Strategic Reserves in Oregon to Protect Biodiversity, Water and Carbon

Old growth forests of Oregon store some of the greatest amounts of carbon in the United States. Photo George Wuerthner 

A new study, Strategic reserves in Oregon’s forests for biodiversity, water, and carbon to mitigate and adapt to climate change, reported in Frontiers in Forests and Global Climate Change, proposes setting aside a strategic forest reserve system in Oregon. Approximately 49% of Oregon is forested, the highest percentage of any state in the West.

The forests of the Pacific Northwest, including those in Oregon, contain some of the highest carbon-density forests in the world. Protecting high-carbon priority forests from logging is critical to mitigating the acceleration of anthropogenic carbon emissions.

In the United States, excluding Alaska, only 6.1% of forestland is protected at the highest level, 4.8% in wilderness areas, and 1.1% in National Parks, and a minor amount in strictly protected reserves.

Oregon has the most forest area of any western state but has only preserved 10% of its woodlands as wilderness or in other strictly protected lands like national parks.

President Biden’s 30 x 30  plan to protect 30 percent of the US land and water by 2030 is ambitious but necessary.

Logging on private lands continues to reduce carbon storage, and net carbon storage is 8 times greater on public lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Northwest Forest Plan reduced logging by 82%. Between 1990 and 2007, even after accounting for fires and logging, net carbon accumulation on public lands was 8 times that on private lands, where ongoing logging continues to reduce carbon storage. However,  it is important to note that there is still significant logging on public lands.

Many conservation studies have concluded that we urgently need to preserve as much as 50% of the Earth’s water and land by 2050 (50 x 50) to protect biodiversity and functioning ecosystems. The best land designation for preservation is wilderness areas or national parks since logging is typically prohibited in such areas.

The study identifies lands at 30 meters square level the lands that must be preserved if we are going to achieve 50-70% of our forest by 2050.  If such a reserve system were implemented, above-ground biomass could increase by 4-6 times by 2050.

The study identifies lands that can protect old-growth species to maintain viable wildlife populations. Nearly a third (67%) of the proposed reserves are on federal lands, while 28% are on private lands.

The researchers used the latest GAP and other mapping tools to determine the most ecologically important locations of 544 animal species and 89 tree species across Oregon. They used this information to identify sites with the greatest animal and forest species overlap.  For climate resilience, they used topographic and geophysical features to determine areas where the movement of animals and plants would likely be maintained in the face of climate change.

Each 30-meter parcel was ranked by carbon, biodiversity, and climate resilience metrics to produce the reserve design.

The areas with the most significant protected forestlands meeting preservation goals were in the Western Cascades, followed by the Blue Mountains and Klamath Mountains. Though there once were extensive forests in the Coast Range, much of that land is private timber holdings that are extensively cut over.

Some of the greatest potential for carbon storage in Oregon is found in the Blue Mountain Ecosystem. Photo George Wuerthner 

To reach the 30 x 30 goals, an additional 2.5 million ha or about 6.1 million acres (20.1%) of Oregon’s forested areas would need to be protected within the next ten years. To reach 50 x 50 goals, approximately 40.1% of Oregon’s unprotected forests must be placed in preserves. The most extensive remaining opportunities for such reserves exist in the Blue Mountains ecoregion, followed by the Cascades and Coast Range.

The highest priority lands for biodiversity and carbon necessary to meet 30 x 30 goals (72%) are found on federal lands. An additional 1.75 million Ha or about 4.3 million acres of federal lands must be preserved to meet 30 x 30 targets.

For instance, only 8% of the spotted owl and marbled murrelet habitat is strictly protected. If the 30 x 30 were designated, this would jump to 36-44% of these species’ habitat needs.

Among other benefits, implementing the proposed 30 x 30  reserves would protect 27% of the surface drinking water in the state.

The study explicitly mentions essential areas for protecting and expanding preserved land in each ecosystem. Protecting the 82,000-acre Elliott State Forest in the Coast Range and expanding the Devil’s Staircase Wilderness is essential.

The Rogue River cuts through the coastal mountains. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the Klamath Mountains ecoregion, expanding wilderness protection of the Klamiopsis and Wild Rogue Wilderness areas and the designation of the Zane Grey Roadless lands as wilderness would contribute to reserve areas in that region.

The Crater Lake Wilderness Proposal would protect nearly 500,000 acres of land surrounding Crater Lake. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the Cascades, the area surrounding Crater Lake is part of the Crater Lake Wilderness proposal which would enact wilderness designation for approximately 500,000 acres of land.

The Blue Mountain Ecoregion is the largest in the state and has some of the best opportunities for protecting mature and old-growth forests. Specially the expansion of wilderness protections for lands surrounding the Eagle Cap Wilderness is recommended.

Even though climate warming leads to increased wildfires, the majority of acreage charred is at low to moderate severity creating a mosaic of mixed patches of burns. However, even high-severity burns maintain significant carbon storage in snags, below-ground roots, and charcoal. At the same time, logging and wood products production is a leading source of carbon emissions, including in Oregon.

The good news is that there are still sufficient mature and old-growth forests in Oregon to meet 30 x 30 and 50 x 50 goals if all recommended reserves were designated.


  1. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    While I support protecting everything as much as possible (100×100 wilderness in National Parks would be good!), we should realize that if humans were living naturally in naturally small numbers, we wouldn’t have to protect anything. That’s the root of the problem and what needs to be fixed. Protections are just Band-Aid solutions in the meantime. Adequately lowering human population and consumption is a very long-term goal, and we have to save and restore as much as possible until that goal is reached, but we need to work toward that goal. If all we do is fight to protect things without dealing with the root causes of this problem, we’re bound to fail eventually.

  2. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Excellent article. I do hope that these areas are high on the list of consideration by our leadership, and not just green spaces for cities, which is important as well, or ‘reinterpreting’ what the 30 x 30 plan is actually for.

  3. Rich Avatar

    The words of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres couldn’t have been starker:

    “We are waging a war on nature. Ecosystems have become playthings of profit. Human activities are laying waste to once-thriving forests, jungles, farmland, oceans, rivers, seas and lakes. Our land, water and air are poisoned by chemicals and pesticides, and choked with plastics. The addiction to fossil fuels has thrown our climate into chaos. Unsustainable production and monstrous consumption habits are degrading our world. Humanity has become a weapon of mass extinction…with a million species at risk of disappearing forever.”


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