Saturday, May 2, 2009

Markets for Ecological Services

See original with pictures at this link.

We are all excited that natural communities offset some of the carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels, but we have to put it all in context. We have to recall that carbon offset is only one of the thousands of ecological services performed by natural communities. I will say more about that below, but let’s start with the carbon.

Below is construction on a Hot-Lane interchange on I 495. This area used to be covered with trees. We traded trees for travel time. Everything we do is a tradeoff. We should just be sure we know what trades we are making and make them well. More on congestion pricing at this link.

Carbon is as necessary to life as oxygen. Growing plants covert carbon dioxide to biomass and release it when they decompose or respire and this cycle has been going on for billions of years. The processes have been roughly in balance. They have to be; otherwise all the carbon would have been used up billions of years ago and life on earth would have perished. This explains why a mature ecosystem absorbs little carbon dioxide. And this is the problem with offsets. An established old growth forest doesn’t remove much carbon from the atmosphere. A rapidly growing new forest soaks up a lot of carbon, and that is what we are growing now, but eventually it becomes a mature forest. In the short run, offsets can compensate for a small percentage of industrial CO2 emissions but in the long run carbon absorption will balance carbon release.

The USDA has a good online calculator for how much carbon is sequestered in various types of forests. Forests can sequester carbon in the branches, roots, soils and understory of living forests, as well as long-lived wood products (the wood that in your house will be around a long time.) Offsets will buy us some time and they are worth doing for that reason alone, but there are lots of other reasons to preserve natural lands and maintain the ecological services they provide.

Below is a clearcut. This was covered by a mixed hardwood forest and I don't know why the owner decided to slick off the trees. I don't like it, but it is not my business and this is not necessarily the end of the forest. It can be replanted or grow back naturally, unless it is coverted to other uses. By the end of the summer, this bare ground will be covered with vegetation and provide good wildlife habitat. In three years, it will be ideal bobwhite quail habitat, for example. It looks really ugly to human eyes, however.

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone

We are used to getting ecological services for free or by imposing costs on others. Economists call them externalities. Among ecological services these include things like carbon, sediment removal, water, air, biodiversity, open space and natural beauty. But it’s getting harder to get these things free and others are increasingly unwilling or unable to provide them as a public service and we are facing a tragedy of the commons.

By 2025 Virginia will probably welcome 3 million new residents and we are projected to lose a million acres of forest land to development. (When a forest is harvested, it can grow back. When it is converted to other uses, such as homes or parking lots, it is lost for a long time or essentially forever.) As our populations grow and demands increase, it becomes clearer that we have to find prices for these priceless goods. Otherwise they will continue to be wasted and abused.

Markets can handle risk, but they do less well with uncertainty. A market in ecological services requires a lot of the same things as other markets. It is harder in the ecological services market because definitions and measurements are difficult. Any measures have to be science-based and compatible with regulations. Beyond that, markets thrive when transaction costs are low; rules are clear; there are credible measures; an adequate number of buyers and sellers and – perhaps most important , trust – trust that contracts will be honored, goods and services will be more or less as represented and trust that markets will persist for a reasonable amount of time.
Below are matrure beech trees in front of a new pine forest. This is great wildlife habitat, since it combines old woods, young woods and ground vegetation.

Given the unusual nature of ecological service, the dominance of regulation and the need for a long-lived authority to define products and enforce agreements, there is a useful role for government to jump start the creation of a such a market. Section 2709 of the new Farm Bill gives the USDA the responsibility to study and foster markets for ecosystem services. In our region we also have things like the Bay Bank.

Markets are usually the best way to aggregate information, allocate resources and organize diverse needs and contributions. Now is an exciting time for ecological services markets. This is how it looks at the early stages of a market formation. There are lots of entrants, a plethora of good ideas and chaos. We have to tolerate ambiquity, while reducing it. From all this ferment I am sure solutions will come.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Ethical Land Use

Environmentalism and climate change fall near the bottom of most people’s priorities, according to a Pew Research study done a few months ago. Fewer and fewer people are calling themselves environmentalist. That information made me feel a little uneasy, but then I thought about it. I would not characterize myself as an environmentalist either. The term has changed, so that now people like me, who love nature and want to conserve it, but also want to use resources wisely, are not really part of the group anymore.

