Is This True? Is Leaving Things Alone Always Best For Climate? Statements Around the 30 x 30 Initiative

On the trail to Laurel Falls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in July 2019/NPS

Jon posted this quote from one person’s opinion about the George Washington National Forest and 30 x30. But I have seen this same concept stated in other places that I can’t locate right now.

By protection, I mean minimizing human activity in order to allow for “as natural a state as possible”. This approach is termed proforestation, letting standing forests grow and develop in complexity to their natural old growth state; such restoration is also the most effective way to counter climate change.

I think it’s what was behind many of the 20th century federal lands debates (the LTA concept-leaving things alone, except for preferred forms of recreation, is best for the environment). Still, given the narrative that Anthropogenic Global Warming is the primary environmental problem of the day (crisis), reasonable people have to wonder whether this “LTA is best” remains a true statement. You’ll notice that in the Biden Admin press release on 30×30, it mentions the extinction crisis but doesn’t state that “protecting” areas (to be defined by DOI?) will help with climate change.

So it will be interesting to see how this plays out in various news stories, op-eds and so on. But we can think of various situations in which LTA does not seem to be the best for action on reducing GHGs.

1. Build-out of infrastructure for solar and wind, with accompanying transmission; also pipelines for carbon capture.

2. Leaving fires alone can lead to deforestation and less carbon being soaked up, see Hayman Fire for example.  It’s possible that planting is OK in “protected” areas, but if you’re going for Wilderness, believe it or not, I recall at one time folks said you couldn’t plant disease-resistant whitebark pine in Wilderness because it was unnatural. Maybe it’s the breeding (so they survive) and not the planting that makes it unnatural? Would fuel treatments be OK in these protected areas, or just prescribed burning, or ??  Or maybe suppression shouldn’t occur either.   So many questions and complexities, that are not ultimately not scientific in nature.- because protection is an abstraction, and abstractions are usually defined by … those with privilege.

3. No drilling or mining of fossil fuels will likely lead to increased development on private lands and/or more imports (that’s what decreasing supply without changing demand has historically done.  Thank you economists!). Now, logically, transporting imports from another country may lead to more use of fossil fuels in the act of transporting.

Can you think of other situations in which “leaving things alone except for currently preferred forms of recreation” is not best for climate?

Sidepoint: it is conceivable that any recreation form that requires gas-powered or electricity sourced from fossil fuel energy (a high proportion of most electric grids nowadays), is also not good for the climate. However, I don’t see anyone proposing a regulation that all skiers at FS permitted ski areas arrive only by certified carbon-free vehicles.

My other point about 30×30 is that if we can’t meet our own energy and minerals needs from our own land because we are “protecting” it.. are we merely exporting the impacts on biodiversity to somewhere else, whose biodiversity is just as desirable (or possibly more, for whatever reasons that specialists in the various kinds of biodiversity can think up) as our own?

And of course, there are arguments that for social justice toward our own working classes that we would not want to export jobs. Then there’s the same old forest products argument that asks if the other country’s labor and environmental protections are as good as ours? But we still import wood from Canada, a friendly and benign ally with similar rules.  To say it gently,  our relations with countries such as China, Russia, the Saudis and so on are more geopolitically complex. Not to speak of the concept of balance of trade being a thing worthy of consideration somewhere in all this.

The logical thing to do IMHO seem to be to start with the new infrastructure, and then see what’s left to put into protection. Otherwise, it seems a bit disorganized – especially for solutions to the #1 problem and crisis in the world, that we need to act on urgently.  On the other hand, various scientists and folks like the TNC say that some places are more worth protecting that others. Hopefully, all these concerns will line up- but right now there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to do that. Or maybe the Biden Admin will be more welcoming of nuclear because more land could be “protected?” Will be interesting to watch.

Another thought, if the US becomes a “park” country, at the expense of other countries becoming “industrial zone” countries, is that a good thing? For whom? What is the net impact on the environment?

