Greatest Good Is To Preserve Forest Carbon

Sanitied thinned stand on the Deschutes NF OregonAn ecologically ravaged forest ecosystem on the Deschutes National Forest, Oregon. Thinning the forest to allegedly preclude wildfires releases a tremendous amount of stored carbon. Photo by George Wuerthner

Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the U.S. Forest Service said: “Conservation is the foresighted utilization, preservation and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands and minerals for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.” It has become the agency’s motto.

Yet in the age of climate change, the Forest Service has failed to reevaluate what exactly constitutes the greatest good for society.

One of the biggest costs to society resulting from Forest Service’s thinning and logging practices is the loss of carbon storage. Forests are among our best and cheapest means of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere. Primary forests store 30-70% more carbon than logged forests.

Logging and thinning along with wood product production contribute to 35% of the carbon emissions in Oregon, even topping transportation which is 23%. There is nothing that we could do that would do more to reduce Oregon’s contribution to global warming than to reduce timber harvest, especially on public lands. [1]

Across the West, most carbon emissions (66%) results from logging, while wildfires contribute to about 15% of CO2 releases. [2]

Proponents of logging like to suggest that using wood products for houses stores carbon, however, only 16% of the original carbon in a harvested tree ultimately ends up in some wood product.[3] Plus, many wood products like wooden pallets, paper, and cardboard have a noticeably short shelf life. Thus, thinning and logging a forest guarantees carbon loss and release into the atmosphere.

Ironically much of the Forest Service timber program is justified in the name of precluding wildfires. Yet nearly all large wildfires are driven by drought, low humidity, high temperatures, and winds, not fuels. And all these variables are increased by climate change. Logging the forest exacerbates and contributes to the factors that drive large wildfires.

Not to mention there is plenty of evidence that logging/thinning the forest often enhances fire risk by putting more fine fuels on the forest floor, opening the canopy, and leading to greater drying of fuels, and greater wind operation.

Even though wildfires do release some carbon (about 4% of Oregon’s emissions), most of all carbon remains on site. What burns in a forest fire are the fine fuels—needles, small branches, and shrubs, not trees. That is why you have snags after a fire. The bulk of all carbon in a tree is in the bole and roots which remain after a fire and continue to store carbon. In addition, any charcoal that results from a fire is a long-term carbon storage mechanism, that can hold carbon for thousands of years.

The economic value to society of keeping carbon in the forest vastly exceeds any economic return on wood products. Unfortunately, when the Forest Service does any economic analysis it typically ignores or minimizes the non-monetary values.

Logging/thinning ravages forest ecosystems by removing dead wood debris, introducing weeds, disturbing wildlife, reducing or eliminating roadless areas, changing tree age structure, compacting soils, adding sedimentation to aquatic ecosystems, and removal of biomass (nutrients) from the site.

If we were to manage forests for their greatest economic value, we would prioritize their ability to store carbon, not to mention other positive outcomes like preserving wildlife habitat, watershed protection, and scenic values.

The Forest Service timber practices are made even more egregious because it losses money on nearly all logging projects. So, in addition to the environmental degradation to forest ecosystems mentioned above resulting from logging, we also reduce the opportunity to preserve carbon in our forests.

Given today’s realities, the greatest good for society is to leave natural forests intact.


[2] Intact Forests in the United States:  Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest

Good. William R. Moomaw, Susan A. Masino and Edward K. Faison Frontiers in Forests and Global Change | 1 June 2019 | Volume 2 | Article 27

[3] Meeting GHG reduction targets requires accounting for all forest sector emissions. (2019) Tara W Hudiburg , Beverly E Law William R Moomaw , Mark E Harmon2 and Jeffrey E Stenzel. Environ. Res. Lett. 14 (2019) 095005






  1. Beeline Avatar

    George’s photo above gives us a glimpse of how the US Forest Service turned the vegetative complex into a tree plantation. Yes, there are pine trees there (mostly one species) that are considered marketable, all nicely spaced out with a clean under story, just waiting for the chain saws, but it is not a real forest.

    The real forest is long gone. When I was a good deal younger I walked through USFS lands near LaPine , and at least there were a few locations that had a more historical true mix of coniferous species as well as some low shrubs like bitter brush (prime deer forage). There were also some very old stumps and or broken top trees (long since rejected by loggers) that were close to 5 feet in diameter. Yes, Ponderosa pine trees actually got that big before “corporate” logging took hold.

    Oregon once was populated with about 30 species of conifers and the Deschutes NF likely had at least 15 species. Farther south in the Siskiyou NF there used to be about two dozen species.

    When I walked through the Deschutes in the late 70’s and early 80’s there were still some multi species clumps of conifers. These denser islands of pine-fir-shrub associations supported the wildlife in more ways than one. I saw my first pine martin and goshawk in such a place. The soils there were also much richer with a deep litter layer and more humus. It felt very much alive.

    These little islands were essentially what was left of the “real” forest after the first loggers went through setting back the succession of the forest which turned much of it into a sea of lodge pole pines. Lodge pole pines are not considered commercially a good species so the lumber interests got their way and got the USFS to clear cut and burn the lodge poles as well as what was left of the older forest plant associations and plant it with Ponderosa pines. Thus making an even age pine monoculture which does not support much of anything in the way of wildlife. You won’t see a bird or a deer or rabbit and the soil is nearly barren. It feels dead.

    Perhaps the reader could imagine a pie graph which shows say 40 or 50 species of plants and animals cut down to one little slice. This is what the Forest Service has done and is still doing to our side of the planet.

    They should be called the Deforestation Service.

  2. Gail Avatar

    “Corporate logging”, indeed. What a bleak picture this paints, and deservedly so.

    So here’s a question for you, George, or anyone who cares to respond. What are your thoughts about razing forests to accommodate industrial wind turbines? I’ve seen it happen, and it’s ugly.

  3. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    Right from the start GW perpetuates conflating the semantic of conservation with preservation.

    IMV this is why the environment and any modern movement has failed, as it sets no moral or ethical boundary beyond “wise use.”

    1. Hiker Avatar

      Could it be instead that we see failure to preserve because of endless greed and corruption? I seriously doubt it’s due to semantics. Most people know what is meant.

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    My point exactly.

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