy forests, which theoretically benefits the owners and our various publics in general.  One of the fundamental premises for carbon programs, that I hear about, have to do with storing more carbon on the stump than what a forestowner would normally do.  This margin of carbon has a price point, a portion of which is paid to forestowners. 
    I scratch my head on this.  Imagine a forest as a box, which holds a finite amount of carbon.  Once the box is filled, then no more carbon will fit.  Why not empty the box, from time to time, and store that carbon in a larger long-term warehouse?
    What is this place?  There are many, such as mass timber and lumber in buildings.  Even disposable products, after some iterations of recycling, end-up in landfills, which are other large carbon storage warehouses. 
    Once the forest box is emptied, or partially emptied (timber harvest), then the box is available to remove more carbon from the atmosphere.  Younger to middle-aged forests sequester carbon at the most rapid rates.  The box does not fill with equal rapidity.  So, once the filling of the box begins to slow, why not harvest and move that carbon to the larger carbon warehouses, which have multiple other benefits, too? 
    Do forest carbon programs adhere to this ecological protocol?  I’m not sure.  Marketeers can wrap this entire deal in a pretty package with colorful bows and ribbons.  However, with the involvement of big money, corporate America, and Wall Street engineers . . . I have my doubts.   I don’t know enough about the specifics of all the carbon programs, but then, I don’t need to see a skunk when I smell a skunk. 
    But, maybe, these programs are not skunks.  Maybe, a forestowner can be paid from a new revenue source.  Maybe, the programs will inch our atmosphere back to a healthier condition.  Solutions are needed and forests offer some of the lowest hanging fruit, with a collection of many benefits, including carbon mitigation. 
   Carbon dynamics in a forest are largely dependent upon the relative amounts of photosynthesis versus respiration.  The ratio fluctuates seasonally, and varies with many forest factors such as age, latitude, and species mix.  Younger forests usually have ratios that favor carbon storage.  Older forests slow down, sequester less carbon, and some older forests can become net carbon emitters.  And, any sort of forest is better than no forest at all.
    A forestowner will have many goals for their woodlands.  In favoring carbon, assuming the programs are run for environmental benefits more than financial benefits, the other goals are often compromised.  This compromise is true for any forest where one goal is disproportionately favored.  A fiber focus might compromise diversity.  A deer focus might compromise habitat quality.  Benign neglect might sacrifice forest health. 
    For some forestowners, the attraction of annual revenue from the forest is a bit of a siren call.  However, as Aldo Leopold so astutely observed; “And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook”.  Perhaps, bread and butter silviculture presents a better solution, both environmentally and financially. 

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TRAILER- This website was created by a consortium of forestry groups to help streamline information about forestry and coordinate forestry activities designed to benefit the family forest owner and various publics that make up our Michigan citizenry.  This website is maintained by Bill Cook, Retired Michigan State Extension Forester/Biologist.  Direct comments to cookwi@msu.edu.