Anyway, it seems to me that some people see 30 x 30 as just another opportunity to restate “LTA is best,” with “besides, it’s the best thing for climate” perhaps, as a rhetorical flourish more than a statement of reality.

22 thoughts on “Is This True? Is Leaving Things Alone Always Best For Climate? Statements Around the 30 x 30 Initiative”

  1. Unfortunately, sharon, you missed the big picture.

    And that is “too many people”. How is it, you think, that not just the US, but the world, can “correct” for overpopulation, and subsequent overconsumption, without providing strong push back – resistance (or very lucrative, but costly incentives) to constant growth, constant land consumption, constant breeding?

    Oh, and additionally, you make a serious misstatement, when you place Canada (and all of its provinces) in the same regulatory world as the US. there is NO similarity of rules, there is NO public process like NEPA, there is NO ESA, and on and on. You speak NOT of which you know!

    • Ah there it is. And others on this site mocked me the last time I pointed out the fundamental anti-humanism of modern environmentalism. You just can’t let your malthusian myths die can you?

      • Patrick, to be fair, Brian is only one person and different parts of the modern environmental movement may have fundamentally different worldviews. Like I don’t see TNC as anti-human. But it’s definitely worth exploring where exactly this kind of misanthropy plays out.. with which groups and on which issues. Where it occurs, and perhaps more interesting, where it is absent.

        • Toby, there’s a nice history in Shellenberger’s book Apocalypse Never, but I couldn’t copy that much out of the book, for those interested it’s on pages 230 to 245 in my hardcover edition. People say really mean things about Shellenberger (and I don’t always agree with him) but he raises some important points.

          The basic point is that ever since Malthus and his 1798 book, some folks have been telling us we are running out of things and the system is on the verge of collapse. One reason has been because people “overbreed”.. particularly poor people, Irish, and Indians, later in the history of the idea. Mostly poor people in other countries (than rich ones).

          As Mark Sagoff lays out in this article
          This concept changed from specific resources to “systems”, or in my lingo from “measurable things” to “some people’s ideas about things”.

          Not to be excessively philosophical here but predictions are not “science”… for example, you can predict that there will be a pandemic, but no scientist knows exactly how it will all play out, depending on initial conditions (which virus? where?) and how people deal with it. So when people say “the BAS” tells us, folks like me will say “you’ve been wrong so many times already, why would I believe you this time?” It seems like more of a philosophical orientation with a scientific veneer.

    • Brian, I think there’s quite a bit of history about (some) environmental folks being for population control. As I recall this ran into issues with autonomy (and also runs into immigration a bit). I think the solution everyone agreed on was more education for women around the world. Of course, in some places, it is argued that there aren’t enough people and they will need to be imported from elsewhere. My point being that it’s fairly complex.

      I would argue that I do know something about one thing- sustainable forest management and the CSA standards. At one time I looked into the nitty gritty of them to compare the approach with NFMA planning. They do actually have public processes. It is true that Canadians may not have adopted our lawyer-led regulatory approaches (do I remember a paper by George Hoberg on this?) but my point was about forest practices on the ground, not about the regulatory schema.

  2. Hi Sharon,

    There are several scientific analyses that show that leaving the forests vs. various management schemes to reduce fuels & fire risk is the best approach to help mitigate climate change:

    Mitchell et al. (2009) describes tradeoffs for managing for carbon storage (a valid goal in any forest management action) versus fuels reduction. That study suggests that, with the exception of some xeric ecosystems, “fuel reduction treatments should be forgone if forest ecosystems are to provide maximal amelioration of atmospheric CO2 over the next 100 years.” Id. at 653.

