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Growing the Role of US Forests in the Climate Movement
Brian Kittler

Why Forest Science and Forestry Need to Engage the Climate Movement
Throughout America’s history, grassroots movements have played a significant role in shaping how we govern ourselves as a people. The US civil rights movement of the 1960s is the preeminent example, and a watershed moment for our nation.

In fact, the US civil rights movement is perhaps the most referenced case for how a shift in the collective consciousness of the masses transformed how society functions. Up to now, a similar movement to address climate change—a threat that promises to impact the health and welfare of every person and ecosystem on the planet— has largely failed to result in a shift in collective consciousness similar to that which occurred during the civil rights movement. There are now signs of such a grassroots change beginning to take root.
Hundreds of thousands participated in the People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. Credit: Shadia Fayne Wood, Survival Media Agency.

On September 21, 2014, more than 400,000 people took to the streets of New York City and more than 160 other cities worldwide to participate in the People’s Climate March. In what is probably the largest environmental protest in history, the march was timed for just before a UN Climate Summit. Many conservation groups rightfully used the occasion to advocate for the role of reducing deforestation and forest degradation in the tropics. Yet, as these groups marched through midtown Manhattan alongside so many other Americans, a focus on the fate of the forest carbon in their own country was noticeably absent. Surely American forests are a central issue for conservation groups, so why are they not also of focus for the broader climate movement?

Tropical deforestation for agriculture. Frontpage/Shutterstock Conservation of tropical forests is of course a crucial strategy in mitigating the worst effects of climate change; however, the role of temperate forests in the US must not be overlooked. Roughly a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions now in the atmosphere are attributed to land use change. The remaining two-thirds come from the combustion of fossil fuels since the early 1900s. Over time, deforestation globally shifted from the temperate forests of North America and Europe to the tropical forests in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Ironically, it was that movement to fossil fuels away from wasteful uses of fuelwood and extensive clearing for agriculture that allowed forest carbon stocks of North America and Europe to recover.

However, forest regrowth in the US has recovered only about a third of the carbon released to the atmosphere from land use change occurring between 1700 and 1935.1 Forests are naturally a long-term proposition binding generation to generation. Indeed, when it comes to US forest carbon, the choices we make now with regard to repairing the damages of the past will dictate the course of our future.

An Uncertain Future for US Forest Carbon
When considering net primary productivity, timber harvest removals, and forest disturbance, US forests are on the balance serving as a substantial net carbon sink accumulating approximately 200 million metric tons of carbon annually.This storage is equivalent to approximately 10% of net CO2 emissions from all US sources. While debated in conservation circles, the National Climate Assessment cites an additional 77.6 million metric tons of carbon being stored in harvested wood products each year, which is equivalent to approximately 4%of net CO2 emissions from all sources. So in all, the forest sector is assumed to currently serve as a net carbon sink in which the equivalent of 14% of annual CO2 emissions of the US economy are being stored.2

Forest carbon stocks have increased rapidly since the 1940s, but recent years find this trend line slowing, if not leveling off.3 If events of the past are indeed the prologue for the future there is no guarantee that we will be able to maintain the nation’s forest carbon sink and we should expect substantial carbon flux in the coming decades. In fact, the most recent national forecast for US forests, the 2010 Resource Planning Act (RPA) assessment, suggests a return to our forests being a net source of carbon release to the atmosphere. How can this be possible and what can we do to bend this curve?

As projected, each plausible RPA scenario suggests that US forests will change from being a net sink to a significant source of carbon emissions by 2030, with annual net carbon emissions from forests increasing to 40–80 million metric tons by 2050.4 From a climate forcing perspective this would be like adding as many as 86 additional 600 MW coal plants to the US electric power grid. Given the battles fought over new fossil fuel power plants, this potential fate of US forest carbon stocks should be alarming to climate activists, but the issue is rarely looked at this way.

While previous long-range RPA projections of forest growth and loss have been shown to have significant margins of error relative to subsequent measurements of forest growth and carbon storage,5 emerging science on the effects of climate change on net carbon storage in forests, coupled with observed trends in the scale and severity of urban development, wildfires, insect infestations, and drought related forest die-off, would seem to indicate that these long-range RPA scenarios at least correctly identify the trends.

