Public Forests Should be Carbon Reserves

One of the biggest impacts resulting from logging our forests that is largely ignored by public land management agencies is the contribution that timber harvest makes to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. Increasingly it is clear that the greatest value of our public forests might be to end all thinning/logging and protect them 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.

What is surprising to many who continuously hear about the damage to tropical forests from logging is that more forest cutting and removal results from deforestation of both private and public lands in the United States than any other country in the world! Therefore, a reduction in US logging practices has significant potential to reduce US global GHG emissions.

In 2018, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an analysis of Oregon’s logging industry. The study concluded that the largest source of CO2 emissions in Oregon contributing to Green House Gas (GHG) emissions came from logging/thinning projects. That is more GHG emissions that result from all the cars, airplanes, and industrial sources in the state.

Another Oregon study found GHG emissions resulting from timber harvest on state and private lands alone were “four to seven times higher those associated with coal combustion by the Boardman coal-fired plant in 2012, are equivalent to 2-4 million new cars on the road and make logging on State and private lands one of Oregon’s biggest GHG polluters and a major impediment to Oregon’s ambitious GHG reduction targets.”

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

Clearly, logging/thinning is having a significant impact on our climate.

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 “When 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.”

One of the justifications for logging/thinning used throughout the West is that logging/thinning will reduce or preclude large wildfires. Though wildfires do release carbon, the amount released is not nearly as large as the amount that results from logging/thinning.

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. This makes sense since what is largely combusted in any fire, even high severity burns, are the fine fuels like grasses, shrubs, cones, and small branches, not larger tree boles (which remain as snags) or roots where the bulk of carbon is stored.

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

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.

There are also social costs. The actual cost of thinning the forest is far higher than the costs of fire suppression and control. Since nearly all timber sales on public lands lose money, the economic value of wide-spread thinning makes no economic sense.

When you add in the potential loss of carbon storage, then thinning and logging is very costly to society. For instance, a 2015 study by the Federal Forest Carbon Coalition that reviewed proposed BLM logging in western Oregon “indicates the additional climate-related costs may:  Outweigh the additional timber-related benefits by more than 30-to-1. Equal $1.6 million per additional timber-related job. Equal $68 for every $1 of additional timber-related payments to local counties.”

And this economic analysis did not try to qualify the other economic costs to society resulting from thinning/logging, including damage to watersheds, loss of biomass (snags and dead wood critical to forest ecosystems), habitat fragmentation from logging roads, spread of weeds and many other “costs” that result from Industrial forestry practices.

In short, a reduction in all timber harvest is desirable. However, the one area where the public has immediate control lies on our public forestlands.  Logging our public forests make no economic or ecological sense an age of rising temperatures and climate change. Setting aside all public forests as carbon reserves is easily the highest and best use of these public lands.

Some references:

Beverly E. Law, Tara W. Hudiburg, Logan T. Berner, Jeffrey J. Kent, Polly C. Buotte, and Mark E. Harmon. 2018. Land Use Strategies to Mitigate Climate Change in Carbon Dense Temperate Forests. PNAS March 19, 2018. 201720064; published ahead of print March 19, 2018.
John Talberth, Dominick DellaSala, and Erik Fernandez. 2015. Clearcutting our Carbon Accounts: How State and Private Forest Practices Are Subverting Oregon’s Climate Agenda. Center for Sustainable Economy and GEOS Institute
Brooks M. Depro, Brian C. Murray, Ralph J. Alig, and Alyssa Shanks. 2008. Public Land, Timber Harvests, and Climate Mitigation: Quantifying Carbon Sequestration Potential on U.S. Public Timberlands. Forest Ecology and Management 255 (2008) 1122–1134
Bjart Holtsmark . 2013. The Outcome is in the Assumptions: Analyzing the Effects on Atmospheric CO2 Levels of Increased use of Bioenergy from Forest Biomass. GCB Bioenergy (2013)
A. Arneth, S. Sitch, J. Pongratz, B. D. Stocker, P. Ciais, B. Poulter, A. D. Bayer, A. Bondeau, L. Calle, L. P. Chini, T. Gasser, M. Fader, P. Friedlingstein, E. Kato, W. Li, M. Lindeskog, J. E. M. S. Nabel, T. A. M. Pugh, E. Robertson, N. Viovy, C. Yue & S. Zaehle. 2017. Historical Carbon Dioxide Emissions Caused by Land-Use Changes Are Possibly Larger Than Assumed. Nature Geoscience volume 10, pages 79–84 (2017) doi:10.1038/ngeo2882
John L Campbell, Mark E Harmon, and Stephen R Mitchell. 2011. Can Fuel-Reduction Treatments Really Increase Forest Carbon Storage in the Western US By Reducing Future Fire Emissions? Front Ecol Environ 2011
Federal Forest Carbon Coalition. 2015. Accounting for Climate-Related Risks In Federal Forest-Management Decisions. FFCC Background Paper 2015–2 10 May 2015
Oregon State University. 2014 Oldest trees are growing faster, storing more carbon as they age. ScienceDaily, January 15, 2014
Sebastian Luyssaert, E. Detlef Schulze, Anett Börner, Alexander Knohl, Dominik Hessenmöller, Beverly E. Law, Philippe Ciais, and John Grace. 2008. Old-growth Forests as Global Carbon Sinks. Nature 455:213–215


