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The new battleground.

In the war on global warming, experts agree: Trees pack an impressive punch.

In Wisconsin's Black River State Forest, Illinois's Cache River, and Oregon's Applegate Valley, private companies, foundations, and individuals are teaming with public land-management agencies and citizen groups to plant millions of trees. But unlike industrial tree farms, which are replanted after logging to provide for future harvests, these projects are restoring damaged forest, pasture, and crop lands. They also have a larger goal: to abate the rise in greenhouse gases and temper the effects of global warming.

AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf 2000 program fosters partnerships with private companies and public agencies with a goal of planting 20 million trees for the new millennium. The effort marks a new cooperative front in the battle against global climate change. Among the numerous benefits, trees absorb carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) and store it in their biomass - wood, bark, and roots - as well as in soils. Among greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide packs the biggest punch but is also the most controllable. By restoring lands damaged by fires, floods, or poor agricultural practices, Global ReLeaf Forests also filter and clean water, protect against soil erosion, create recreational opportunities, and provide habitat for a multitude of wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.

"It's a way for companies to address the larger issue of global warming while doing something to benefit local environments," says AMERICAN FORESTS' John Falconer. Falconer connects participating companies to projects approved by AMERICAN FORESTS scientists and teams them with land-management professionals on the ground. More than 7 million trees have been planted to date, which translates directly to a reduction in the buildup of greenhouse gases* A Department of Energy report published last year indicated that in 1995 alone U.S. Global ReLeaf Forests removed 27,286 tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases - carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, methane, and others - have increased in the earth's atmosphere from an estimated 278 parts per million in preindustrial times to 356 parts per million today. The United Nations First Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto last year recognized the problem and set targets for reducing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. But countries disagree on how it should be done as well as who should do it. As a result, the Kyoto Protocol remains unratified by most countries (including the United States)*

One aspect of the Global ReLeaf effort that has made the program so successful is the opportunity it gives companies and individuals to take the initiative, regardless of government policies. Falconer calls it a "no-regrets" approach.

This year Mobil, Eddie Bauer, Triangle Pacific Flooring Group, and Deer Park Spring Water helped plant trees and restore native ecosystems in Global ReLeaf Forests across the U.S. Susan Sonnenberg, an environmental policy analyst with Mobil, sees multiple benefits from her company's involvement.

"We know planting trees has a major impact on reducing greenhouse gases," she says, "but there are so many other benefits associated with trees that it just makes good sense. It's a way we can begin addressing some of the issues raised by climate change - such as emissions of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels - and enhance the environment at the same time.

Gerry Gray, AMERICAN FORESTS' vice president for forest policy, sees partnerships like these as a way to focus attention on marginal, nonproductive lands. "These are lands that have suffered from poor agricultural management. Often they are privately owned and fall outside the budget of land-management agencies," he says. There are 116 million acres of marginal crop and pasture land in the U.S., Gray points out, and they represent a tremendous opportunity to plant trees to help reduce net carbon emissions.

"Corporations want to fund projects that have been identified as worthwhile," Gray says. "Our role is to review projects for effectiveness and then join funders with public agencies and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]."

Partnerships like these are likely to take on increasing importance in the battle against global warming as new research underscores the role of trees - as well as grass- and croplands - in sequestering atmospheric carbon. According to recent research from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, most greenhouse gases emitted in the U.S. prior to 1970 were the result of cropland conversion and management, not the burning of coal and oil.

Tom Peterson of the White House Climate Change Task Force says it is now becoming clearer how significant a role forests, grass-, and croplands play in global warming. "There are two sides to addressing the issue of greenhouse gases: reduction and sequestration," Peterson explains. "So far reduction has been commanding most of the attention. But a clear advantage of carbon sequestration by planting trees and other conservation measures is that it could be accomplished relatively quickly and yield immediate payoffs both here and abroad." Reducing worldwide energy use, as attempted through the Kyoto Protocol, he says, could be a much longer undertaking. Peterson sees projects like Global ReLeaf as an important bridge to longer-term efforts.

Eileen Claussen, director of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, agrees. "There's no question trees can make a difference in global warming," she says. "One problem with the Kyoto protocols as they stand is that the language regarding credit for tree planning and forest conservation is unclear." International representatives will meet this winter to discuss ways to clarify the protocols. In the meantime, Claussen says that with all the other known environmental benefits of trees, "there's a strong case for planting trees as part of the solution."

On the national level, Congress recently approved $200 million of a Clinton administration proposal that would spend more than $6 billion over five years on tax incentives and research to reduce the nation's emissions of greenhouse gases. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is leading efforts to include forests and agriculture in the legislation.

"There is a cost-effective, performance-based strategy for mitigating the effects of excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere," Wyden told a recent Senate committee. "It is not some brand new, manmade technology. It is nearly as old as the earth itself: abundant and healthy forests."

Wyden and others in Congress are promoting programs that would provide incentives and assistance to encourage tree planting and sensible forest management. "The bottom line," he says, "is that growing trees and properly managing our forests can be a cost-effective, win-win approach to reducing global warming that also helps expand our economy."

Interestingly, one of Senator Wyden's most persuasive arguments for planting trees as part of a national strategy for abating global warming is that a wealth of private companies and organizations are already doing it. The Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy have begun tree-planting programs, and John Falconer reports growing interest in AMERICAN FORESTS' Global ReLeaf 2000. Next year the program is scheduled to plant 1.7 million trees. At a ton of carbon removed from the atmosphere for each mature tree, that's a definitive step back from the advance of global warming.

Tim McNulty writes books, articles, and poetry from his home in Washington state.
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Title Annotation:role of trees in fighting global warming
Author:McNulty, Tim
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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