The need to manage national forests as carbon sinks

Forest fire prevention? Thinning? Maximize size of individual tress? Leave it alone? It’s hard to say

The article below is related to the one posted about “Sen. Udall sponsors bill to attack pine beetles.”

It’s good to finally see some attention to the role of forests as carbon sinks, but it is not clear how to maximize their role as sinks, or even how to prevent them from becoming carbon sources.

On thing the article doesn’t discuss the the amount of carbon stored in forest soils. In the dry interior forests with shallow soils, it probably isn’t much. In the wet, big tree  forests west of the Cascades up into British Columbia and coastal Alaska , the kind of logging done in the past, clearcuts followed by burning slash, has a horrible effect on the carbon storage.

Every kind of forest probably needs to have a different carbon management plan.

Story in the New York Times by William Yardley. Note that the Times headline is misleading as a description of the article’s content.



  1. Percy Avatar

    Great to see that article in the Times. I wish articles like this could at least mention the role of dead trees and downed wood as habitat for invertebrate and vertebrate species in forest ecosystems. The last time I took a several-mile run and walk through the Deschutes National Forest I could not help but notice the almost complete lack of downed wood, as well as the absence of the chipmunks that used to be very common there.

  2. Todd Avatar


    I think the broad conservation movement will suffer a significant setback if it pushes for the management of national forests as carbon sinks. We have no idea what a forest would look like when managed to maximize carbon storage — but the odds are that it will be highly manipulated. Also, like all storage devices, once it “fills up” it has to be maintain in that state “forever” in order to hold the carbon. Our national forest will be extremely stressed (as will our societies) as the impacts of climate change grow. I think a much sounder approach for the long term is to manage our forests, first and foremost, for resiliency to the impacts of climate change.


  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I don’t know specifically how they would manage national forests as carbon sinks. However, I know that in the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Coast past logging has been very detrimental to the carbon contained in the forest, most which is (or was) sequestered underground. The management direction for these forests is obvious for carbon storage purposes — no more logging of old growth. For those that have been logged, thinning the dense second and third-growth forest to encourage the development of large trees, and then no logging, is probably the best way.

    For the interior forests, it isn’t so clear to me what should be done.

  4. mikarooni Avatar

    Too many buzzwords with nothing specifically defined. One person hears “manage national forests as carbon sinks” and imagines one thing and the next person hears the same thing and concocts an entirely different vision. Too much smoke and too many mirrors.

  5. Todd Avatar


    The fact that we don’t know what a forest would look like when managed to maximize carbon storage is a compelling reason not to push the idea. I don’t think we need to manage for carbon storage in order to argue why we should not cut old growth. If we sequester carbon while protecting old growth great …. a nice residual benefit.

    Managing forests for carbon storage could turn into the poster child for unintended consequences of a policy prescription. We think that public lands grazing is hard to unwind? It will look like a trivial problem compared to carbon storage on public lands when carbon is valued at $50.00 a ton and we have 300+ million acres of public lands. (Carbon maybe be a $1 trillion dollar worldwide market per year by the 2020).

    We have no idea on how much “excess” storage capacity is available. This is particularly true below ground. We should not advocate for a policy where the potential upside (if any) is unknown and the clear downside is an even greater lack of focus on biodiversity, resiliency and ecosystem function. Furthermore, we have no way of systematically measuring the uptake. (even at the plot level with a dedicated flux tower the carbon budget is almost impossible to close). We should not be advocating for a policy where we can’t measure the outcome.

    It is almost a guaranteed that biofuels will count as a carbon credit at full value. That means that if one can show that the lands will regenerate carbon after logging, then this is a carbon neutral energy approach because the carbon removed will eventually be re-sequestered. (Log the old growth and burn if for fuel, trees will grow back and recapture some or all of that carbon …. eventually.) Now you will immediately say that this is not what you mean by storage and this would be correct — but at $50 a ton the nuance between storage and regeneration will be completely lost.

    In general, carbon offsets through natural sequestration are a very bad idea — whether they be in the natural forest systems or managed agricultural systems. Since they are hard to quantity and nearly impossible to monitor, these carbon offsets are a particularly inefficient mechanism for carbon management. Yet these same offsets will be front and center in carbon markets (both currently and in their next realization). There is not getting around the fact that this is bad policy.


  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    How carbon offsets get priced is a very important matter. I believe we need to start investigating it now and trying to measure it because there a tendency to only look at what is on the surface of a forest.

    The same in true of “rangelands.” If fact the BLM is reports pressure to list carbon storage as a benefit of livestock grazing. When in fact livestock grazing is generally very harmful to the ability of grasslands and sagebrush steppe to sequester carbon.

    The entire process of making meat for human consumption releases more greenhouse gases than our massive system of transportation.

    If we don’t address this issue, we will end up with a system where polluters get subsidies and matters get worse faster.