  1. Hiker Avatar

    I think she wanted an example of how local gov manages their public lands better than how fed manage federal lands. It seems a careful reading on your part might be called for. I’m not sure if the bridge she thinks you live under is on public land federal or local land. Either way hope your bridge doesn’t get burned.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    I would say that if certain states want to manage the public lands, then their Federal funds should be cut. Can’t have it both ways, and Federal taxpayers should not pay if their interests are not being represented.

    But, I know that if that were to happen, the states would sell off every last tree, rock, wildlife and drop of oil they could, until they end up like Easter Island or Iceland.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Also, plenty of Federal workers have been born, raised and live and work in an environment they know well.

  4. Michael Kellett Avatar
    Michael Kellett

    Comments that local and state governments would do a better job of taking care of federal lands have no basis in fact.

    Despite all the problems with federal land management, local and state governments are far worse. With a few, rare exceptions — such as Adirondack or Baxter State Parks — state public lands are dedicated to maximum logging, livestock grazing, fracking, mining, and other resource exploitation. Local governments do not have the expertise, resources, or commitment to adequately protect land. So the idea that they would do a better job than federal agencies has no basis in fact.

    Climate change is a nationwide and international problem. Federal lands are owned by all of us. Protecting them from logging to mitigate climate change is an issue of national and global importance.

    This is the new reality. The idea that local and state governments would provide management that serves the greater public interest ignores this reality.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      +1 Michael.

      Important for all of us to keep in mind, who have a stake in public lands (includes most Americans who pay taxes) to weigh in on all the facts.

      Researching a thought, then a variety of opinions/then actual fact, goes a long way when trying to understand how complex the owning of public lands really is.

      1. Michael Kellett Avatar
        Michael Kellett

        Hi Nancy,

        Yes, I am well aware of the facts. I have worked on federal and state public land issues for more than 30 years. And I have long been familiar with PERC, whose conference proceedings you link.

        PERC is a libertarian think tank that is ideologically opposed to public lands. They want to shrink government. Their agenda is to make public lands self-funding by maximizing the economic exploitation of their resources. They support devolving management to state, local, and private interests because they know those entities are primarily devoted to resource extraction and intensive recreational development.

        When PERC talks about the federal government “mismanaging” public lands, they mean that the government is not promoting enough resource exploitation and development. The examples they point to of “better” state and local management all laud how these entities are making more money from their lands by exploiting them.

        This is not the direction we should be following for our public lands. We all own these lands and promoting the exploitation of these lands for short-term profit is anathema to the vision and purpose of our public lands.

  5. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    If a person really digs into our history, he or she would come to recognize that “America” was founded on destruction. Whether it is forest, range or marsh land it was and is still being destroyed. The ruthlessness and swiftness of the European colonizers and their financial backers in ‘conquering’ North America would startle the most bloody of the Roman emperors.

    Under our current system of ‘for profit economics’, it does not make any difference if it’s the last white rhino or the last redwood tree-somebody will try to kill it for profit.

    Witness the Chinese’ morbid need for animal parts. They successful killed off the white rhino, have almost done in tigers and are sending their “agents” of destruction to South America to butcher jaguars.

    Frank Herbert said that ” A moral decision is only possible with the abandonment of self interest”. Our road is long, hot and bumpy as hell.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      Yes. And in only 300 or so years!

      We can’t keep robbing from the future, if we don’t value wilderness for its value by itself, then at least for future generations.; some lands need to not be developed and stay that way. No ‘creative solutions’ which is another word for compromise and slowly giving away the store.

    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      This is something I worry about for grizzlies too in all these overly optimistic discussions about a proposed grizzly (and grisly) hunting season – illegal trade in animal parts. Wasn’t a bear recently found with its paws cut off? And it isn’t the first time:

  6. Chris Harbin Avatar
    Chris Harbin

    Dave, you have sated your view ad nauseum. Please contribute a different thought. Thanks.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner