Thursday, May 07, 2015

A Solution to Losing Three Yellowstones

I am always a bit puzzled whenever a newcomer goes out of his or her way to settle down in one of the many tree canopied neighborhoods in Durham, North Carolina, where I live and then promptly cuts down every tree on their lot.

I doubt this is ever strategic or they would realize that it immediately lowers their property value and that of their neighbors as well.  Not to mention that it defiles the neighborhood.

But I’ve seen it happen in each of the four neighborhoods I’ve inhabited here over the last 26 years.

I’ve listened to the reasons given: “I didn’t want to have to pick up the leaves;” “I didn’t want them to fall on my house during a storm;” “I didn’t want them to compete for water and sunlight with my lawn.”

I am sure the look on my face conveys, “Then why didn’t you choose to live somewhere else?”  There are plenty of places without trees, and thanks to the drilling of 50,000 oil and gas wells each year since 2000, there are more every day.

That’s the number drilled just in central North America according to a report published a little more than a week ago in the journal, Science, by researchers from the universities of Montana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Montana State and Oklahoma State.

Between 2000 and 2012, this has cleared an area the size of three Yellowstone Parks of all vegetation across eleven states and two Canadian provinces stretching from the Rockies to the heartland.

Even along the northern Pacific coast where 30-story high Redwoods, Sequoias and Douglas Firs are able to pull a third of their moisture from the air and the remainder up through their 30-foot wide trunks, it is difficult to fathom that it takes thousands of years for them to reach those dimensions.

But while vegetation, including forestland, in the central U.S. isn’t as dramatic and grows much more slowly, the issue isn’t just aesthetic.  The vegetative loss due to drilling robs this region of calculable ecosystem services.

These include not only carbon sequestered but productivity for growing food, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, forestland, landscape connectivity, wetlands and rangeland for growing livestock.

Ecosystem services are what make life possible on earth.

The scientists warn that “the loss of these services is likely long-lasting and potentially permanent, as recovery or reclamation of previously drilled land has not kept pace…”  But some solutions by public and private sector innovators may soon help.

Trees alone are more rare than we think.

In the U.S., there are now 620 native trees while there are thousands and thousands in other countries and 60,000 in all according to a book entitled, The Tree – A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live and Why They Matter.

We are reminded by by its author, biologist and writer Colin Tudge, that each lineage of trees began with a single tree, e.g. the first ever pine etc.

In 1977, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Forest Development Act which established a “cost sharing program” to help landowners “increase the privately-owned forests of the state.”

Nearly all of the participants are citizens who own small forests; on average up to a few dozen acres.  There are about 469,000 “family” forestland owners in North Carolina who steward 61% of the state’s forestland.

The most commonly cited reason for ownership of these small family forests are beauty/scenery, to pass land on to heirs and nature protection.

Places such as Durham, where officials are considering a long overdue plan involving both urban reforestation and afforestation would be well advised to look at adapting the state plan as a way to help along those who are reticent because they can’t see how it can be done on public lands alone.

“The world cuts or burns down about 26 billion trees a year.  It replants about 15 billion.”  So the net 11 billion trees lost each year would be enough to carbon sequestration to offset the electricity-related emissions of China in 22 years and the U.S. in 13 years.

This is ironically the same span it has taken drilling to agent-orange the equivalent of three Yellowstones.

Run by a veteran NASA engineer, a company called BioCarbon Engineering is now planning to use drones to seed a billion trees a year by firing pre-germinated pods into the ground that have been covered in nutritious hydrogel.

The system can plant 36,000 trees a day using precision mapping and also conduct follow up monitoring and ecosystem assessment, all via specially adapted drones.

To reforest what it loses each year to development and disease, Durham would only need six hours, probably best conducted after midnight after mapping parks, roadsides, stream banks, reservoirs and school grounds along with participating businesses, family-owned forests and residences.

BioCarbon Engineering’s drones may also be a way the central U.S. can hope to recover some of the vegetation it has lost to drilling over the past decade as well as reforest lands that were cleared decades ago but not longer needed for agriculture.

I suspect that BioCarbon would be recompensed at least in part by the exchange of carbon offset credits or be willing to sell the drones and train operators.

I feel better now (smile.)

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