Validated Science versus Unproven Scientific Hypothesis – Which One Should We Choose?

In a 6/13/18 article, David Atkins provides a critique of the assumptions behind the Law et al article titled: “Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests” and shows how hypothetical science can and has been used, without any caveat, to provide some groups with slogans that meet their messaging needs instead of waiting for validation of the hypothesis and thereby considering the holistic needs of the world.


The noble goal of Law et. al. is to determine the “effectiveness of forest strategies to mitigate climate change”. They state that their methodology “should integrate observations and mechanistic ecosystem process models with future climate, CO2, disturbances from fire, and management.”

A) The generally (ignoring any debate over the size of the percentage increase) UNCONTESTED points regarding locking up more carbon in the Law et. al. article are as follows:
1) Reforestation on appropriate sites – ‘Potential 5% improvement in carbon storage by 2100’
2) Afforestation on appropriate sites – ‘Potential 1.4% improvement in carbon storage by 2100′

B) The CONTESTED points regarding locking up 17% more carbon by 2100 in the Law et. al. article are as follows:
1) Lengthened harvest cycles on private lands
2) Restricting harvest on public lands

C) Atkins, at the 2018 International Mass Timber Conference protested by Oregon Wild, notes that: “Oregon Wild (OW) is advocating that storing more carbon in forests is better than using wood in buildings as a strategy to mitigate climate change.” OW’s first reference from Law et. al. states: “Increasing forest carbon on public lands reduced emissions compared with storage in wood products” (see Law et. al. abstract). Another reference quoted by OW from Law et. al. goes so far as to claim that: “Recent analysis suggests substitution benefits of using wood versus more fossil fuel-intensive materials have been overestimated by at least an order of magnitude.”

II) Law et. al. CAVEATS ignored by OW

A) They clearly acknowledge that their conclusions are based on computer simulations (modeling various scenarios using a specific set of assumptions subject to debate by other scientists).

B) In some instances, they use words like “probably”, “likely” and “appears” when describing some assumptions and outcomes rather than blindly declaring certainty.


Knowing that the modeling used in the Law et. al. study involves significant assumptions about each of the extremely complex components and their interactions, Atkins proceeds to investigate the assumptions which were used to integrate said models with the limited variables mentioned and shows how they overestimate the carbon cost of using wood, underestimate the carbon cost of storing carbon on the stump and underestimate the carbon cost of substituting non-renewable resources for wood. This allows Oregon Wild to tout unproven statements as quoted in item “I-C” above and treat them as fact and justification for policy changes instead of as an interesting but unproven hypothesis that needs to be validated in order to complete the scientific process.

Quotes from Atkins Critique:

