• Who We Are
  • What We Do
  • Publications
  • News
  • Events

Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
Saving the Sink: Conserving Stored Carbon on Private Forest Lands
Will Price

The carbon stored and sequestered in forests in the United States has for most of the last century masked the atmospheric implications of economic growth. Pre-colonial forests were cleared and then mostly recovered just as a fossil fuel-intensive economy reached full throttle.This forest recovery depended on an exodus from the countryside to cities where industrialization was centered. Cities then sprouted suburbs on surrounding agricultural lands. These historical changes in landcover are well-documented, as are the changes in our forest carbon sink over time.1 The evolution in land use still continues, as there now is little arable farmland that will be so easily abandoned. In fact, over the last two decades forests have become the growth zone for population centers throughout the US.2

Over time this trend will both accelerate and slow in correlation with national GDP and housing, but will not abate for some decades. By 2050 urbanized land may expand by 73% to 98%, and exurban/suburban areas by 15% to 20%.3 The character of this change— the paving and perforation of forests across the landscape—eliminates and impairs habitat and degrades water quality.4 It also irrevocably reduces the extent and future potential of our forest carbon sink.
Hunter Mountain, Twilight. Sanford Robinson Gifford, 1866.

The forest carbon sink is sequestration and storage of carbon in forest ecosystems. The scientific literature on carbon storage and flux in the US has exploded in recent years, and with it different estimates of how much carbon is stored in US forests and what will happen to it over time. The oft-cited figure is that US forests absorb around 16% of the country’s annual fossil fuel CO2 emissions.5 This essential service provided by forests is ever more important considering the increase in national CO2 emissions. For the first six months of 2014, CO2 emissions were higher than emissions for the same periods in 2013 (+3%) and 2012 (+6%), with only the transportation sector holding the line (EIA 2014). We cannot afford to have emissions continue to rise in direct proportion to economic growth.

We also can not afford a reversal of fortune in forest carbon stores. The “forest account” is a critical component of the national total, and we can still affect whether today’s forests will, over the next 100 years, be a net source or a net sink. A useful way to think of this question is to treat forestlands as the principal that accrues interest as the forest grows—much the same way as timber investors have thought of forests all along. Within the construct of climate mitigation this concept became controversial with the publication of the “Manomet Study,”6 creating substantial debate on the notion of “carbon debt.” Timber removals are a withdrawal on the principal, which as long as the land regenerates, will grow back over time. With conversion of forest to houses and towns, the principal declines as well as potential future interest. So how rich is our stockpile of forest carbon? Are we withdrawing or depositing and for what purposes?

The latest Resources Planning Act Assessment shows that going forward an increasingly greater share of the “forest carbon pool” will be in the slowly decaying (releasing CO2) pool of harvested wood products and not in in the forest.7 While in prior years we have gained actual forestland, in some regions we have begun to lose acres, yet the total carbon in the forest sector still increases nationally because remaining forests still grow and there continues to be carbon stored in buildings throughout the country. From a carbon perspective this could be the equivalent of a bubble, a “carbon bubble.” By sometime between 2030 and 2040 the bubble will burst, and from that time forward the forestlands in the US will give up more carbon to the atmosphere than they absorb.8

The most complex and contentious part of our growing understanding of carbon dynamics is what happens to carbon in wood that is taken out of forests. The prevailing science shows that carbon in buildings stays out of the air for many years and substitutes for more polluting building materials.9 Wood burned for energy can also substitute for more polluting sources of energy, but inmost cases will only begin to reduce atmospheric CO2 many years from now since burning wood immediately moves carbon from the forest to the air.10 It takes decades until the balance of exchange is a net reduction in atmospheric CO2, but how many decades is still debated.11 Accelerating wood utilization strategies is favored by many policymakers and scientists, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The idea is that over the long term more use of wood could have climate benefits, but all scenarios suggest that this intensification of wood use will reduce the carbon stored on the land in the short run.12 This tradeoff emphasizes the need to protect the principal, to retain forestlands in whatever way we can.

