Forests for Carbon Storage

Currently, there is a bill in the Massachusetts legislature that would ban logging on all of the state lands. The premise of the legislation is that logging contributes significantly to CO2 emissions. The legislation sponsors argue that the best use of Massachusetts state-owned property is to maintain intact forests for carbon storage.

If this legislation should pass into law it may signal a shift in how we view the value of our federal and state forests. Our forests greatest value is for carbon storehouse, not wood products.

With climate change effects growing more dramatic every year, it is natural to seek remedies that work with nature rather than oppose nature. Allowing more carbon to accumulate in our forests is one strategy that is documented to work both ecologically and economically.

By contrast logging a forest for wood products or on the mistaken belief it will reduce large fires only exacerbates CO2 emissions. Indeed,  a recent study in Oregon found that logging was the most significant contributor to that state’s carbon emissions—far more than all the transportation and other sources typically enumerated.

Logging advocates suggest that turning trees into wood products “sequesters” carbon for decades and centuries. However, the bulk of all wood products are used for temporary and short-lived items from wooden pallets to paper cups—all of which ultimately end up in the landfill. A recent paper Global Mitigation Potential of Carbon stored in harvested wood products concluded that such strategies could only remove and save less than 1% of global emissions.

In other words, logging for wood products adds far more to the CO2 emissions to our atmosphere and even under the best social-economic conditions can store a very small amount of the carbon emitted annually.

Even more disturbing is that logging is costing taxpayers money. A new study by the Center for Sustainable Economy has documented taxpayer losses of nearly $2 billion a year associated with the federal logging program carried out on national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.

The authors compared the value of logging a forest to protected forests which continue to grow and sequester carbon and found that carbon economic values were two to three times higher than could be achieved by logging the stand. Add in the economic value that protected forests provide in the way of watershed protection, wildlife habitat, scenic values, recreational values, and the rest; there is no comparison as to which management strategy makes the most economic sense.

The authors noted that “Federal forestlands are far more valuable when managed for carbon and other ecosystem services yet logging on these lands continues to be subsidized.”

Even the argument that thinning or logging will reduce wildfires, and thus it is suggested, keep more carbon in the forest.

However, another study found that far more carbon remains on site even after a wildfire than is removed when forests are logged. That is because what burns in a forest fire are the fine fuels, not the tree boles. The snags left behind after a blaze continue to store carbon for decades and sometimes centuries.

Ironically the Trump administration is ramping up logging on the presumption that it will reduce “fuels” and thus large fires. But again, the fundamental assumption is flawed. Another 2016 study that looked at 1500 wildfires around the country found that unlogged forests burned at lower severity than areas that had been “actively” managed, meaning thinned or clearcut.

It is critical to understand the very fires that logging advocates want to stop or control are the very rare, but large conflagrations that occur during extreme fire weather. In other words, it doesn’t matter that thinning or prescribed burning might alter fire behavior in some instances,

Indeed, the Camp Fire which burned down Paradise, California a year ago occurred despite the fact the surrounding area had been heavily logged and thinned. Active forest management did little to halt the fire spread—and some ecologists believe it even enhanced fire spread.

The best use of our national forests is not to produce wood products or even logging under the false belief that we can halt large fires; instead, their highest value is for carbon storage.


  1. Pamela W Avatar
    Pamela W

    Any chance of getting the citation for the recent Oregon logging study you mention, George? It might help in comments about an Oregon BLM proposal.

    1. Michael Kellett Avatar

      Here is a link to the report on subsidies for federal lands logging that George cites.

  2. idaursine Avatar

    Ha. I hadn’t realized this. Thanks for posting!

  3. Kathy Avatar

    In Vermont, sizable parcels of forest are being removed to install large solar plants constructed by industrial giants (such as NextEra) that have sold the power (and re credits) to MA and CT. Vermont is becoming an energy plantation, to its ecological diminishment. I’m into my third year of opposing one such plant which would clear 40 acres of woods and scrape 70 acres of prime and primary agricultural soil to install 97,000 pv panels – which would be surrounded by chain-link fence.

    How will MA or CT account for the toll taken on Vermont’s intact lands? The bulldozer of growth and consumption is unlikely to stop.

    1. idaursine Avatar

      It really is misguided reasoning, isn’t it. But Vermont legislators are the ones responsible, and the responsibility lies with them, as no one is forcing them to tear down their valuable forests for solar farms. Who knows what is motivating them, jobs, the economy, $$$. Where I am, they put a small one in with the promise to plant any trees removed. But it looks more like industrial park landscaping, because I don’t think they were seedlings of the native trees. 🙁

      They really should go in areas already ruineddeveloped areas, such as landfills, Superfund sites, and rooftops.

      There’s plenty of ’em!

      1. Kathy Avatar

        The VT Public Utility Commission determines who can do what here with electricity projects, not our legislature. Our previous Dem. Governor Peter Shumlin bears much of the blame for how RE was rolled out here along w/enviro groups who are blind to the losses and think “it’s all good.”

        One NYC developer sued Bennington VT to push his PV project and the town had to cry uncle when their legal expenses to defend their town plan became too high to bear. Deep pockets and HUGE corporations are bulldozing paradise, at which point they often will flip the project to new investors.

    2. rick meril Avatar

      Kathy, I am with you,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,solar panels covering former forest and farmland,,,,,,,,,,,,,giant windmills creating industrialized mountains and bottomland,,,,,,,,,,NOTHING GREEN about any of this as well as the pipelines that go along with getting the energy to people…………

  4. Kathy Avatar

    This (link) is one of five 20MW projects NextEra is shoving down our throats… built in a (formerly) bucolic landscape. They ended up having to do a lot of blasting. The rules touted in the linked article you posted are not slowing the big dogs down at all.

  5. idaursine Avatar

    I am sorry to hear that. I always hate when there’s blasting anywhere too. MT and CT have other options to get their power from. I hate mandates because of it being goal-driven and not how they get to the goal – so many mega-watts by such-and-such a date.

    With climate change, and just in general, tearing down forests and undeveloped areas is not wise.

    You can see that this company has sweetened the pot with deals by giving the state money for schools, replacing bleachers, street paving. Still, VT is ultimately responsible, and a lot of it is for VT’s use too. Still, there is legislative involvement – keep fighting and complaining!

  6. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    Now this is the kind of 4th of July story this country needs!


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