Forestry expert sees credits for the trees

OROFINO, Idaho - For years, Jay O'Laughlin and research associates at the University of Idaho talked about carbon sequestration. To the outside world, it might have seemed like one of those high academic subjects with no application in the "real world."

But then "global warming" and "climate change" became part of the everyday vocabulary, and O'Laughlin found himself taking the show on the road. The head of Idaho's Policy Analysis Group spoke to more than 100 agricultural landowners and forest managers at a carbon credit workshop recently.

"Payments for carbon management might sound like 'globaloney' to some, but there's a middle ground, and I'm very glad for that," said the longtime forest resources professor. "We are seeing the greening of our energy and forests have a big role to play."

For O'Laughlin, current carbon markets offer a triple win for forest owners and managers. Not only are forests now considered key for emerging woody biomass markets, but thinning forests to take out biomass aids forest health and wildfire concerns. This in turn contributes to healthier rural economies. There's a bonus, as well, O'Laughlin said, and that is the carbon credits furnished by responsible forestry practices.

"While trees are growing, you can get paid for carbon storage, and you can set things up to do that," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't harvest them later."

Forests can either be a carbon "sink" or a source of atmospheric carbon, O'Laughlin said, noting that trees take in carbon dioxide for growth during photosynthesis, then they release carbon dioxide when they die or burn. Young forests can sequester carbon faster than old forests, but old forests can store more carbon than young ones.

When trees are harvested, carbon is extracted from the forest, but not necessarily returned quickly to the atmosphere. If trees are made into wood products, a portion of the carbon remains stored for several decades in the wood products pool or even longer in the landfill carbon pool. O'Laughlin justified wood over use of concrete and steel in building materials because of the carbon storage.

O'Laughlin also pushed wood energy over coal energy because wood stores carbon while coal emits carbon. Although wood emits carbon in making energy, its overall carbon storage offsets the emissions. Additionally, wood as a replacement for coal means a reduction in use of fossil fuels.

Interestingly enough, wood energy got a further plug in a Wall Street Journal article appearing the same day. The piece noted that a preference for wood was being considered as part of the stimulus package, with tax credits offered for installation of wood heaters.