So what is happening to the principal? The present consensus seems to be that on private forestlands there was more carbon on the land by around the year 2000 than there was at any time over the last 100 years, and carbon is still accumulating from year to year.13 The story of what is happening right now to the actual area of privately owned forestlands (58% of US forests) is a little murkier. There is no such thing as real time data on forestcover, and recent studies use different methods or draw data from different periods (e.g. the heyday of housing starts in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, or the subsequent economic recession.) Also, different assessments variously define “forest” and the implications of forestry—e.g. as a disturbance that leaves bare land vs. a harvest that moves carbon to another “pool”, such as building material. Reconciling the implications of different modeling and accounting approaches is crucial to understanding what is actually happening on the land.

The US Forest Service estimates that an average of 6,000 acres of forest land and open space are converted to development every day. Image credit Shawn Kashou/Shutterstock. A study of global forest cover loss from a few years ago ranks the US among the countries that are losing forest the fastest—6% between 2000 and 2005.14 But this is based on satellite data that just looks at bare land, a lot of which has been harvested and will soon again be forests. These findings are echoed by the USGS Land Cover Trends project, which looks at exchanges between different kinds of landcover.15 This kind of information helps reveal the highly regionalized character of forest loss and gain, with a net deficit of eastern forest occurring from 1973 to 2000 (-4.1%, or -0.15% each year). Last year, a remarkable study carried out by the World Resources Institute, University of Maryland, and Google shed light on forest “turnover,” showing that the US South has some of the fastest cycles of harvest and regrowth in the world— with a portion of the forest being lost to development in each cycle. The same pattern occurs throughout the Mid- Atlantic and into the Northeast, albeit with trees growing back more slowly further north. The studies that look at shifts in landcover (e.g. farms to forest, forest to cities, fields to neighborhoods, etc.) may prove particularly important for devising regional strategies to keep the land forested.

The charge is clear for all organizations that work to conserve forests: protect US forest carbon sinks and reduce emissions resulting from forest loss, change, and management. The challenge on private lands is fundamentally different from that on public lands, in the sense that saving the carbon estate on private lands cannot happen simply through changes in land management.16 Rather, change will result from decisions made by millions of landowners—responding to markets, advice, offers, and incentives available at the right time and which solve whatever situation they are facing. In other words, the factors that drive the loss of forests have to change.

The strategies for accomplishing this are only weakly deployed across the country. They include policies that allow carbon offsets to reduce emissions, incentives to increase wood-based bioenergy and construction, and land protection and land use planning that encumbers the conversion of forests to other uses. Also, agencies such as the USDA, through programs carried out in cooperation with states, have begun to transform federal assistance such that payments made to landowners can help reduce emissions. Finally, for landowners who are willing, there is some reinvigoration and retooling of land protection investments, to mitigate and adapt to climate change. All of these strategies have helped slow the loss of forestland, but larger financial pressures are still resulting in high rates of forest loss on private lands. We are at a crossroads at which we need to decide which strategies will most effectively and efficiently prevent forest loss.

A strategy that has attracted a great deal of attention over the last two decades is to impose fees for CO2 emissions and invest some of the revenue in forests. The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) first introduced the world to large-scale trading in forest carbon offsets when in 2005 it was linked with the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol. In nine years, forest projects around the world have received billions of Euros through the EU ETS to implement projects.

The US has been slow to consider actions of this kind—California being the notable exception. In 2010, when the US Congress came within a few votes of passing a Senate version of the House’s American Clean Energy and Security Act, there were expectations that a cap and trade regime would emerge in the US, harnessing carbon markets to reduce emissions. In the proposed legislation, the EPA could allow regulated entities (the energy sector) to meet their emissions cap by purchasing credits generated outside the energy sector, including emissions reductions resulting from forest planting, management, and protection.

