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Study identifies priority forests in Oregon for max conservation benefit

  • The coastal temperate rainforests of Oregon are important carbon storage facilities and provide 80% of the state’s drinking water.
  • A recent study is the first to combine data on drinking water sources, biodiversity, carbon storage and forest resilience to determine which forests are the highest priority for conservation.
  • Most high-priority forests are on federal lands, but only 10% are protected at the highest levels, which forbids logging and other extractive activities.
  • Protecting forests is important for carbon storage and water conservation, with the loss of forest cover shown to reduce water supplies by up to 50% compared to maintaining mature forests.

The haunting deep-green forests of Oregon are more than a backdrop for angsty teen vampires in the Twilight series. These coastal temperate rainforests on the west coast of the United States are some of the most important carbon storage facilities in the world and, at a local scale, shelter 80% of the drinking water for the state’s residents.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change is the first to determine which forests are the highest priority for conservation by analyzing data on drinking water sources, biodiversity, carbon storage and forest resilience.

“Here’s a map that shows you where’s the biggest bang for your buck and what we need to protect first,” Beverly E. Law, the study’s lead author and professor emeritus of global change biology and terrestrial systems science in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, told Mongabay. “We’ve laid out what needs to be done, where we need to start, and where we need to look first.”

Most (67%) of the high-priority forests, researchers found, are on federal lands. Some of these areas include forestlands around the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness and Elliot State Forest in the Coast Range; Eagle Cap Wilderness in the Blue Mountains; Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Klamath Mountains; and Crater Lake National Park in the Cascade Mountains.

A map of the high-priority forests for conservation in Oregon. Figure from Law et al 2022.
A highlight of some of the areas in Oregon that researchers say should be completely protected to capture carbon, preserve wildlife and safeguard water supplies. Figure from Law et al. 2022

Law said they were surprised to find that only 10% of Oregon’s forests are protected at the highest levels, those that restrict extractive activities such as mining and logging. In fact, of the 11 western U.S. states, Oregon protects the smallest percentage of its forests.

The loss of forest cover has been shown to reduce water supplies by up to half compared to maintaining mature forests. This makes forests paramount in Oregon, which relies on mountain watersheds and rivers for 80% of its drinking water supply. The study used Department of Environmental Quality data on public surface drinking water source areas across the state and found that only 9% of Oregon’s forested watersheds that provide drinking water are protected at the highest level.

“The trees do a great service by holding the water and slowing it down so that we don’t lose as much to the ocean,” Law said. “It’s really important to have the watersheds protected.”

The study also included data on the ranges of dozens of animals, including the wolverine (Gulo gulo), kit fox (Vulpes macrotis), Washington ground squirrel (Urocitellus washingtoni), Oregon spotted frog (Rana pretiosa), the endangered marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus), and the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) and Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis).

A Northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina). Image by Frank D. Lospalluto via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Wolverines (Gulo gulo) have been found in several locations in Oregon, including the high-priority Eagle Gap Wilderness. Image by Hans Veth via Unsplash (Public domain).

A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations group responsible for assessing the science related to climate change, says the next few decades are very important for taking action to stop climate change. If we fail to take action now, the report says, the environmental damage will get worse very quickly.

“Most of the attention has been pointed to places like the Amazon and rightly so, there’s an incredible amount of deforestation going [on] there,” Law said, “but the temperate rainforests and the temperate coastal forests, in general, are really important to for the U.S. to take a stab at climate change.”

One of the main actions recommended by the IPCC is to protect forests. In 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration signed an executive order recognizing the importance of mature forests and calling for their protection across the United States.

Aerial view of Wasson Lake in the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness, Oregon, photographed outside the wilderness boundary on October 2019. Photo by Greg Shine/Bureau of Land Management via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Logging has historically been and continues to be an important part of Oregon’s economy. In 2022, logging firms employed 9,041 workers statewide. However, because most of the high-priority conservation areas for Oregon forests are on public lands, conserving them would not affect the private lands held by logging companies.

“We squandered 40 years by not doing anything about climate change … It’s just getting worse and worse,” Law said. “And here we have solutions. It’s [decision-makers’] turn to do their jobs and get these areas protected because they are being cut even as we speak.”

Citation:

Law, B. E., Berner, L. T., Mildrexler, D. J., Bloemers, R. O., & Ripple, W. J. (2022). Strategic reserves in Oregon’s forests for biodiversity, water, and carbon to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change5. doi:10.3389/ffgc.2022.1028401

Banner image of a wolverine by Hans Veth via Unsplash (Public domain).

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough

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