    Depro et al., 2007, found that eliminating logging would result in massive increases in Carbon sequestration. “Our analysis found that a “no timber harvest” scenario eliminating harvests on public lands would result in an annual increase of 17–29 million metric tons of carbon (MMTC) per year between 2010 and 2050—as much as a 43% increase over current sequestration levels on public timberlands and would offset up to 1.5% of total U.S. GHG emissions.” (Depro et al., 2007 abstract)

    Moreover, Mitchell et al. (2009) found the amount of net carbon released into the atmosphere, on an acreage basis with small diameter thinning for fuel reduction (if used for biomass), puts more carbon into the atmosphere than an average fire, on an acreage basis:

    “Our simulations indicate that fuel reduction treatments in these ecosystems consistently reduced fire severity. However, reducing the fraction by which C is lost in a wildfire requires the removal of a much greater amount of C, since most of the C stored in forest biomass (stem wood, branches, coarse woody debris) remains unconsumed even by high-severity wildfires. For this reason, all of the fuel reduction treatments simulated for the west Cascades and Coast Range ecosystems as well as most of the treatments simulated for the east Cascades resulted in a reduced mean stand C storage. One suggested method of compensating for such losses in C storage is to utilize C harvested in fuel reduction treatments as biofuels. Our analysis indicates that this will not be an effective strategy in the west Cascades and Coast Range over the next 100 years.”

    Mitchell et al., 2009 abstract.

    • Of course, site-specific data only leads to site-specific conclusions. Wanting a one-size-fits-all ‘solution’ for all conditions is a ridiculous idea. Everything must be factored in and not just ‘climate change’ stuff. I would put forest health ahead of ‘climate change’. Additionally, fire safety is important enough to not exclude from analysis. If an analysis only covers carbon storage, then it should be given appropriate attention as an incomplete study.

  3. This article reminds of back in the day when travel agencies complained that the internet was a threat to their outdated sensibilities. Also kind of reminds me of newspapers complaining that craigslist was unfairly taking away their primary revenue source.

    And in terms of outcomes, it reminds me of how the fossil fuel industry was briefly successful at convincing everyone with fuzzy accounting that natural gas is the cleanest burning of all fuels and the #1 best fossil fuel alternative. Truth is, it’s not and states all over the country are now seeking to ban natural gas when it comes to building new homes.

    In other words USFS has been slowly getting out of the unsustainable mono-crop tree farming business for decades and all the USFS workers who’s job depends on tree farming are going to be in denial about it till the bitter end.

    Truth is multiple-use forest management doesn’t exist if industrial forestry diminishes/eliminates all other uses/values and employees can try to ride out the lie that it’s not that bad, but the best available science again and again leads us in the opposite direction as all the irresponsible land abuse we’ve seen on federal lands for a long time.

    • Trollish conspiracy theories are soooooo 2020. *eyeroll*

      “Industrial forestry” knows no diameter limits and will clearcut if it enhances the bottom line. Sierra Nevada National Forests haven’t done “industrial forestry” since 1993. The only plantations are from intense wildfires, which are extremely costly, when you add it all up (suppression costs are dwarfed by the post-fire costs). Sadly, Congress won’t fund more beneficial management, especially when there is no commercial product result.

  4. Deane, we’re talking about mechanical fuels treatments and prescribed fire, right? And you do realize that in many areas of the country those trees aren’t harvested for products? I just don’t get your connection between fuel treatments and “unsustainable mono-crop tree farming.”

  5. It’s worth pointing out again here that if you actually delve into the literature around 30×30, where National Forests are concerned, there is only one type of land management that is considered protected–Wilderness (and perhaps Special Management Areas that are basically equivalent to Wilderness). General National Forest land, and even Inventoried Roadless Areas, are all considered GAP level 3, while only GAP levels 1 and 2 are considered ‘protected.’ As applied to National Forests, 30×30 therefore means only one thing–massive new Wilderness designations that kick out all other existing uses and prevent any kind of active forest management, prescribed burns, thinning, etc.

    Diane said above that “multiple-use forest management doesn’t exist if industrial forestry diminishes/eliminates all other uses/values”. I would argue that multiple-use forest management doesn’t exist if Wilderness diminishes/eliminates all other uses/values.

  6. I would like to see a study on the results of the Northwest Forest Plan after 27 years. I think it would show that “protecting” land doesn’t always have the results some assume it would.


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