Dartmouth Study Says Cutting Down (Certain) Trees Can Save the Environment

Mount Washington in the White Mountains, New Hampshire. Photograph by Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Growing forests is supposed to slow global warming because trees soak up carbon dioxide in photosynthesis. But a new study by Dartmouth College says that sometimes the better play to save the planet is cutting down trees. That would be in high latitudes where there’s a lot of snow. Treeless meadows covered with snow reflect a lot of the sun’s light and heat, reducing global warming.

So, you Finns, Russians, Canadians, and Alaskans, fire up those chainsaws! The study will be presented Dec. 12 at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Previous studies had suggested the potential benefits of removing trees to create reflective snow fields. Dartmouth’s researchers quantified the phenomenon using a sophisticated model of the climate and the economy that took into account the timber value of wood. Dartmouth gathered the data near the New Hampshire campus in the White Mountain National Forest, home of the tallest mountains in the Northeast.

In places where trees are grown for timber, the study advocates harvesting and replanting when trees are still relatively young and small, assuming the trees are in snowy areas and belong to species that won’t soak up much additional carbon as they age.

For places with lots of snow and a poor quality of forest, “We can therefore easily imagine a scenario in which … it is economically optimal to keep them in a state of continuous and perpetual clearance,” write research associate David Lutz and environmental economist Richard Howarth.

Dartmouth’s website currently features a performance by Cirque Alfonse called Timber! but that’s probably just a coincidence.

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