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The Public Value of Forests as Carbon Reserves

Recently in an interview about the 2018 Farm Bill, U.S. Sen. Steve Daines advocated more “active” management of our national forests. “Active” is code for more logging. Daines suggested that more logging would result in “healthy forests,” which, he asserted, would store more carbon.

Unfortunately, Daines is misguided in two areas. First, a “healthy” forest is one with significant mortality from wildfire, bark beetles, drought and other natural processes, and unmanaged forests store more carbon than a forest that is “actively managed.”

Indeed, one can easily argue that the greatest value of our public forests is not wood production or any other resource, but as carbon reserves.

Logging/thinning woodlands — whether justified to reduce wildfires, “restore” forests or merely to produce wood fiber for the timber industry — causes a net loss of carbon to the forest ecosystem.

Research has shown that 45-60 percent of the carbon stored in trees is released immediately during harvesting and processing into wood products. If those trees are burned in biomass burners, the release of stored carbon is 100 percent.

An article in Forest Ecology and Management referring to how much carbon could be stored in forests found “a ‘no timber harvest’ scenario eliminating harvests on public lands would result in an annual increase of 17-29 million metric tonnes of carbon (MMTC) per year between 2010 and 2050.”

Similarly, a research paper in Global Change Biology-Bioenergy concluded that “(w)hen the most realistic assumptions are used and a carbon-cycle model is applied, an increased harvest level in forests leads to a permanent increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration.”

A 2017 study determined that “CO2 emissions from land-use change have been substantially underestimated because processes such as tree harvesting and land clearing from shifting cultivation have not been considered.” And the paper goes on to suggest that “reforestation projects and efforts to avoid further deforestation could represent important mitigation pathways, with co-benefits for biodiversity.”

Another study, in Frontiers in Ecological Environments, concluded the amount of biomass combusted in high-severity crown fire is greater than low-severity surface fire, but the difference is small.

In addition, there is a low likelihood treated forests will be exposed to fire while any fuel reduction might be effective (about 20 years).

Meanwhile, any thinning of a larger area to decrease the probability of high-severity fire ensures decreased carbon stock and net carbon balance over the treated area, while the likelihood that any thinning/logging will preclude a high-severity fire is small.

A 2015 study by the Federal Forest Carbon Coalition that reviewed proposed Bureau of Land Management logging in western Oregon found that carbon storage outweighed the additional timber-related benefits by more than 30-to-1, and costs taxpayers approximately $1.6 million in lost carbon storage per additional timber-related job.

All this suggests that if Senator Daines believes we should be using our forests for carbon storage, then eliminating all logging/thinning should be the highest priority on public forests. Protecting all public forests as carbon reserves is easily the highest and best use of these public lands.

 

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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