We know that the health and well-being of people, plants, and animals are intricately connected to our forests. Forests provide us with clean air, clean water, and natural flood control. They also pull dangerous greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. When we truly protect our forests, we protect one of our best resources for fighting climate change.
But North Carolina is a troubled place when it comes to forests. North Carolina recently became ground zero for the wood pellet export market, causing renewed public concern about clearcutting North Carolina’s forests. North Carolina’s forests must be adequately protected from destructive logging practices, especially in light of the urgent need for climate change action.
Recently, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released its North Carolina Natural and Working Lands (NWL) Action Plan. This long-awaited report is an initial roadmap for how North Carolina can utilize the state’s lands and waters as a solution to the climate emergency. North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality organized and sponsored the plan with a stakeholder group that authored sections of the report.
Dogwood Alliance was a member of the stakeholder group and participated most heavily in the sections of the report dealing with forests. The report offers a mixture of good and bad ideas, some we agree with and some that will only take us further away from true solutions to climate change. Here’s the rundown:
Protecting and Restoring Forests: Good Start, Needs Work
The Action Plan recommends that we protect one million acres and restore one million acres of forests and wetlands in the state. Two million more acres of protected and restored forests and wetlands represent a substantial amount of extra carbon being stored in the ground. If these acres are actually protected from soil-disturbing activities like logging, these actions have the potential to continually keep 186 million metric tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. That’s 24% more than the 2017 gross emissions of North Carolina.
However, how we define “protection” of forests and wetlands makes a crucial difference in the success of any carbon sequestration strategy. Did you know that only around 10% of “protected” lands in North Carolina are actually protected from most clearcut logging activities? Many “protected” lands in NC are still logged regularly to generate revenue for state and federal agencies.
Eminent scientists are calling for more drastic and permanent preservation measures. Both EO Wilson and the Center for Biological Diversity, for example, suggest that half of the world’s habitat should be set aside from human activity. By that measure, about 9 million acres of North Carolina’s forests should be preserved. With a 2-million acre target in the action plan and 3 million acres already preserved in some way, we’re falling about 4 million acres short.
Still Business As Usual: “Enhancing” NC Forests
The Action Plan encourages timber production and “business as usual” practices in NC forests.The “Enhance Forests” section, essentially written by the forest products industry, promotes and encourages an increase in manufacturing of wood products, which are the third largest contributor to carbon emissions in North Carolina. They are also point sources of pollution with disproportionate impacts to people of color.
This is what happens when you let people with economic ties to forest destruction get involved in conservation planning. While the plan calls for protecting an additional 1 million acres, no time frame for that protection is specified. NC is currently clearcutting a million acres every five years anyway. We can’t protect what we have while continuing to clearcut at such an alarming rate.
What could the alternative be? “Enhancing Forests” could be focused on investing in local economic development consistent with preserving wild forests. Instead of promoting carbon emissions and pollution, the “Enhance Forests” section could lift up marginalized communities that have suffered for decades at the hands of industrial extraction and pollution.
Carbon Markets: A Distraction From Real Solutions
The concept of a landowner getting paid for conserving carbon on their land is easy to understand. But carbon markets are complicated. Landowners need to catalog every tree, go through a third party verification, and then sell their credits in a marketplace. The scale of the operation means that only landowners who own the most land can benefit from carbon markets.
More importantly, carbon markets do nothing to address environmental justice issues in the communities where polluters are purchasing their offset credits. Carbon markets give a stamp-of-approval for local polluting and destructive activities as long as there is a promise of restoration some time in the future, somewhere else.
The Action Plan proposes a statewide carbon market that claims it would address the major barriers of upfront costs and documentation, but the plan doesn’t actually describe how. Although this proposal won’t actively harm forests, it will take away resources that could be invested in proven carbon sequestration like preserving mature forests, creating more roadless areas, and reducing the amount of logging in North Carolina. Carbon markets are a distraction, not a solution.
Taxes & NC Forest Policy
Updating The Tax Code
The Action Plan recommends updating the tax code to include more opportunities for landowners to conserve instead of logging. Historically, the tax code in North Carolina has been skewed towards helping landowners log forests — not protecting their forests for clean water, air, and other ecosystem services. The plan recommends the current “Present Use Value” tax system be updated to include tax credits for carbon sequestration and ecosystem services. These tax credits are different from carbon markets because they reward landowners without a tie to industrial pollution.
“No Net Loss” Of Forests
The Action plan encourages the state to research a “No Net Loss” policy for NC forests. A “No Net Loss” policy would help mitigate any damages incurred to forests through land use changes like development. For any land clearing project larger than 10 acres, the developer would need to get approval and also mitigate the damages by conserving a new plot of forest land. Maryland has a No Net Loss policy, and North Carolina should follow suit.
While a No Net Loss policy is a good start, there are a lot of ways that it could go wrong. We’ve seen issues with No Net Loss policies in wetlands before. For example, we know that plantations just aren’t as good as natural forests: they don’t store as much carbon, filter as much water, or hold the same levels of biodiversity. Additionally, allowing forests to be replaced miles away could lead to heavily developed areas, greenwashed with the paltry promise of tree planting elsewhere.
The Action Plan Doesn’t Go Far Enough
Creating the NC Natural and Working Lands Action Plan was very much business as usual. The stakeholder group process was set up to rely on organizations’ expertise with no input from folks who live in the rural communities where this plan is focused. Nor was there any chance for the citizens of North Carolina to comment, either digitally or in person. Every issue that we’ve highlighted above on forests has justice and quality of life implications for rural communities and communities of color.
Beyond the forests section, there are other problematic pieces of the NWL Action Plan that merit attention. In particular, there is a substantial section on biogas. This was included with a proportionally small disclaimer in the report that reads, “Pollution to waterways, odors, and public health concerns for nearby and downstream communities, including those felt disproportionately by minority populations, are the reasons for opposition to biogas production.”
The word “justice” appears nowhere in the NC Natural and Working Lands Action Plan.
The NC Natural and Working Lands Action Plan needs improvement. Many parts of the plan are still too mired in business as usual to give us the transformative change that we need. Here are the facts:
Logging forests and combating climate change do not mix.
We can’t address climate change by increasing the rate and scale of logging. We can’t address climate change by planting fake forests and hoping that they do the trick. We must protect the wild forests and wetlands that we have and not hope that we can replace them later.
Climate change needs action now, not in ten years.
We have less than a decade to address climate change. Any “solution” that relies on research or nonexistent technology is a distraction from solving climate change. We can’t wait for carbon markets. We can’t wait for trees to grow. And we can’t pretend that carbon emissions from logging don’t exist.
Climate action means just that: action.
We know that our government officials won’t do everything in their power to fight climate change. The time horizon is too broad. The threats are too vague. To solve climate change, we need to hold our leaders accountable.
While we appreciate that Governor Cooper had the foresight to initiate a policy conversation about how we can address the climate emergency, we need our government officials right here in North Carolina to take bold, meaningful action. This is where you come in: we need you to let Governor Cooper know how you feel about climate change.
This is a joint statement from Dogwood Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Dogwood Alliance mobilizes diverse voices to protect Southern Forests and communities from destructive industrial logging. For over 20 years, Dogwood Alliance has worked with diverse communities, partner organizations and decision-makers to protect Southern forests across 14 states. They do this through community and grassroots organizing, holding corporations and governments accountable, and working to conserve millions of acres of Southern forests.
The Center for Biological Diversity believes that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature — to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, they work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. They do so through science, law and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters and climate that species need to survive. They want those who come after us to inherit a world where the wild is still alive.