Forests play an important role in global carbon cycles. Growth, disturbance, and wildfire are natural processes in forest and rangeland ecosystems. However, in many cases, our national forests are overstocked, unhealthy, and outside the range of natural variation. As a result, wildfires burn hotter, damaging the forest ecosystem, impairing forest regeneration, and releasing substantial amounts of Green House Gases (GHG) into the atmosphere. Other disturbances, such as wind throw and ice storms, can have similar impacts. In order to maximize carbon sequestration and storage on our national forests and BLM lands, the Federal government must:
Failure to rapidly recover damaged trees and replant damaged stands forgoes the opportunity to store carbon in long-lasting wood products and to resume the process of sequestration by establishing new stands of trees.
USDA and other government researchers have concluded that wildfires are a substantial source of carbon emissions. In addition to releasing C02, wildfires release substantial amounts of black carbon, which can intensify short-term warming and can reduce snowpack longevity, leading to earlier spring runoff and increased local drought. In many Western States, emissions of CO2 from wildfire in some years equals or exceeds the emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Even in states with large fossil fuel CO2 sources, such as California, fires can be a significant component to the regional carbon budget.
Forest stands rapidly release carbon following fires, insect outbreaks, and wind events. Further, particularly in humid environments, decaying trees following disturbance can release substantial amounts of methane, a GHG considered significantly more powerful than C02.
Recent research suggests that the National Forest System is rapidly becoming a carbon source (i.e. – a net emitter of carbon and other GHG’s), rather than a carbon sink (where carbon is removed from the atmosphere and stored in trees and their root systems). A peer reviewed assessment of California’s National Forests found that because of unhealthy forest conditions, “at some point in the mid-21st century, losses from wildfire, disease and other disturbances will exceed growth. National forest carbon sinks will become unstable and unsustainable.”
In contrast, recovering usable wood in the process of forest restoration can have substantial carbon benefits. Forest products used for building materials and furniture keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by storing carbon for the life of the structure (often 70-100 years or more) and, can be recycled and used again in another wood structure. Wood waste can be used to fire a boiler creating steam to provide heat and generate electricity while reducing criteria pollutants by 98 percent compared to open field burning. Using wood as a building material instead of steel or concrete can reduce the carbon footprint by 250 percent or more. Wood-fired heat and power means less fossil fuels are needed to create energy.
Slow reaction to disturbance events, and failure to prepare landscape level treatments to increase resiliency, reduce mortality, and supply wood products lead to reduced carbon capture and storage on the National Forest System. With adequate preparation and the right policies in place, the National Forests can increase their carbon performance and help mitigate climate impacts from wildfire and other disturbances.
FFRC Policy Recommendations
The Forest Service must act on larger landscapes in order to significantly reduce the threat of large catastrophic fires, which have uniquely damaging carbon emissions implications. Significant disturbance events on the National Forest System provide a unique opportunity to capture carbon stored in standing timber, while establishing green and growing forests which will rapidly begin sequestering carbon while protecting watersheds and wildlife habitat. We urge USDA to adopt the following policies which will help sequester and store carbon and restore forests.
USDA and CEQ must take the following concrete steps to address the Wildland fire and forest health emergency, while implementing the President’s climate action strategy.
1. Declare an emergency on all federal lands designated as condition class 2 or 3 on wildfire risk maps, as well as lands identified as priorities for treatment in a Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Adopt NEPA compliance strategies for all such lands, including:
- Allow any hazardous fuel reduction project, including creation of fuel breaks, thinning, defensible space around developed property, campgrounds, or other facilities, to be carried out concurrent with development of NEPA documentation.
- Ensure that HFRA authorities are utilized on any fuels reduction project on Condition Class 2 or 3 lands, that no more than one action alternative is considered, and explicitly limit required cumulative effects analysis to known impacts of previous management in the project area.
- Use an existing categorical exclusion (or develop a new CE) for any hazardous fuels reduction project on condition class 2 or 3 lands recommended by a collaborative group.
- Put a firm page limit of 15 pages on EA’s for projects on Condition Class 2 or 3 lands in order to expedite action.
2. Develop Large Scale Responses to Insect Infestations: Direct each forest with a known insect infestation to develop large scale control projects along the lines of the Black Hills Mountain Pine Beetle Response Project within the next 6 months, using the provisions of the Healthy Forest Restoration Act.
3. Develop a model forest plan amendment to allow each National Forest to plan, in advance of any catastrophic event, an active program that allows the Forest Service to leverage existing industry infrastructure to recover usable wood fiber and re-establishes green, growing, and carbon-sequestering forests as rapidly as possible. In general, on lands designated as suitable for timber production or otherwise designated as general forest, the Forest Service should adopt a requirement to recover and reforest at least 75% of damaged acres.
By rapidly adopting and implementing these policies, the Forest Service will help turn around the current negative trend in forest mortality – and carbon sequestration – while putting itself in a position to make sure that future catastrophic events have minimal impacts on forest carbon emissions. Rapid recovery not only ensures that wood from the National Forests will store carbon rather than releasing it, it also allows the agency to establish new stands of trees more quickly. Reforested, young stands have a much higher rate of carbon sequestration than older ones, and certainly exponentially higher than in stands experiencing significant mortality.
The policies recommended above show that better management of the National Forest System can have substantial benefits in terms of carbon sequestration and storage. Of course, these are not the only steps needed to improve the management of our National Forests. In order to successfully implement many of these steps, Congressional action to streamline the way the Forest Service conducts NEPA would be helpful, if not necessary, in the face of nearly constant objections and litigation from groups that do not support any management of the National Forests.
Rapid steps are required to cope with the forest health and wildfire crisis on our Federal public lands. Allowing current negative trends to continue simply diverts precious time and money into needless analysis, while allowing negative carbon trends on the National Forest System to worsen.