Many involved in forestry were giddy at the prospect of this new source of revenue. At the same time there was also criticism of the House version of the bill, contending that forest offset provisions were not stringent enough and would at the end of the day let CO2 leak back into the atmosphere. In fact, recent modeling suggests that the leakage rates for carbon offsets are perhaps more significant than previously imagined.17 This research shows that in North America delayed harvest becomes wood removed elsewhere—wood supply being very inelastic and the leakage adjustments included in offset protocols perhaps being too modest.

USDA NRCS Four years after the last serious attempt to create a national carbon market, there is only one regulated emissions trading system in the US that has led to private forestland protection. In 2014, California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) issued the first forest offset credits under California’s compliance protocol. These were issued to the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, which had been working for several years with a private firm to inventory, model, and register carbon credits. All told there are 366,894 acres in ten forest projects that are now credited, or nearly so, within the CARB system. Voluntary credits for forest projects in the US are also being sold, 58,185 acres of which are registered with the Verified Carbon Standard. This cumulative total of less than half a million acres, while a notable accomplishment, will have to grow quickly to catch up with the rate of forest loss.

Many of the projects registered for carbon credits have been developed by conservation organizations, but these are a small fraction of the forestlands they have conserved over the last few decades. As of 2010, national, state, and local land trusts had protected 47 million acres—at a rate that has accelerated over the years.18 Other than the 316 million acres of forest conserved on public lands, this has been perhaps the most reliable strategy to protect forests. The land trusts’ ongoing campaigns and creativity will be essential to safeguarding the carbon sink on private lands.

A popular goal among conservationists is “no net loss of forests. ”This is much easier said than done as it immediately pits forests against every other land use to which forests may be shifting. Forests will have to reclaim land now in farms, towns, golf courses, and other land uses—each of which has a constituency. Only one state in the US has successfully launched a no net loss policy, in the form of Maryland’s Forest Preservation Act of 2013.19 The legislation is unique in the US. It adds a number of measures to complement and strengthen Maryland’s pioneering Forest Conservation Act, which requires developers to work with counties to offset the removal of forests. Other mechanisms include offsite mitigation for highway projects and a host of incentives for private landowners. The combination of measures introduced in Maryland promises the emergence of new and innovative ways to work with landowners. It also directly influences land use such that the carbon sink will be protected.

Few states will muster the political support to follow Maryland’s lead, though more should try. Also, few states, even those northeastern states that joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, will have offset revenue available to landowners. Moreover, one of the lessons from California may be that the stringent requirements for the highest-value offsets may be unacceptable to the majority of landowners who steward the US carbon sink. For them we need to deploy additional strategies, which do more than encourage faster growth and better use of forest carbon— at the end of day these strategies need to save the principal by reducing forest loss. Senator Stabenow of Michigan introduced a conservation program title to the Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 200920 that would have provided “supplemental incentives” for private landowners. While the bill was not passed by the Senate, it suggested a model for investing in the carbon sink at a large scale. The model was similar to a concept developed by the Pinchot Institute, the US Forest Service, and members of the Forest Climate Working Group.21 In essence, the idea is to sharpen the focus and improve the outcome of federal landowner assistance programs, or, introduce a new program altogether. Such a program would need to secure and grow the carbon sink in the forest, not just through 2030, but through 2100 and beyond.

Ideas of many kinds are under consideration, with supporting science and institutions capable of delivering them in cooperation with federal, state, and local government. They need to be evaluated from the perspective of what they can do to safeguard the forest carbon sink on private lands over the long term. We then need to apply strategies on the ground at a scale that matters, and get serious about saving the private forest carbon estate.

Will Price is Director of Conservation Programs at the Pinchot Institute in Princeton, NJ. The author appreciates the editorial contributions of Dr. John Gunn of SIG-NAL.

