Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in Food For Thought |

Hyla Woods and Climate Change

In our three family-owned forests in the northern Oregon Coast Range, our work is guided by a simple belief: “If we take care of the land—the land will take care of us.”  With climate change, we believe that “caring for the land” extends beyond our property lines to include our playing a responsible role in maintaining the climate on which life—and the success of our tiny family business—depends. While areas of uncertainty about climate change can’t be ignored, current evidence leads our family to four conclusions: 1) climate is changing at an unprecedented rate; 2) human action plays a significant role; 3) changing climate is leading to consequences that none of us can afford to ignore; and 4) forests can and must play a significant role in creating and contributing to solutions. Action is required—but what, on the scale of our little patches of forest, makes most sense?

Over the past four years, we’ve developed and been guided by, with a large dose of humility, a climate change-related action plan. It is made up of four sequential goals centered on the value of forests to climate: understanding value, maximizing value, measuring and tracking value, and finally, eventually capitalizing on value. We focus on value because while a forest’s role in climate is as old as the first forests, what is new is our evolving recognition of the climate-balancing role of forests as an important, and too often overlooked, forest value.


Our Approach

1. Learning (Understanding Value). We have so much to learn about all aspects of climate and forests that our initial focus is on both increasing our personal knowledge and encouraging and supporting our academic partners to clarify the largest areas of uncertainty and conflicting science. The stakes are too high to let politics compromise the scientific strength and validity of the foundation on which solutions must stand.

2. Stewardship Choices (Maximizing Value). Regardless of whether someone pays us to do it, we are making on-the-ground choices that both help address the problems (mitigation), and strengthen  our forests’ ability to deal with changing conditions (adaptation). On the helping side, we work to both store more carbon­—through steps such as growing older trees and leaving large wood on the ground—and burn less carbon by increasing energy efficiency and shifting to non hydrocarbon-based energy sources. Examples include processing wood-to-finished products in the forest and selling directly to end users to reduce trucking, and drying lumber in our solar powered kiln. We prepare for the anticipated impacts of climate change through ongoing experimentation with silvicultural approaches that make our forests as resilient as possible to the changes that we believe are coming. Some of our approaches include creating mixes of ages and species of trees, and maximizing biodiversity (from micro to macro)and the forests’ ability to retain water.

3. Measuring (Tracking Value). The basis for internal accountability and external credibility in the emerging carbon marketplace is having practical, reliable and affordable systems for measuring the amounts and trends in carbon in our forests.  Unfortunately, the complexity of our forests adds to the complexity—and expense—of this essential task. Because carbon is just one of a number of variables that we aim to routinely measure, we are developing a system of “rolling” forest cruises that integrate the measurement and analysis of multiple values, including wood volume and growth, diseases and invasives, and carbon.  We continue to learn and benefit from others who are leading the way in developing valid and cost effective ways to reliably measure forest carbon.

4. Being Compensated (Capitalizing on Value). Though the first question that visitors always ask about our forests and climate change is, “Are you getting paid for carbon yet?”­—followed by, “Why not?” There are three reasons why we place it as our final step: 1) we can’t sell something that we don’t yet adequately understand or reliably measure; 2) we have yet to see a proposal to sell our carbon where what we would gain is greater than what we would agree to give up; and 3) most importantly, in keeping with our opening phrase, we believe that we must first concentrate on learning what it means to take care of the land from a climate perspective before we get paid for doing it.

   We respect Aldo Leopold’s advice that “doing your bit” should come ahead of “getting your share.” We see good reasons for developing market-driven incentives, such as carbon markets.   At the same time,  we fear that if we jump too quickly to focusing on compensation at the expense of short changing our work of making stewardship changes that will make a significant difference with mitigation, we risk falling short of our responsibilities as stewards and our opportunities, as business people, to proactively shape valuable, durable markets for the values our forests provide. Yes, we actively work to make the transition from the unstable world of being a multi-value forest supported by only one revenue stream to becoming a more stable multi-value, multi-revenue stream forest, but we see work that we, and others, need to do before we get there. To guide our own thinking and to clearly communicate with those who would like to work with us to sell our carbon, we have developed a list of criteria that must be met before we would consider committing to a sale. A key criteria is that we must see evidence that the carbon market system will benefit the atmosphere’s carbon balance in real ways.

In conclusion, our answers are tentative and are far outnumbered by the unknowns—yet we’re reminded daily that this is an exciting time—and that the responsibilities and opportunities that come with owning forestland make it all the more interesting and challenging. We’re optimistic that our home region, the Pacific Northwest, will earn a reputation for leadership and for being its best self when it comes to shaping the evolving relationships between forests and climate. We believe that a key to success is being sure that the focus is as much on the “we” as on the “me.”