Last year, President Biden signed executive orders focused on tackling the climate crisis and addressing long-standing inequities that have left Black and brown people across the nation bearing the brunt of the impacts of fossil fuels and the energy industry. Recently, Biden announced another executive order — this time on forests.
This would have been the perfect opportunity to put climate science and environmental justice at the forefront of this administration’s agenda on forests, but the president missed his chance. If Biden doesn’t shift his approach to forests, climate change will get worse and environmental justice communities across the rural South can expect more logging and more pollution, even if a small fraction of forests on public lands do get some added level of protection.
Forests are vital to solving the climate crisis. When left standing, they have the ability to pull massive amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere. But logging rates across the South — the world’s largest wood-producing region — have been estimated to be four times greater than logging rates in South American rainforests. Large scale clearcutting and the loss of natural forests to commercial pine plantations are contributing to carbon emissions, putting species at risk, as well as degrading forests’ ability to provide natural flood control and other protections against extreme weather events.
And now, widespread logging is accelerating to feed the fast-growing wood pellet energy industry, which chops down trees in the South, mills them into tiny pellets, and ships them overseas to be burned to generate electricity. Almost every one of the noisy, highly polluting wood pellet mills dotting the South was built in a poor, rural community of color. Neighbors struggle to breathe. And as more trees fall and climate drives more extreme rainfall events, they are repeatedly hit hardest by extreme flooding.
Most notable in this latest executive order was the president’s commitment to protect old growth and mature forests on public lands. No one would argue with the need to protect these natural treasures. However, they only account for an estimated 5 to 7 percent of our nation’s forests. This falls far short of the minimum 30 percent forest-protection target that’s needed to help solve the climate crisis.
This exclusive focus on protecting old growth and mature forests also perpetuates long-standing inequities in forest protection. These forests are mostly in the West. Environmental justice communities across the rural South also deserve swift and bold efforts to protect the region’s forests, which tend to be younger trees and are mostly on private land.
Instead of protecting Southern forests and other forests across the country, the statement from the White House announcing the executive order highlights “grants to expand markets for innovative wood products and wood energy.” Expanding these markets will generate additional demand for wood, and that will inevitably lead to more logging.
Hundreds of scientists around the world have warned that burning wood pellets to generate electricity is as bad or worse for the climate than burning coal. They also have sounded the alarm that increasing logging for wood pellets or other wood products will further degrade carbon sinks and natural storm protection. Wood pellet mills, disproportionately located in environmental justice communities, emit toxic pollutants linked to serious respiratory and other health problems. Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet manufacturer, announced its intent to double production over the next five yearswith plans to build eight new wood pellet mills across the South.
Logging is by far the largest driver of forest carbon loss from our forests, responsible for five times the emissions caused by wildfire, storm damage, insects and outright forest loss combined. But logging and wood production are falsely characterized by this administration as climate solutions. meanwhile, a recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that protecting the ecological integrity of ecosystems and biodiversity is vital to mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
At the heart of what’s wrong with the Biden administration’s approach to forests seems to be this: a failure to hear the voices of environmental justice communities and scientists over the louder, richer, voices of the wood products industry and its allies.
Scientists and environmental justice leaders would tell the administration that it’s not too late to chart a better course for our nation’s forests and communities. We need an immediate halt to government support for wood energy markets, and a bold and aggressive agenda to protect at least 30 percent of our forests — including not just old growth and mature forests on public lands, but also forests that are home to environmental justice communities hard hit by industrial logging in the South.
Through greater protection of forests from industrial logging, we can make the world greener, cleaner and safer. And we can help restore healthy air, flood protection and other benefits to rural communities of color, who for too long have borne more than their fair share of the cost of pollution and forest destruction from industrial logging.
Danna Smith is the executive director of Dogwood Alliancea group that works to protect forests in the Southern US