Forests as Carbon Preserves

Record temperatures across the West, including a record 121 degrees in southern California by Los Angeles. Massive wildfires charring millions of acres including record large blazes in Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, and California, with the smoke that spread across the entire West. Half of the country is experiencing “severe drought”. Hurricanes ravage the Southeast. Do we need more evidence that climate change is real?

In the face of climate change society must accelerate the storage of atmospheric carbon if we hope to slow and eventually reverse the worse effects of the climate crisis.  One of most effective and inexpensive ways store carbon is in our forests (Law et al. 2018).

Yet we have many misinformed politicians, foresters and the US. Forest Service proposing that we log more forests based on the flawed assumptions that timber harvest will slow or preclude large blazes.

The “let cuts more trees” narrative runs directly counter to the climate science which finds that logging is one of the factors contributing significant Green House Gas emissions (GHG) to the atmosphere, intensifying climate warming (Moomaw et al. 2019).

Across the lower 48 states, logging-related emissions are 7.6 times higher than the combined release from all-natural disturbances like fire and insects (Harris et al 2016). Indeed, in Oregon logging contributes to 35% of the state’s emissions—more than all transportation from cars to jets (Koehler 2017).

Even the charred landscapes resulting from large fires store significant amounts of carbon. Keep in mind that what burns in a high severity fire is the fine fuels like needles, cones and small branches. What remains are the boles (snags), roots and in the soil which is where the bulk of all carbon is stored.

Snags left after a fire in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness serve as carbon storage. Photograph by George Wuerthner.

By contrast, when a tree is logged, we remove the large boles, and effectively reduce the carbon storage for decades to centuries.

A logged site that has removed all snags and above ground wood near Darby, Montana. Photo by George Wuerthner.

For instance, one study found that 65% of the forest carbon removed by logging Oregon’s forests in the past 115 years was released to the atmosphere with 16% winding up in landfills, with only 19% stored in long-lived products like wood houses (Hudiburg et al.2019).

Fires and insects are both symptoms of climate-driven natural events (Shafer el al. 2010). The warmer the climate, the more intense and large wildfires and insect outbreaks that will occur. Thus logging, by releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere promotes these events.

Unfortunately, there is a push to log our forests in the name of “forest health” and fire prevention.

Ironically, logging will only release more carbon into the atmosphere exacerbating the very factors that enhance fire spread and insect attacks. Logging effects on carbon storage are long-lived. it takes upwards to 350 years to restore carbon in forests degraded by logging.

Soda Mountain Wilderness, Cascades Siskiyou National Monument, Oregon. Photo by George Wuerthner.

One of the best ways to create carbon storage reserves is to designate more wilderness and other preserves like national parks where logging is prohibited.

Beyond the roadless lands that might qualify for wilderness, we should also immediately begin the proforestation of other federal lands degraded by past logging, roading and forest “deforestation” (Moomaw, et al. 2019).

All large fires are the result of climate/weather driven extreme events. Logging, by releasing more carbon into the air, contributes to these large blazes.

It’s time to get off the “reduce the fuels” bandwagon and begin to focus on making communities safe by reducing the flammability of homes, and by keeping as much carbon in the forest as possible. Logging won’t do that.


Harris, NL et al. 2016. Attribution of net carbon change by disturbance type across forest lands of the conterminous United States. Carbon Balance Manage 11:24. https://cbmjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13021-016-0066-5

Hudiburg, TW, BE Law, WR Moomaw, ME Harmon, JE Stenzel. 2019. Meeting GHG reduction targets requires accounting for all forest sector emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 14: 095005. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab28bb

Koehler, M. 2017 https://forestpolicypub.com/2017/12/13/report-timber-harvesting-is-by-far-the-largest-source-of-greenhouse-gas-emissions-in-oregon/

Law, BE, TW Hudiburg, LT Berner, JJ Kent, PC Buotte, ME Harmon. 2018. Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 115(14):3663-3668. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1720064115

Moomaw, WR, SA Masino, EK Faison. 2019. Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good. Front. For. Glob. Change https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00027

Shafer, Sarah,  Mark E. Harmon, Ronald P. Neilson, Rupert Seidl, Brad St. Clair, Andrew Yost. 2010.  The Potential Effects of Climate Change on Oregon’s Vegetation. Climate Change.

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