Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Federal Forests Could Be Tasked With Fighting Global Warming

The Oregonian provides a nice summary of the various scientific and management arguments regarding use of Oregon's highly productive forests to store carbon.

Regarding Oregon's moist west-side forests:

"Stopping logging in western Oregon alone would be the equivalent of taking every Oregon car off the road," said Erik Fernandez of the group Oregon Wild.

Conservationists base their arguments on recent studies by scientists like Oregon State University's Mark Harmon that conclude forests like those that cover half of Oregon should generally be left alone if you want to maximize their carbon storage.

Harmon likes to compare forests to leaky buckets for carbon. The forest ecologist says forests store carbon like a bucket with holes in it stores water. So long as more is entering the bucket than is leaving through the holes, it's achieved net positive carbon storage.

To increase the amount of carbon a forest holds, you can try to plug some of the leaks or increase how much is coming in. Carbon leaks through processes like decomposition, fire and logging. So letting more time pass between logging operations, for instance, lessens the leakage.

Even so, "we won't have as much carbon storage as if we never touched it again," Harmon said. "That's the least leaky bucket we could design, even with fires."

The story is a bit different in drier east-side forests:

In dry, low-elevation Ponderosa pine forests east of the Cascades. scientists say thinning out of small trees could help. Decades of fire suppression left many of these forests filled with thickets of small and medium-sized trees, which could cause uncharacteristically large and intense wildfires.

Though thinning out these stands can release carbon in the short term, it could increase the forest's ability to capture and store more of the greenhouse gas in the future, said Matthew Hurteau,  a forest carbon expert at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

"You are structuring the forest so that when you have a fire it happens in a way that more trees survive," Hurteau said.

Props to a couple of my former UC Davis grad student colleagues -- Hurteau and Kit Batten -- who are quoted in here.  It's great to see 'em involved in this important work!

Read more>>


  1. Mithcell and Harmon (2009) showed that even thinning dry forests in most cases does not save carbon becasue we can't predict where or when fires will occur so we must log extensively to meaningfuylly affect fire behavior yet that logging ends up removing far more carbon than would fire.

  2. I'd need to read up more on the literature, but just from what I know about the productivity/NEP rates of these forests, I can see west side forests being much more effective for carbon sequestration than east side forests.

    That's not to say that protecting east side forests isn't key for maintaining other valuable ecosystem services. It's just to say that based on my knowledge of the way forest ecosystems work, the warmer, moisture forest is going to absorb more carbon.

    Also, I from what I've read, the debate regarding the benefits of thinning east side and other Western U.S. ponderosa pine-type forests is not yet settled. In fact, I've seen an uptick lately in articles questioning the paradigm of forest thinning as a health-improving measure.

    In the end, I suspect that the answers will come down to site factors -- under what conditions does thinning result in real, measurable improvements in forest health and under what conditions does it do more harm than good.

    It's a topic I'm now going to catch up on -- including the report and articles you've referenced, Doug. My reading pile is growing more daunting by the day...

  3. This are good news. Protecting large areas of forests will not only help the climate but also many endangered species like the Spotted Owl in Oregon.
    I hope that at the current climate summit, the politicians will also come up with solutions to protect forests on a global scale in order to save the climate and - equally important - protect biodiversity.