A) Wood Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) Versus Non-renewable substitutes.
1) “The calculation used to justify doubling forest rotations assumes no leakage. Leakage is a carbon accounting term referring to the potential that if you delay cutting trees in one area, others might be cut somewhere else to replace the gap in wood production, reducing the supposed carbon benefit.”
2) “It assumes a 50-year half-life for buildings instead of the minimum 75 years the ASTM standard calls for, which reduces the researchers’ estimate of the carbon stored in buildings.”
3) “It assumes a decline of substitution benefits, which other LCA scientists consider as permanent.”
4) “analysis chooses to account for a form of fossil fuel leakage, but chooses not to model any wood harvest leakage.”
5) “A report published by the Athena Institute in 2004, looked at actual building demolition over a three-plus-year period in St. Paul, Minn. It indicated 51 percent of the buildings were older than 75 years. Only 2 percent were demolished in the first 25 years and only 12 percent in the first 50 years.”
6) “The Law paper assumes that the life of buildings will get shorter in the future rather than longer. In reality, architects and engineers are advocating the principle of designing and building for longer time spans – with eventual deconstruction and reuse of materials rather than disposal. Mass timber buildings substantially enhance this capacity. There are Chinese Pagoda temples made from wood that are 800 to 1,300 years old. Norwegian churches are over 800 years old. I visited at cathedral in Scotland with a roof truss system from the 1400s. Buildings made of wood can last for many centuries. If we follow the principle of designing and building for the long run, the carbon can be stored for hundreds of years.”
7) “The OSU scientists assumed wood energy production is for electricity production only. However, the most common energy systems in the wood products manufacturing sector are combined heat and power (CHP) or straight heat energy production (drying lumber or heat for processing energy) where the efficiency is often two to three times as great and thus provides much larger fossil fuel offsets than the modeling allows.”
8) “The peer reviewers did not include an LCA expert.”
9) The Dean of the OSU College of Forestry was asked how he reconciles the differences between two Doctorate faculty members when the LCA Specialist (who is also the director of CORRIM which is a non-profit that conducts and manages research on the environmental impacts of production, use, and disposal of forest products). The Dean’s answer was “It isn’t the role of the dean to resolve these differences, … Researchers often explore extremes of a subject on purpose, to help define the edges of our understanding … It is important to look at the whole array of research results around a subject rather than using those of a single study or publication as a conclusion to a field of study.”
10) Alan Organschi, a practicing architect, a professor at Yale stated his thought process as “There is a huge net carbon benefit [from using wood] and enormous variability in the specific calculations of substitution benefits … a ton of wood (which is half carbon) goes a lot farther than a ton of concrete, which releases significant amounts of carbon during a building’s construction”. He then paraphrased a NASA climate scientistfrom the late 1980’s who said ‘Quit using high fossil fuel materials and start using materials that sink carbon, that should be the principle for our decisions.’
11) The European Union, in 2017, based on “current literature”, called “for changes to almost double the mitigation effects by EU forests through Climate Smart Forestry (CSF). … It is derived from a more holistic and effective approach than one based solely on the goals of storing carbon in forest ecosystems”
12) Various CORRIM members stated:
a) “Law et al. does not meet the minimum elements of a Life Cycle Assessment: system boundary, inventory analysis, impact assessment and interpretation. All four are required by the international standards (ISO 14040 and 14044); therefore, Law et al. does not qualify as an LCA.”
b) “What little is shared in the article regarding inputs to the simulation model ignores the latest developments in wood life cycle assessment and sustainable building design, rendering the results at best inaccurate and most likely incorrect.
c) “The PNAS paper, which asserts that growing our PNW forests indefinitely would reduce the global carbon footprint, ignores that at best there would 100 percent leakage to other areas with lower productivity … which will result in 2 to 3.5 times more acres harvested for the same amount of building materials. Alternatively, all those buildings will be built from materials with a higher carbon footprint, so the substitution impact of using fossil-intensive products in place of renewable low carbon would result in >100 percent leakage.”
d) More on leakage: “In 2001, seven years after implementation, Jack Ward Thomas, one of the architects of the plan and former chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said: “The drop in the cut in the Pacific Northwest was essentially replaced by imports from Canada, Scandinavia and Chile … but we haven’t reduced our per-capita consumption of wood. We have only shifted the source.”
e) “Bruce Lippke, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and former executive director of CORRIM said, “The substitution benefits of wood in place of steel or concrete are immediate, permanent and cumulative.””

B) Risks Resulting from High Densities of Standing Timber
1) “The paper underestimates the amount of wildfire in the past and chose not to model increases in the amount of fire in the future driven by climate change.”
2) “The authors chose to treat the largest fire in their 25-year calibration period, the Biscuit Fire (2003), as an anomaly. Yet 2017 provided a similar number of acres burned. … the model also significantly underestimated five of the six other larger fire years ”
3) “The paper also assumed no increase in fires in the future
4) Atkins comments/quotes support what some of us here on the NCFP blog have been saying for years regarding storing more timber on the stump. There is certainty that a highly significant increase in carbon loss to fire, insects and disease will result from increased stand densities as a result of storing more carbon on the stump on federal lands. Well documented, validated and fundamental plant physiology and fire science can only lead us to that conclusion. Increases in drought caused by global warming will only increase the stress on already stressed, overly dense forests and thereby further decrease their viability/health by decreasing the availability of already limited resources such as access to minerals, moisture and sunlight while providing closer proximity between trees to ease the ability and rate of spread of fire, insects and disease between adjacent trees.

In their conclusion, Law et. al. state that“GHG reduction must happen quickly to avoid surpassing a 2°C increase in temperature since preindustrial times.” This emphasis leads them to focus on strategies which, IMHO, will only exacerbate the long-term problem.
→ For perspective, consider the “Failed Prognostications of Climate Alarm

13 thoughts on “Validated Science versus Unproven Scientific Hypothesis – Which One Should We Choose?”

  1. Another example of ‘crafting’ the study, and ignoring important data, to generate the desired results and conclusions. Such is the way of scientists, today, it seems. “Beyond the scope of this study” is also a common statement, in today’s scientific world.

      • 2nd Law, Dave Atkins, editor of Here’s his bio:

        Dave Atkins, President/CEO is a “Sustainabilist”; his passion is to bring together the social, environmental and economic elements needed to create a sustainable society. A Forester and Forest Ecologist by training and practice; attended Humboldt State University where he got a B.S. in Forest Science. He worked for the US Forest Service in Oregon, Montana. In mid-career he got a M.S. degree in Forest Ecology at the University of Montana. He developed and managed the Fuels for Schools Initiative starting in 2001, which used waste wood to produce heat. He finished his career in the Forest Service national office working with the office of the Secretary of Agriculture and multiple USDA agencies, DOE, EPA and nongovernmental partner organizations and the private sector managing the Wood to Energy program and starting the Wood Innovations initiative, which expanded the use of mass timber products in commercial mid and high rise buildings.