The most ardent and persistent friends of nature are hunters but they were among the first to be banished from the new understanding of the term. As a forest owner, I can stay in the group until someone asks me if I ever plan to harvest the trees and I say yes. I have thought about this topic before and written about it. Responsible stewardship is the responsible way to be. It is hard for me to understand anything else as a logical or moral position.

I was talking to a friend yesterday who mentioned the debate about whether or not clear cuts should ever be used. IMO, there is no debate. There is only trying to explain to uniformed but emotionally excited people why some types of forest ecology require clear cuts. But my friend made a good counterpoint. He said that for some people environmentalism was not really about the environment. It was a kind of aesthetic. They felt offended by signs of human management, so ironically humans had to manage very carefully to hide the signs.

That’s it. Environmentalism has become an aesthetic proposition to many of its adherents. That is why it is so popular among artists and celebrities. It allows them to satisfy their need for self expressions while seeming simultaneously to stand on the high groups of extreme altruism. And they can jet around the world attending concerts and events w/o guilt when they claim it is to help the environment.

I read about a split in the environmental movement. I don’t know if you can split something that was already in many separate parts. We should probably abandon the word.

Environmentalist may end up doing significant harm to the environment. As I read the polls, many people are just sick of the hyperbole. My observation, and all the measurements back it up, is that the U.S. environment is much cleaner than it was when I was young. Virtually every kind of pollutant we measure is less prevalent than it was. Yet we keep on getting the scary stories. Some would argue that you have to frighten people or they won’t listen. I don’t agree. We have to be truthful and realistic.

The environment requires constant protection AND management. I believe that I could grow timber sustainably on my land just about forever. It is not being used up or degraded. On the contrary, the land and the forest is healthier than it has ever been. Farmers using modern techniques can also harvest sustainably essentially forever. That doesn’t mean that we won’t use better and different techniques in the future. Sustainability doesn’t mean you don’t change and adapt. It means you can keep on going.

The thing that is most crippling for the environmental movement is a precautionary principle. It sounds prudent. Always be more careful. But if we had applied the precautionary principle we would never have electricity. It is always possible to ask questions. It sounds very wise to earnestly intone that we don’t find anything now, but we could find something we don’t know about. You can use that logic to block anything at all. I can use that as an argument not to take out the garbage. I just don’t know if there is a killer standing near the road.

The general hysteria in some environmental circles makes it more difficult to address real problems. We have real problems with fisheries. The real problem is overfishing, which can be solved by management and giving people property rights over some of the fishing stocks, as Iceland did. We have trouble with nutrient management, which can be addressed by using biosolids properly, but this is often blocked by environmental regulation. We face a problem with water availability, but places like Australia have shown the way to manage a scarce resource.

The true stewards of nature are those that work with it and in it to sustain it now and forever. Those that want to preserve it in some particular form just don’t understand its dynamism. The artists express themselves with paintings and sculpture. I suppose they can have gardens.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Environmental Value Chain

A chain is only as good as its weakest link. When making judgments, you have to look at the whole chain from start to finish. This is true in any business and it is even more crucial in environmental affairs. Some products may look very green in their current form, but are not when you consider where they are coming from or where they are going.

Wood is the most environmentally friendly building or structural product when you look at the whole ecological value chain.

Start on the ground. As a forest grows, it removes pollution from the air, keeps water clean, provides wildlife habitat and makes the world more beautiful. The production of wood is environmentally friendly. This contrasts with other materials, such as plastic, concrete or metal, all of which must be pulled from the earth and are negative in their environmental impacts during production.

Harvesting of trees requires the use of fuels and may result in pollution released into the air. Even well-managed forest harvests will impact local water quality. These are serious issues, but can be minimized. They also occur only once in many decades and are much more than compensated by the many years of beneficial growth. If you look over a thirty-five year pine rotation, it is clear that the net environmental benefits are overwhelming.

