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Debate shapes up over using land to limit carbon emissions

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Oregon’s vast farm and forest lands could be enlisted to capture carbon and reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gasses under legislation that awaits further work in a legislative committee.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee heard from about three dozen people on Feb. 15, and a follow-up session is planned later in March. Though representatives of timber-industry groups and Oregon Cattlemen’s Association opposed it, Senate Bill 530 won support from environmental groups, plus individual farmers, forest owners and ranchers across the state.

The idea of rural lands to help Oregon meet its overall target of 90% reduction in the current level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is not new. It was one of the few things that minority Republicans liked as part of much broader climate-change legislation proposed by majority Democrats in 2019 and 2020 — but that was before Republicans walked out of both sessions to block legislative action.

“They said then that what we are doing here does not give Oregonians the credit they deserve for sequestering carbon — and that we need instruction, and in some cases financial help, for farmers and foresters to sequester more carbon,” Sen. Jeff Golden, a Democrat from Ashland and leader of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, said in an interview after the Feb. 15 hearing. “They said that’s what our carbon program ought to be.”

Golden said the broader legislation, which Democrats have shelved, would have raised money for a state fund to help farmers, ranchers and foresters.

But this narrower effort has been revived as a way for Oregon to secure some of the billions in federal money now available to states under a 2022 law to help farmers and foresters prepare for the consequences of climate change. Landowner participation would be voluntary.

The bill would set up a framework to determine how much carbon is being stored naturally now, measure the outcomes of mitigation, and coordinate the work of six state agencies: Agriculture, Forestry, Fish and Wildlife, Energy, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and Oregon Global Warming Commission.

Golden likened the current opposition by Republicans to how they reacted nationally to what became the Affordable Care Act, which was signed by Democratic President Barack Obama in 2010, but was based on an insurance-marketplace model embraced by then Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who signed it in 2006. (No Republican voted for the 2010 federal law — and Romney shied away from it during his failed 2012 presidential bid against Obama — but Republican attempts to repeal it failed even when the GOP controlled the presidency and both chambers of Congress in 2017.)

“Once we embraced this, they are kind of wary of it,” Golden said. “But I only hope that legislators will look at the substance of this bill. We are talking about funneling big money to Oregonians farming the land, ranching and doing forestry in ways that sequester carbon and make their lands more productive.”

The 2022 law makes available about $30 billion nationally, and more is available for related projects under the 2021 infrastructure law, both signed by President Joe Biden.

Differing views

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, led the Environment and Natural Resources Committee back in 2019, and also sits as one of the legislative members of the Oregon Global Warming Commission, which developed the concept.

A skeptical Sen. Fred Girod, R-Lyons, said during the hearing: “The question is not whether it’s going to lead to reductions. The question is who is going to pay for it.”

Dembrow replied: “This bill is not about emissions reductions. It is about investing in our working lands to make them more productive and better able to store carbon.”

Girod and Sen. David Brock Smith, a Republican from Port Orford who also was on the global warming commission when he was in the House, have argued that younger trees are more valuable than older ones for carbon sequestration – and by implication, that logging of older trees should be accelerated.

The legislation excludes Oregon’s federal forests, which cover 16 million acres overseen by the U.S. Forest Service and more than 2 million by the Bureau of Land Management, mostly west of the Cascades.

The legislation does not deal with sequestration of carbon emissions generated by power plants and industry that can be buried in the earth. Experts have said such processes are still too expensive to be feasible on a large scale.

This form of carbon reduction was missing from the climate-change plan adopted in December 2021 by the state Environmental Quality Commission, which focused on transportation fuels in complying with a March 2020 executive order by then-Gov. Kate Brown after the Legislature failed to act. One commission member, Greg Addington — since named executive director of the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation — based part of his lone dissenting vote on the omission of any consideration of natural carbon sequestration.

Oregon already has a 2021 law, endorsed by the state’s two major privately owned utilities, requiring them to generate all of their power from carbon-free sources by 2040.

“But we still need additional carbon sequestration to limit the worst impacts of climate change,” said Laura Tabor, who spoke for The Nature Conservancy.

Although the Oregon Forest Industries Council still opposes Senate Bill 530 in its current form, policy counsel Tyler Ernst said, “This bill represents some improvements.”

Also among its opponents were the Oregon Small Woodlands Association and Associated Oregon Loggers. Roger Beyer, a former lawmaker who spoke for the small woodlands group, said nonprofessionals dominate too many state panels advising on forestry policies.

But Alan Neuringer, who owns 130 forested acres in Glenwood northwest of Forest Grove, said, “A diverse forest is most likely to survive the droughts, pests and diseases brought on by climate change while sequestering significant amounts of carbon.”

Alan Journet of Jacksonville is a retired biology professor and co-facilitator of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now.

“This (timber) industry is the most threatened by climate change, unless they can find a market for Joshua trees,” Journet said of the desert plants. “Yet here they are again arguing against forestry in Oregon.”

Zach Menchini, a co-owner of Campfire Farms near Mulino, said he failed to see how the bill could result in controversy.

“Soil health works for all farmers,” he said.

Among the other organizations for it: Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, which represents 45 soil and water conservation districts; Beyond Toxics, Douglas County Global Warming Coalition, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Metro Climate Action Team, Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network, Oregon Environmental Council, Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Oregon Wild, Portland Audubon Society, Portland chapter of the Climate Reality Project, Sierra Club, Sustainable Northwest, and 350PDX.

Rancher sees win-win

Jeanne Carver is the founder of Shaniko Wool Co. and owner of the Imperial Stock Ranch near Maupin. She said her company and her 32,000-acre ranch demonstrate that good stewardship — with proper soil treatment of land that has been in family ownership for 150 years — and good business go hand in hand.

Her company drew notice when Ralph Lauren chose its wool for use in made-in-America Winter Olympics uniforms in 2014, 2018 and 2022.

“We are now drawing brands here to make (products) in America because of our certification and our ecosystem performance,” Carver said. “Supplying the wool they have sourced for their product lines, we are bringing these companies home for the first time in decades. That to me is a huge win. It supports landowners, ranchers and agriculture. It also supports our U.S. manufacturing sector in textiles.”

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