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Symbiotic Cities Blog

December 2013

Dale Prest on the Importance of Forests as Carbon Sinks

Dec 8, 2013 2:00 PM
by Craig Applegath  |  Add Comment

Dale researches the effect that forest harvesting can have upon soil nutrients like carbon and nitrogen with the goal of developing forestry practices that can continue to provide ecosystem services that sustain ecological communities, contribute to climate change mitigation and support rural economies throughout the county. The red spruce tree (pictured above) that Dale harvested was turned into an 8”x10” timber post that forms one corner of his home in Mooseland, NS. Dale is the sixth generation to work on his family owned woodlots in NS: the first private lands in the province to be certified to the stringent environmental standard of the Forest Stewardship Council®.

By Craig Applegath


When did you first become interested in the possibility of deploying sustainably managed forests as large scale carbon sinks? 

I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t interested in forest ecology and ecosystem-based forest management. I’ve also always been aware that those managing their forests to provide habitat for wildlife, recreational and spiritual values that society appreciates were at an economic disadvantage because they were forced to compete against landowners and managers that only care about maximizing their quarterly returns. When the significance of increasing anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations really started to hit home, it seemed that creating an economic incentive for landowners and managers to manage their forests for carbon storage was a win-win for all: for the forests, responsible landowners and for a world trying to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Wasn’t former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien roundly criticized for suggesting something similar at the Kyoto Climate Talks in 1997? What has changed in thinking since then?

20 years is what has changed. We thought we had more time to deal with this problem than we did. Now we realize that we need short, medium and long term solutions, all of which need to be rolled out simultaneously. Managing forests for carbon storage is something we can start right away: it requires no technological advances, no new CO2 pipelines, no CCS plants. We’re talking about solar powered carbon capture and storage that we can start doing today.

And you? Do you think sustainably managed forests can be effectively leveraged to help realize the goal of significantly reducing atmospheric carbon concentrations? 

Unequivocally, Yes. Modeling suggests that managing forest land for carbon storage is capable of significantly reducing temperatures over the coming century. It’s a key part of the solution as a short to medium term greenhouse gas mitigation strategy that will help us buy time while we bring on the structural changes that will completely eliminate dangerous emissions of all sorts. At the same time we improve our forest ecosystems, the resiliency of forest dependent rural communities, freshwater habitats, and allow civilization to reconnect with the awe of the natural wealth that our forests hold.

Most people in the forestry industry believe that their model of clearcutting and replanting is the best way to sequester and store carbon in forests. Your research indicates just the opposite, and you have found that clear-cutting actually releases ground-stored carbon into the atmosphere. Can you tell us briefly in layman’s language what you have found? 

The majority of carbon in a forest is stored below ground in the soil as organic matter. Work out of Dr. Lisa Kellman’s lab (of which I’m a part) at St. Francis Xavier University is showing that clearcutting seems to mobilize this massive carbon sink, causing the emission of potentially tens of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide on each square kilometer of forest land clearcut. Many in the forestry industry have suggested that they sequester and store carbon in fast growing plantations. However none of them have accounted for what happens below ground in the soil, which contains more than two times as much carbon as exists in all of the live trees combined. My research suggests that, for up to 35 years following clearcutting, forest soils are a source of carbon dioxide, cancelling out any sequestration benefit from a regrowing forest.

Counter-intuitively this represents a huge opportunity: in Canada we have clearcut vast tracks of forest multiple times, reducing the carbon stored in these soils. With careful management we can put that carbon back, turning these carbon depleted soils into massive carbon sinks. This could have an enormously positive impact on global efforts to contain and reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Symbiotic Cities would arguably need to rely heavily on both rural and urban forests to maintain a supply of environmental services. Do you see any possibilities for existing suburbs to begin to substantially increase their forest cover, for example, by replacing turf-grass with indigenous forest trees and shrubs? Will it be possible to transform the eco-biology of the suburbs without evicting all of its inhabitants?

There are lots of opportunities for sub-urban environments to augment and improve the health of ecosystems within their communities. Making use of local species of grasses, shrubs and trees not only stores more carbon than do traditionally used species, but also improves wildlife habitat for local insects, birds and small mammals, improves water services like storage and filtration, and gives us the opportunity to help species migrate as the climate changes. What’s needed is a shift in aesthetic preference from homogenous, simple systems dominated by a few introduced species to an appreciation for local, diverse habitats that are based on healthy ecosystems.

I have a friend that grew up in a suburb in southern California. The city planted avocados in street mediums and along sidewalks. No one was for want of fresh avocados, even those with little disposable income. I think of this often when speaking of landscaping in suburbs.

Can urban forests play a role in carbon sequestration? 

Absolutely. Urban forests have a unique potential to serve immense value as recreational, educational and spiritual refuges in the everyday lives of millions. This public exposure ought to be leveraged to educate urban populations of the importance of forest ecosystems and on the value of forests as carbon sinks. Urban forests may not store as much carbon directly as their rural counterparts, but can be used to put forest carbon storage on the radar of the 80% of the population of Canada that lives in cities, thereby moving carbon storage up on the list of importance for forest owners and managers.

With all the bad environmental news you read, do you have any good news for us?

Despite the antediluvian actions of the Federal Government, individuals and corporations across the country are voluntarily taking responsibility for their own greenhouse gas emissions. CIBC World Markets expects China to put a national price on carbon by 2016. In my home province of Nova Scotia, we’ve reduced our use of coal by 38% in recent years primarily by bringing online wind energy. Technological advancements are getting closer and closer to eliminating altogether the need for fossil fuels. Change is not linear, and I think that we’re beginning to see that it’s actually exponential.

Thanks Dale!

More About Dale Prest:

Dale’s passion is understanding the relationship between forest management and the health of society. Dale is currently researching the long-term impacts of clearcut harvesting on forest soil carbon storage in the Acadian Forest and works with Community Forests International exploring the value of ecosystem services that sustainably managed forests return to society. We think Dale’s work is key to developing a better understanding of both how to sequester carbon in sustainably managed forests, as well as how to better understand sustainable forest management in the context of the ecosystem services production. Dale currently lives in Mooseland, NS, near where he grew up logging family owned sustainable woodlots.


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