Family tree farms can help fight climate change

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As climate change concerns grow, researchers are turning to small tree farmers for help. Actually, they have been helping for nearly a century, but their efforts have largely gone unrecognized.

For decades, the American Tree Farm program has emphasized sustainability and managing lands for water quality, wildlife, wood and recreation. Now, it is adding climate change.

According to the American Forest Foundation, families and individuals collectively care for the largest portion of forests in the U.S., more than the government or corporations and an area larger than California and Texas combined.

In Washington, with its legacy of clean drinking water and vigorous salmon runs, healthy forests are key to a healthy water supply. They act as a natural water filter and storage system. However, for more than 50 years, the focus has been on water, rather than air, quality.

Our state’s tree farmers manage their lands as part of our fresh water network and have been recognized for their success. For example, in 2019, David and Dar New were named the National Tree Farmers of the Year. One of the highlights contained in their nomination was the salmon spawning grounds restoration project on their 165-acre forests near Bellingham.

In May, Kate Zerrenner, a writer for Triple Pundit, proclaimed small landowners as the untapped heroes in the fight against climate change.

“About 10.7 million ownerships from individuals, families, trusts and estates account for 36 percent of U.S. forests (approximately 290 million acres). Despite their essential role in the management and sustainability of forested land, these family forest owners are often left out of the majority of carbon reduction schemes,” Zerrenner wrote.

“However, that is changing. Through a partnership between The Nature Conservancy and the American Forest Foundation, the Family Forest Carbon Program is providing small family forest owners with knowledge, incentives and new market opportunities that have the ability to meaningfully reduce the impacts of climate change,” Zerrenner added.

Washington has a long tradition of tree farming. In fact, the nation’s first tree farm was designated near Montesano in 1941, and since then the American Tree Farm System has grown to 77,000 family woodland owners managing 20.5 million acres of forests.

These families make their living by growing, managing, harvesting and replanting trees, which in turn provide wildlife habitats, protect water quality, salmon and steelhead spawning streams, and freshen the air we breathe.

In a day when we are all concerned about climate change, well-managed working forests improve the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas –and producing oxygen. That CO2 is locked in the trees and surrounding soil — a so-called “carbon sink.” Researchers have found that younger, faster-growing trees and trees in thinned forests metabolize CO2 rapidly.

While most tree farms are small, some are quite large. For example, Weyerhaeuser manages millions of forested acres in Washington alone. Others are sizable family owned tree farms that have passed from generation to generation.

For example, in northeast Washington, the Mikalson Family formed Arden Tree Farms in 1958. It has grown to one of our state’s largest. “We continue to run it, with nothing but the utmost respect for the trees growing on it, and the water running through it,” Arden’s website proclaimed on its 60th anniversary.

Trees are America’s renewable resources and sustainable forestry is truly a “green” industry that we all need to encourage. Healthy forests are essential to dealing with global climate change and to providing jobs for rural communities.

It is good that tree farmers are recognized as part of the climate solution. They just need a chance to succeed, keep managing their lands in a sustainable way and pass their land to the next generation.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at