Declining Trends in Forest Carbon
In the last decade or so, the US has been losing forest and open space at an estimated average rate of about four acres per minute. If trends in the US continue unabated, increases in urban development are expected to expand by 41% by 2060, with most of this development occurring at the expense of forests. Forests lost to development in the southeastern US alone, a region that has tremendous natural forest carbon sequestration capacity, are projected to be as much as 9.7 million acres by 2050—a land area about twice the size of New Jersey.6 Urban growth projections in other forested regions, the Puget Sound for instance, are expected to result in significant loss of carbon storage.
Mega-fires like the 2013 Rim Fire are becoming more common across the West. Credit USDA Forest Service

When forests are cut, the direct impact is not only a pulse of emissions and the ensuing loss of sequestration capacity, but also often the addition of secondary emissions from new buildings replacing forests. These secondary emissions are not captured in estimates of net forest carbon flux, meaning that the effects of land use change are significantly larger when the carbon footprint of the built environment replacing natural carbon sinks is considered. Going forward, better integration of regional urban planning and strategies to conserve working forests around cities will be fundamental as it is these specific geographies where forest carbon will continue to be lost.

In addition to forest conversion, degraded forest conditions should rightly be viewed as a carbon concern too. For instance, western forests represent 20–40% of US terrestrial carbon sequestration capacity.7 Opinions vary widely on what management approaches should be taken across this massive land area.

The wet forests of the Pacific Coast offer globally superior carbon storage rates, with old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest storing nearly 250 metric tons of carbon per acre. Much attention is being paid to incentivizing longer rotation forestry in the coniferous forests of the Pacific Coast as a means to remove more carbon from the atmosphere and store it in standing forests. Strategies vary across landownership types, from the integration of carbon into National Forest plan revision processes, to engaging large acreage private landowners in carbon offset projects through the California carbon market. New types of incentives also need to emerge to promote carbon storage and land retention within the family forest landowner demographic.

In the Interior West, high intensity crown fires and large-scale insect infestations are becoming increasingly significant factors in the regional terrestrial carbon balance.The scale and frequency of disturbance events is being driven in part by an over-accumulation of small trees. The USDA Forest Service has estimated that across this region, from Idaho and Montana south to Arizona and New Mexico, forests are experiencing significant fire regime departure due to overstocking of at least 1.5 billion cubic feet of excess tree growth per year. From a carbon management perspective, this translates to as much as 9 million metric tons of additional forest carbon being added annually to already unstable carbon pools.

These forest conditions are expected to contribute more CO2 to the atmosphere. In fact, between 2001 and 2008, carbon emissions from fires on western rangelands and forests in effect cancelled out nearly 12% of the carbon sequestered in those same ecosystems.8 Looking forward, when combined with losses in sequestration capacity, direct emissions from wildfires are projected to counter as much as 27–43% of net carbon sequestration by terrestrial ecosystems across the West by 2050. This trend is unfolding before our eyes.

In the western US over the last 30 years, the average area burned in large fires (i.e. those greater than 1,000 acres) has increased to about 1 million acres per year.9 The last 10 years have seen more than 60 “mega-fires“ of greater than 100,000 acres across the West, many of them high-severity stand-replacing fires.10 Unsurprisingly, climate change is playing a role here. In what appears to be the new normal, the western fire season has increased in length by more than two and a half months since the 1980s.11 Warmer springs and earlier snow melt are drying out western interior forests, increasing the risk of wildfire related emissions.

Going forward, under future climate change scenarios for the period of 2041–2050, the annual area of land burned by wildfires in the West is projected to increase by 31–66% as compared to 2001–2008, a period which itself had already seen increased wildfire activity.12 A growing percentage of these fires will likely be high-severity stand-replacing crown fires.

Some suggest this is an expected reconfiguration of western forests in response to 100 years of fire suppression, while others see a more nuanced story linked to the effects of climate change.Whatever the cause, we need to learn to live with fire and identify strategies for reducing negative impacts to forest ecosystems, human communities, and the climate.

We also need to consider the loss of carbon storage after large fires. Recent studies find that in parts of the West, the types of ecosystems returning after severe disturbance events are not always the same as existed before.13 Forests in parts of the Southwest, for instance, are transitioning toward grass and shrub systems with inherently less capacity to store carbon.14 In fact, between the late 1990s and 2010 nearly 20% of the forest area of the Southwest experienced tree killing wildfires, bark beetle infestations, and related mortality from drought stress.15 Given trends in fire activity and intensity, it appears that the success of reforestation efforts post-fire are now, and perhaps greater than in any time prior, a controlling variable in the functional ability of the land to store carbon. Scientists and managers take heed.

