Carbon Footprints and Forest Fires

Last week while we were traveling, I read an article in the newspaper about offsetting an individual’s “carbon footprint” by planting trees. The “carbon footprint” is the amount of carbon dioxide produced by one person in one year and is measured in metric tons. There is an organization pursing that goal Plant-A-Tree-Today Foundation. I know nothing about their purpose, success, accuracy or veracity. I’m not endorsing their program or their claims as to the impact that man has on the production of carbon dioxide, but the essence of the story got me to thinking about a constant concern in the Pacific Northwest – forest fires.

Our travels took us to northwestern Montana to play golf and visit friends. There are a significant number of forest fires burning in and around the Flathead Valley and Glacier National Park. The smoke was so thick for several days that you felt like you were sitting next to a perpetual campfire. Each morning as we arose, we had to sweep the ash off of the car and while we played golf, the ash and spent embers floated down all around us. Even though the closest of the several fires was more than twenty miles away, the smoke turned the sun red and skies a gray-brown. It is a scene and a scenario repeated far too often in the Pacific Northwest and Oregon in particular- this year in the southeastern part of the state, but imminent upon the arrival of the next thunderstorm, careless camper, or negligent smoker anywhere in the state.

According to the Plant-a-tree-today Foundation, the average human being, living in one of the developed countries, produces 9.7 metric tonnes, or 9,700 kgs, of carbon dioxide annually. According to this same organization a large tree will absorb about 20.3 kgs of carbon dioxide per year. By implication, this requires about 480 trees per person in order to remain carbon neutral. The pitch of the organization is that you provide a sustained funding of a certain amount each month in order to acquire and plant a sufficient number of trees to achieve your carbon neutrality.

Now don’t get lost in whether this plant-a-tree-today foundation is a good idea or not. That is not the point of this column. The point of this column is that while every environmental organization in America is wringing its collective hands about global warming, the creation of carbon gases, and the deforestation of land by cutting, not a one of them suggests that we should do something about the mitigation or prevention of forest fires through proper management, including selective grooming and cutting of trees, in our nation’s forests. To the contrary, they are the very same people who prevent the cutting of burnt and dead timber (timber that no longer washes the atmosphere of carbon dioxide) and replanting of those forests destroyed by fire.

According to Envirozine (Environment Canada’s on line magazine) a forest fire involving primarily conifers will produce approximately 13 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide for each hectacre (2.7 acres) burned. Sen. Marie Cantwell (D-WA) stated that there were more than 9 million acres (3.6 million hectacres) of forest that burned in 2006. Another 2.6 million hectacres burned in Canada according to Envirozine. That means that forest fires in the United States and Canada produced over 80.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What is it about these people that makes them so willing to impose obligation for carbon neutrality on others but so unwilling to impose it upon nature? What is it that makes them believe that planting 480 trees per person is a good idea but cutting and replanting 7.2 million acres of burnt and dead trees annually is a bad idea? The hypocrisy of the radical environmental movement is never more obvious than when it seeks to parse a principle that should be uniform.

And the real pity of this sort of destructive behavior is not only do the annual forest fires contribute these 80.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide, but also they eliminate, seemingly permanently, those very trees that we are counting on to reduce the carbon footprint of man. What good is it to plant 480 trees per person while we allow 7.2 million acres of forests to be destroyed by fire annually and then deny the replanting that can come with harvesting burnt and dead timber?

Our trip this past week took us through Bend, Klamath Falls and Medford. The remnants of the fires that have burned in Oregon are still evident and still unplanted. Years have passed and the opportunities to neutralize the carbon footprint have passed with them.