By Jobert Poblete
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group with offices in San Francisco, filed a series of lawsuits last month challenging the state’s approval of 15 logging plans it says do not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts. But the loggers take the opposite stance, arguing that their trees capture carbon and lessen global warming.
The logging plans submitted by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) involve more than 5,000 acres of forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade regions. With 1.7 million acres in land holdings, SPI is the largest private landowner in the state and, CBD claims, the largest clear-cutting operation.
The lawsuits, which allege violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and the Forest Practice Act, represent a new line of attack against clear-cutting in California forests. They follow greenhouse gas challenges filed by CBD in August that resulted in SPI’s withdrawal and revision of three logging plans covering 1,600 acres. Previous challenges have focused on logging’s impact on endangered species, water quality, and other environmental measures.
The lawsuits come amid legislative and regulatory efforts to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The California Global Warming Solutions Act (or AB 32), which required the state to develop regulations to reduce emissions. So companies like SPI have begun to incorporate greenhouse gas analyses into plans they submit for state approval.
California Department of Forestry spokesperson Daniel Bearlant defended the approval of the SPI plans, insisting its heeded relevant environmental laws. SPI Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Mark Pawlicki called the lawsuits “groundless” and claimed that his company’s practices actually produce net carbon benefits.
“Our harvesting results in a net sequestration rate of carbon dioxide that far exceeds any emissions that might occur,” Pawlicki told us. “The people drafting the lawsuits don’t understand carbon sequestration as well as state experts who are supported by other experts. California has the most environmentally stringent laws anywhere in the world and the most environmentally knowledgeable technical experts.”
Pawlicki cited state data showing that the industry acts as a net carbon sink. “In California, forestry is the only sector that has a positive effect on air quality,” he said.
CBD disputed these claims. “There are [greenhouse gas] sources and emissions that they’re not including at all,” Brian Nowicki, CBD’s California climate policy director, told us. “And there are many accounting tricks that they are using to undercount their emissions.” Nowicki pointed specifically to SPI’s failure to account for carbon emissions from soil and from the decomposition of roots and understory vegetation.
Nowicki also accused SPI of relying on unproven assumptions and processes outside its control. For example, SPI’s logging plans assume that the carbon stored in harvested wood will continue to be stored in wood products, noting that carbon is released when wood burns or rots. SPI also discounts its emissions by the amount of carbon it expects to be stored in new growth on its managed forests.
“As a result of our forest management, we are increasing the amount of stored carbon exponentially over the amount that would be stored in trees under forestry practices that did not include the investments we make in our lands,” Pawlicki said.
But Nowicki criticized SPI’s statements as nothing but a public relations move, one that could produce financial windfalls for the company as carbon offset schemes take hold. “It’s not that they’re improving their management of the forest,” Nowicki said. “They’re only reframing and repackaging the business practices they’ve been using before.”
Mark Harmon, professor of forest science at Oregon State University, echoed CBD’s criticisms, calling SPI’s claims misleading and scientifically invalid. Harmon was quoted in CBD’s lawsuit saying: “Harvesting forests generally reduces carbon stores and results in a net release of carbon to the atmosphere.”
While the science remains unsettled, CBD claims progress. Three years ago, the organization convinced the state to conduct greenhouse gas analyses. “Now,” Nowicki said, “[we’ve] established that these analyses need to be there.”