Altered fire regimes are not the only way in which the forest carbon to climate change feedback loop is being expressed. Rather, all manner of disturbance appears to be at least somewhat induced by climate change. For instance, the mountain pine beetle epidemic in western Canada occurring on a land area the size of Missouri has transitioned much of British Columbia’s forests from being a small net carbon sink to a large net carbon source. In the worst year of the infestation by this endemic insect, the carbon impacts are estimated to be equivalent to approximately 75% of the annual direct forest fire emissions from all of Canada during 1959–1999.16
During a 2003 fire in the Glacier National Park, the Rocky Point Trail served as a natural firebreak. Credit: Wing-Chi Poon, CC BY-SA 2.5

Federal Policy and Management of Forest Carbon
Policies will need to recognize variation in regional forest types and conditions. Conserving the vast reservoir of carbon currently stored in US forests, and increasing the near-term rate of carbon storage where possible, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Forest species, ages, soils, fire risks, vulnerabilities to natural disturbance, and decomposition rates vary widely from the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, to the pine flats of the South, to the boreal forests of the Lake States and New England. Each must be understood for its own potential, and for the specific ways in which forest managers and conservationists can adjust their methods to achieve this potential.

California remains in the grip of one of the most severe droughts in its history. Credit Cynthia Mendoza/USDA CC BY-SA 2.0 Across the forest regions of the US, management actions for optimal forest carbon management vary widely, from encouraging the development of late successional characteristics that promote dense accumulations of biomass, to strategies focused on reducing the amount of standing biomass. This will inherently involve tradeoffs between competing values. For instance, in the longleaf pine forests of the Southeast, restoring optimal savannah habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker involves reducing forest biomass through mechanical thinning and frequent prescribed burning, which has been found to reduce forest carbon stocks by as much as 22% as compared to passive management.17

The relationship between climate change and forest carbon is exceedingly complex and the scientific community is just now beginning to develop a robust understanding of these issues. Policy is not waiting for science to catch up. There are a number of proposals under consideration by federal and state agencies regarding the management of forests to enhance or maintain carbon storage. Many of these policy initiatives are presented within the context of reducing net carbon emissions across the entire economy. The objectives of these proposals include maintaining existing reserves of stored carbon in live forest biomass; minimizing carbon emissions associated with forest loss, degradation, and disturbances; and identification of optimal forest management regimes for various regional forest types.

At the same time, there is an active discourse on “resilience” occurring within the natural resource management world. As defined by a 2013 executive order,18 resilience is “the ability to anticipate, prepare for, and adapt to changing conditions and withstand, respond to, and recover rapidly from disruptions.” Much of this resilience dialogue is centered on the need for stabilizing forest carbon pools and identifying the management actions that may do so.

Building on this Executive Order, the interagency Council on Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience has prepared a report detailing several actions needed to promote the resilience of the US forest carbon estate. As reported, these include: improving inventory, assessment, projections, and monitoring of carbon sinks via integration of remote sensing with the USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) and the USDA Natural Resources Inventory (NRI) to regularly and accurately detect changes in terrestrial carbon stocks; developing estimates of baseline carbon stock and trends using methods consistent with those developed by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); and promoting forest conservation and restoration through initiatives such as the Forest Legacy Program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, but also by stimulating “complementary markets for sustainably harvested wood products,” such as efforts to create a boom in multi-story wood construction as a means to creating long-term stable pools of biocarbon within the cities of the future.19 These high level goals, as valid as they may be, presently lack transparent strategic plans to catalyze those capable of making real progress toward the goals by working at the interface of government and the private sector. Without leadership, little progress will be made.

Policy leaders are calling for the increased storage of carbon in multistory wood-framed buildings. Credit Blumer-Lehmann AG As a society, we face difficult choices regarding what steps to take to positively affect the stability of carbon stocks in our forest sector. These steps cannot be taken on the basis of conjecture, conventional wisdom, or wishful thinking. We need to get this right the first time; science has a significant role to play and is absolutely necessary for identifying optimal forest sector strategies. Moreover, we need to quickly enhance the way in which scientific knowledge informs natural resource management, as the implications of climate change for the US forest carbon sink are already playing out. As a first step, a process is needed to identify the low hanging fruit for forest carbon management in each region of the country to identify:

  • Opportunities for reforestation and afforestation. For instance, the failed Waxman-Markey climate and energy legislation identified a hypothetical goal of storing nearly 1 billion metric tons of CO2 via tree planting that would require 105 and 455 million acres of afforestation.20 Who owns these lands, at what expense, what financial mechanisms are used, and how such forest banks are maintained are all essential questions for such a policy.
  • Priorities for restoration treatments in fire adapted ecosystems. With emissions from disturbance projected to increase, the costs and benefits of measures that may reduce risk of losing stored carbon need to be weighed along with myriad other variables. Mechanisms to finance and reduce the cost of such activities are sorely needed.
  • Market-based incentives to encourage carbon storage through long-rotation forestry. Incentives need to flexibly account for variations in forest ownership demographics. An appropriate balance between robust protocols for carbon measurement and practice-based approaches should be considered.
  • Methods of more effectively integrating regional urban planning efforts with strategies that conserve working forests. Substantial amounts of carbon are being lost through conversion of forests at the fringes of expanding cities. Networks of individuals and institutions in the conservation and planning worlds need to target these buffer areas and prioritize them for conservation.
Through the process of identifying near-term priorities and opportunities, it will be vital that science continues to inform policymaking and peels away motivations not otherwise grounded in evidence. Such science is thus not a feel good gesture or academic exercise, but rather an essential act of the democratic process.The choices we make, from the woods of the forester to the desk of the policymaker, affect the nature of future carbon fluctuations.

Finally, science must also interface with the growing climate change social movement if forest sector strategies are to be given serious consideration by society at large. During the civil rights movement there was a collective realization that significant social change was needed and that this would ultimately improve the lives of all Americans. However, it was a strong and consistent desire for changes expressed across society which created the political will necessary to pass Civil Rights legislation. Similar momentum is needed to enact transformational climate policy. Strategies for maintaining the US forest carbon sink and minimizing its transition to becoming a net source of emissions must be as clear as possible in order to engage the growing climate change movement.

If we are to avoid a truly life-altering climate change future, greenhouse gas emissions will need to be aggressively reduced in the next 25 years. Reducing the carbon intensity of the energy, materials, and food we consume is paramount but maintaining, and where possible expanding the US forest carbon sink is just as important. The forest sector must nudge the American people toward the realization that the fate of our forests warrants equal airtime to calls for the divestment from fossil fuels, ending tropical deforestation, and other statements emblazoned on the signs of climate activists marching through the streets of Manhattan. This will only happen with greater consensus within the forest sector itself. Without a commitment to a transparent and non-politicized dialogue, the US forest sector will remain at the fringes of the climate movement.

Brian Kittler is the Director of the Pinchot Institute’s Western Regional Office in Portland, Oregon.

1 Birdsey, R. 2006. Forest carbon management in the United States, 1600– 2100. Journal of Environmental Quality, 35,1461-1469.

2 Melillo, J., Richmond, T. and Yohe, G., Eds. 2014. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 841 pp. doi:10.7930/J0Z31WJ2.

3 Ryan, M. 2010. A Synthesis of the Science on Forests and Carbon for US Forests. Issues in Ecology, Report Number 13, Spring 2010.

4 USDA Forest Service. 2012. Future scenarios: a technical document supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR- 272.

5 Buchholz, T. et al. 2014. Uncertainty in Projecting GHG Emissions from Bioenergy. Nature Climate Change, 1045- 1047.

6 Zhao, S. 2013. Land use and carbon dynamics in the Southeastern United States from 1992 to 2050. Environmental Research Letters. US Geological Survey.

7 Westerling, A., Hidalgo, H., Cayan, D. R. and Swetnam, T. 2006. Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western US Forest Wildfire Activity. Science, 940-943.

8 Zhu, Z., and Reed, B., eds. 2012. Baseline and projected future carbon storage and greenhouse-gas fluxes in ecosystems of the Western United States: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1797, 192 p.

9 Westerling, A., Brown, T., Schoennagel, T., Swetnam, T., Turner, M. and Veblen, T. 2014. Briefing: Climate and wildfire in western U.S. forests. In: Sample, V. and Bixler, R., eds. Forest conservation and management in the Anthropocene: Conference proceedings. Proceedings. RMRS-P-71. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station. p. 81-102.

10 Ibid.

11 Westerling et al. 2006.

12 Zhu and Reed. 2012.

13 Raymond, C. et al. 2015. Representative regional models of post-disturbance forest carbon accumulation. Forest Ecology and Management, 336, 21-34.

14 Allen, C. 2012. Statement of Dr. Craig Allen, US Geological Survey Department of the Interior, to the US Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

15 Williams, A. 2010. Forest responses to increasing aridity and warmth in southwestern North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 107, 21289-21294.

16 Kurz, W. et al. 2008. Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature.

17 Martin, K. 2014. Carbon Tradeoffs of Restoration and Provision of Endangered Species Habitat in a Fire-Maintained Forest. Ecosystems.

18 Executive Order 13653 3 C.F.R. 330. 2013.

19 Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience Climate and Natural Resources Working Group 2014. Priority Agenda: Enhancing the Climate Resilience of America’s Natural Resources. Washington, DC.

20 Gorte, R. 2009. US Tree Planting for Carbon Sequestration. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.
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