23. Old-Growth Forests
Old-growth forests provide a lot of services that are unique from their younger counterparts, from increased carbon storage capabilities to homes for several endangered species. And on Wednesday, the United States announced the rollback of a rule preventing commercial logging and road construction in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, opening up 9.3 million acres of land in the United States’ largest carbon sink to logging and development. Unfortunately, the Tongass is one of many old-growth forests facing these types of threats. Today, we’ll cover why old-growth forests are important, what issues they face, and where we can go from here. With special guest Dr. Michael Dietze: Associate Professor of Earth & Environment at Boston University.
After dipping our toes in the water with a few mentions of deforestation and forests in season 1, I was excited for the chance to talk forests more directly, and this topic turned out to be really fascinating. I was very familiar with the reasons why forests were being cut down, but knew nothing about the fact that forests are trending younger, let alone the impacts that carries. Knowing how much we talk about planting trees and “reforestation,” it was striking to learn that not only is that not an ideal scenario for an old-growth forest, but it wouldn’t even come close to replacing it. A young forest simply can’t sustain the same carbon storage and habitats.
It was great to chat with Professor Dietze, who I took an environmental modeling class with two years ago. I was very excited to see his name on the Science Magazine paper revealing these findings, and it was fun to discuss some of the real world applications of concepts I learned in that class. Environmental modeling is really complicated and it took me a while to wrap my head around the very basics, but Professor Dietze explains his work really well, both on old-growth forests and more broadly.
I also had no idea how much timber was subsidized, which really blew this issue open for me. In that sense, even just making logging a free market could have a positive impact. But given how quickly we’re losing old-growth forests, there is a lot to do, and given how global of an issue this is, it seems like international cooperation will be paramount. Though it’s not flawless, I am very curious to see if programs like REDD+ turn out successful, and what adjustments they make moving forward. Creating economic incentive for countries to maintain forest seems clever. Though I doubt there would be political will (see UNEP episode), I would be interested to see if extending the program to all countries with old-growth forests would make an impact—seeing the recent U.S. decision on the Tongass, I wonder if some money would have swayed things…
Enjoy today’s episode, and be sure to vote!