Renewable energy and forest management can help address climate change in the West

Posted by Renee Magyar on June 20, 2014

Jim Walls testifies on the effects of climate change on dry Ponderosa Pine forests

Jim Walls testifies before the U.S. Senate, Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy

On June 3, Jim Walls, Executive Director of Lake County Resources Initiative and core partner in our Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition initiative, testified before the U.S. Senate, Environment and Public Works subcommittee on Green Jobs and the New Economy, for a hearing on the effects of climate change on forests, fishing, farming, and hunting. LCRI is dedicated to improving forest management on national forests and expanding the use of renewable energy in rural communities, and Jim shared his thoughts on the issue.

When I received the invitation from Adrian Deveny at the office of Senator Jeff Merkley, chair of the committee, to testify before the Senate subcommittee, my first thought was ‘no, I have done that a couple of other times and now someone else should get the opportunity.’ However, when Mr. Deveny told me the committee was holding the hearing to learn the impacts of climate change on forests, it piqued my interest. I strongly believe that climate change has a tremendous impact on dry Ponderosa Pine forests and the surrounding rural communities.

At one time the western U.S. had mature forests with large, widely spaced trees that were resistant to low severity fires. Now, due to decades of fire suppression and lack of forest management, uncharacteristic fires and insect outbreaks threaten the health of our forests. Much of the region has missed 7 to 10 fire return intervals – the natural cycle where lower severity fires occur over a period of years and benefit the land by controlling insects, clearing out overgrowth, and adding important nutrients to the soil. As a result, more than half of the forests are now choked with too many small young trees, or standing dead trees from insect infestation.

Beetle killed trees. Photo by Colorado State University
Beetle killed trees. Photo by Colorado State University

Climate change is compounding the problem by bringing warmer drier years. Insects are no longer curtailed by cold winters and are flourishing, and devastating vast swaths of trees. Winter snowpack levels are shrinking, and the resulting soil moisture content is low, because dense forests catch snow in their limbs where substantial evaporation occurs. Dry land and thick stands of small or dead trees add up to increasingly larger and significantly more devastating wildfire. 

Over the past decade we'’ve lost 24% of the Fremont part of the Fremont-Winema National Forest -– 100,000 acres to the Winter Rim/Toolbox fire, 350,000+ acres to Mountain Pine Beetle and just in 2012 we lost another 93,000 acres to the Barry Point Fire. This year we are facing the worst drought that anyone can remember, and we have already had the first fire of the year in May! Normally fire season doesn'’t start until late July. At this rate it will only take 3 decades before we impact the rest of the 1.5 million acre forest.

In my testimony, I suggest that national forests can deal with climate change by scaling up treatments to thin out overstocked trees and return the forest to a more natural pre-European condition that will help fires stay on the ground and not go into the crowns where it often kills the trees. This work would not only benefit the forest ecology but would also be a boon for the local economy. Creating and using thermal energy and/or biofuels from small material removed from the nearby forest can produce 75-100 new green jobs in each community that adopts the renewable biomass energy technology. 

LCRI reported on all the renewable energy that could be developed in Lake County and we discovered that we could potentially offset 93% of all fossil fuel emissions in Lake County. In areas like ours that do not have natural gas, using renewable energy is also economical and a job creator. To explore ways to adopt renewable energy across the county, LCRI organized the Lake County Renewable Energy Working Group. Lake County now has a plan to implement every kind of renewable energy except ocean wave technology. Currently Lake County is the largest solar county in Oregon with more solar arrays planned for the future.

Small scale wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass are all creating renewable energy for Lake County, Oregon
Small scale wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass are all creating renewable energy for Lake County, Oregon

Additionally in my testimony I point out that the compounded effects of forest management and climate change are not only occurring in eastern Oregon’s national forests, but extend north to Montana, east to South Dakota, and south to New Mexico. I have to wonder, what if 100 -– or 1,000, or 30,000 -– more communities like ours did something similar to adopt every kind of available renewable energy. Think of the kind of impact we could collectively have on climate change.  

Climate change is occurring and a vast majority of scientists agree, and polls indicate that both Republicans and Democrats across the nation believe climate change is real. Now it is coming out that the impacts are happening sooner than originally anticipated. We are already seeing more severe weather events, and as a result communities around the world are going to be impacted. We can’'t wait until tomorrow to address climate change. Congress needs to put aside the useless partisan politics and start working on this problem now. Climate change outcomes are so huge, it is too risky not to do something now. So why not start by doing something that is economically viable and a job creator as the first step. Renewable energy and forest management cannot solve the total problem but it is economical and ecologically correct so it is a place where we can immediately start making a difference. That is something that both sides of the aisle should be able to agree on. 

Watch the video of the hearing here. Jim’s panel begins at 1:11:00. Or download a copy of the testimony here