Beyond that, nothing exists in isolation. If you compare forestry to almost any other land use, forestry is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly activity. Compared to other products, the comparison is so extreme that we might actually miss it. Twenty years after a operations, a mine, quarry or oil well is still a hole in the ground unless costly reconstruction has been done.

Twenty years after a harvest a forest is … a forest with young trees growing robustly.
I write the Tree Farmer of the Year article for “Virginia Forests.” These guys have usually been in the business for years and they have pictures. I am always amazed to see the old pictures and hearing about the changes. I recall standing in a mature pine forest in Greenville County and talking to the owner about his land. He showed me an old black and white photo of his grandfather standing in the “same” grove of trees in the same spot where we were. But it was not the same. This land had been harvested TWICE since the old man stood proudly among his pines. His grandson could do the same and future generations would also have the chance to walk among the pines. That is what renewable means.

Wood is completely renewable. As I wrote earlier, renewable is even better than recyclable.

But what happens after you are done with the wood. We like to think our houses will last forever, but most won’t. Wood is easily disposed of or cycled back into the natural world. Wood can be burned as fuel. It releases CO2 at that time, but this is the same CO2 recently absorbed. Burning wood is recognized as a carbon neutral activity for that reason. If thrown away, wood decays. It doesn’t take long before yesterday’s tree is fertilizer for tomorrow’s.

This is in striking contrast to other materials. Steel can be recycled at a high energy cost. If thrown away, it will rust away after many years. Concrete also can be recycled with much effort. If thrown away it lasts pretty much forever. While it creates no particular environmental hardship, it is a form of garbage that never goes away. Plastic is the most persistent product. Some plastics will remain in the environment almost forever. Recycling is a good thing when it can be done with plastic, but it really only postpones the problem. The plastic water bottle may be turned into a carpet, but eventually it will end up in a landfill where it will stay … forever.

We need to use all sorts of materials: metal, plastic, glass, stone, concrete, various composites and wood. They are all appropriate for some uses. When you look at the total ecological value chain, wood deserves a lot of consideration.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Renewable is Even Better than Recyclable

We have to be in on the takeoff. Too often we are just there for the crash landing. A lot of policies that affect forestry are made w/o significant input from anybody who works in forestry or even understands it. I thought about this during the VFA convention and it was reinforced today when I saw this article from Scientific American. I commented under “Broadnax” but in case you don’t want to follow the link, let me sum up.

The article starts with an ecological dilemma: paper or plastic. I understand that, but then they talk about deforestation … in paper. A person involved with forestry knows this is a complicated issue. Most paper comes from pulp wood. In the U.S. these are often small trees thinned from larger forests. The thinning, as in your flower or vegetable garden, allows other plants to grow stronger and better. In the case of a forest, it also lets light reach the ground so that herbaceous plants can grow, making it a better wildlife habitat. If/when there is low demand for pulp, forest owners cannot afford to thin. This means that the forests get too thick, where they are susceptible to fire and beetle damage and where the forest floor becomes a bit of a wildlife desert.

The irony is that by NOT using paper, you may be contributing to deforestation by making forests less healthy and more prone to disease and general destruction. Ecology is a funny thing with all its counterintuitive connections and implications.
Above - there is no garden w/o a gardener.

So a lot depends on WHERE the product comes from as well as what it is made of and how that product gets to market. Wood is a carbon sink, so forestry removes carbon from the air, while (if done as it should be) providing wildlife habitat, clean water, recreation and better air quality. IF your paper or wood product comes from an American forest, you are probably NOT contributing to deforestation and may well to encouraging the growth of healthy American forests.

The concept the SciAm article handed well was the ecological chain. (They just missed some of the key links with regard to forestry. ) You have to look at the whole lifecycle of the product from the time it is mined, drilled or grown in the earth until the time it goes back. Wood does very well in this respect.

Wood is not 100% recyclable in most products. It is something better. Wood is 100% renewable.

Well, I am not exactly accurate re recyclable. While may not be recycled into other human products, wood is the ultimate recyclable material, since when it stops being a product useful for humans, it returns to the soil and fertilizes the next generation of trees. I will say more about the ecological value chain tomorrow and make some comparisons.

This connects to World-Wide-Matel