Habitat chopped down and stacked. This photo is in the Fall 2014/Winter 2015 Forestland Steward publication with the caption, "Debris from fire break/fuel reduction project to be used at a nearby bioenergy plant" (click photo to download the document). The destruction and burning of habitat (referred to as "fuel") like this has been rationalized as helping to sequester carbon because it presumably leads to "avoiding wildfires."
Millions of dollars are being made available from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund from the California Air Resources Board Cap and Trade Auction for habitat clearance projects that are assumed to "increase forest carbon."
The Carbon Sequestration Paradigm is based on the following presumptions:
1. Forests (and chaparral) face challenges due to climate change (drier conditions, pests, "catastrophic" wildfire). 2. We can mitigate those challenges by clearing habitat ("thinning") and reforestation (circumventing natural succession with tree farming). 3. Carbon can be taken out of the atmosphere by growing more trees, burning "biomass" (habitat) instead of fossil fuels (since "biomass" is already part of the carbon cycle), and using timber to create "long-term assets" (lumber for houses).
What's the problem with this new Carbon Sequestration Paradigm?
1. High-severity wildfires are natural events and "fuel treatments" are not necessarily able to prevent such fires. Regardless, the scale necessary to remove enough habitat on a continual basis to reduce the probability of high-severity fires is beyond our capability and would likely cause significant ecological damage.
2. Companies pay millions of dollars for Carbon credits and those credits are often used to plant trees or clear habitat. As evidenced by what happened with the tree planting effort on the Angeles National Forest after the 2009 Station Fire, there is no accountability for whether or not the trees ever survive (most didn't), just that they were planted. Similar problems are occuring with the Rancho Cuyamaca State Park "reforestation" project.
3. Clearing habitat (by burning or grinding with huge machines) releases carbon into the atmosphere. The presumption is that such clearance activities will prevent larger fires. This has never been demonstrated. Large fires are the primarily caused by drought and high winds, not "fuel" loads.
For additional information on the carbon sequestration value of chaparral and climate change, please see our Climate Change page.