1 E.g. Birdsey, R., Pregitzer, K., Lucier, A. 2006. Forest carbon management in the United States: 1600-2100. Journal of Environmental Quality, 35, 1461-1469; Rhemtulla, J., Mladenoff, D. and Clayton, M. 2009. Legacies of historical land use on regional forest composition and structure inWisconsin, USA (mid-1800s- 1930s-2000s) Ecological Applications 19,1061-1078. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/08-1453.1

2 E.g. Nepal, P. et al. 2012. Projection of US forest sector carbon sequestration under US and global timber market and wood energy consumption scenarios, 2010-2060. Biomass and Bioenergy, 45, 251-264; Drummond, M. and Loveland T. 2010. Land-use pressure and a transition to forest-cover loss in the eastern United States. Bioscience, 60.4, 286-298; Houghton, R. and J. Hackler. 2000. Changes in terrestrial carbon storage in the United States. 1: The roles of agriculture and forestry. Global Ecology and Biogeography 9.2, 125-144.

3 Brown, D. et al. 2014. Ch. 13: Land Use and Land Cover Change. In Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, Melillo, J., Richmond, T. and Yohe, G., Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 318-332. doi:10.7930/J05Q4T1Q

4 E.g. Riitters, K. and Coulston, J. 2005. Hot spots of perforated forest in the eastern United States. Environmental Management 35.4, 483-492; Stein, S., McRoberts, R., Alig, R., Nelson, M., Theobald, D., Eley, M., Dechter, M. and Carr, M. 2005. Forests on the edge: housing development on America’s private forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-636. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 16 p.

5 Joyce, L. et al. 2014. Ch. 7: Forests. In Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, Melillo, J., Richmond, T. and Yohe, G., Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 175-194. doi:10.7930/J0Z60KZC.

6 Walker T. et al. 2010. Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study. Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. NCI-2010-03. 189 pp. Available at: https://www.manomet.org/sites/default/fil es/publications_and_tools/Manomet_Biomass_Report_Full_June2010.pdf.

7 USDA Forest Service 2012. Future of America’s Forest and Rangelands: Forest Service 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-87. Washington, DC. 198 p.

8 Joyce et al. 2014.

9 Miner, R., Abt, R., Bowyer, J., Buford, M., Malmsheimer, R., O’Laughlin, J., Sedjo, R. and Skog, K. 2014. Forest carbon accounting considerations in US bioenergy policy. Journal of Forestry 112(6), 591-606.

10 Buchholz, T., Prisley, S., Marland, G. Canham, C. and Sampson, N. 2014. Uncertainty in projecting GHG emissions from bioenergy. Nature Climate Change, Volume 4, Issue 12, pp. 1045-1047.

11 E.g. Nepal et al. 2012; Sedjo, R. and X. Tian 2012. Does wood bioenergy increase carbon stocks in forests? Journal of Forestry 110.6, 304-311.

12 E.g. Nepal et al. 2012; Ryan M., Harmon, M., Birdsey, R., Giardina, C., Heath, L., Houghton, R., Jackson, R., McKinley, D., Morrison, J., Murray, B., Pataki, D. and Skog, K. 2010. A synthesis of the science of forests and carbon for U.S. forests. Ecological Society of America, Issues in Ecology 13, Spring 2010.

13 E.g. Joyce et al. 2014; Harmon et al. 2010.

14 Hansen, M. et al. 2010. Quantification of global gross forest cover loss. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107.19, 8650-8655.

15 Drummond and Loveland 2010.

16 Brown et al. 2014.

17 E.g. Murray, B. et al. 2004. Estimating leakage from forest carbon sequestration programs. Land Economics 80.1, 109-124.; Nepal, P. et al. 2013. Forest carbon benefits, costs and leakage effects of carbon reserve scenarios in the United States. Journal of Forest Economics 19.3, 286-306.

18 Chang, K. 2010. National Land Trust Census Report: A look at voluntary land conservation in America, Aldrich, R. and Soto, C., Eds., Land Trust Alliance, Washington, DC.

19 Forest Preservation Act of 2013. Maryland House Bill 706.

20 S.2729 – Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 2009.

21 http://www.pinchot.org/gp/Forest_ Carbon_Incentives .
Grey Towers National Historic Site Support Our Work Best in America