      • For the record: Treesource is an editorially independent, journalistic, 501(c)3 supported by individual donations, sponsorships and grants. In the 17 months of our publishing I have not received a penny of compensation for my time. Steve Wilent’s post clearly articulates my perspective and background. Check out our site for the range of topics we cover, from urban forests to wilderness and everything in between:

  2. I happily defer to the experts on carbon flows, so I wondered what those involved in carbon markets have decided about these questions. Here is the basic framework for carbon markets, which provide offsets for these activities (actual money is involved). Leaving healthy trees on the stumps seems to be a common thread, but the details on what would get you the greatest offset (and the science that is based on) would be informative. (

    “In general, three types of forest management activities may produce carbon offsets:

    Afforestation/Reforestation (A/R): carbon is sequestered and offsets generated through the creation or re-establishment of forests.

    Avoided Conversion (AC): forests with a demonstrably high likelihood of tree and carbon loss (usually from conversion to agriculture or development) commit to retain forest as forest, and the avoided carbon dioxide emissions through this conservation effort yield offsets. Under the Verified Carbon Standard, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is similar to AC.

    Improved Forest Management (IFM): better, sustainable forest management increases carbon in the forest and in durable, harvested wood products. Improved forest management for carbon offset projects may include:
    – Increasing overall age of forest by increasing rotation ages
    – Increasing the forest productivity by thinning diseased or suppressed trees or managing brush and other competing vegetation
    – Improving harvest practices
    – Maintaining stocks at a high level”

    • I doubt that a thinning project could be sold if only “diseased or suppressed trees or managing brush and other competing vegetation” were proposed. I guess it depends on the definition of “suppressed”. If a 28″ dbh white fir is growing underneath a 44″ dbh dominant pine, would you call the white fir “suppressed”?

      Also, who sets the stocking levels, are they site-specific, and…. why should they be at the “high” end of the spectrum (with all this drought going on)?

  3. Jon and Larry

    I took a short course for forestry consultants and landowners on this in either Louisiana, Georgia or Mississippi over ten years ago. There doesn’t seem to be much interest in the carbon markets here in the south. But no matter, here is the general process flow:

    1) Remember that this is a negotiated contract between two willing parties and is only entered into if they can come to agreement after exploring all of the alternative scenarios the number of which depends on the flexibility of the parties. There are no dictated inflexibilities other than the carbon market’s requirement of SUSTAINABILITY of a to be agreed upon level of carbon storage to be “locked up” over a to be agreed upon fixed contract time period.

    2) If the two parties are interested in exploring the possibility of entering into an agreement, then the following steps would generally follow:
    a) Mapping, standing inventory and measurement of site specific growth parameters would be undertaken to provide sufficient info to build alternative management plans and their associated wood product stream of net profit from any product sales volume and income from the sustained carbon storage market value.
    b) Alternative sustainable management plans and their respective economics would be considered by both parties.
    c) If both parties come to agreement on one of the management plans then they would proceed to the negotiation of payments, contract duration, contingencies and other legal stipulations.

    • Thanks, Gil. So my question would be the relationship between cutting trees and the value of the offset. Would you get paid more for a credit (because it stores more carbon) that is based on standing trees or removing them? If your contract is to harvest more timber, is it worth more or less than one that harvests less? (While there might be some site-related differences, I would think there would be an overall trend.)

  4. Thanks, Gil, one more thing that is perhaps more of a western thing.. lots of bad things can happen to trees out here in the west (bugs, fires and so on) so some people argue that paying for growing trees for carbon is riskier than other ways of sequestering carbon.

    • Re: “some people argue that paying for growing trees for carbon is riskier than other ways of sequestering carbon”
      —-> agreed – That was the intention of item “B-4” in the opening post which some of us have been saying for years on this site as supported by plant physiology, fire physics as well as by insect and disease science. I explained it to my doctor the other day using the following analogy: “put 100,000 people in this hospital, keep them here for a sustained period and see what happens to your sterling health record. The same principle applies with trees as with people.” His eyes got big and he said “I understand”.

      Re: “out here in the west”
      —-> The east is subject to the same scientific principles as the west. What is adventitious, IMHO, in the East over the West is:
      a) A significantly larger proportion of total ownership in the east is in private ownership which allows for more sustainable forest management than in the west. In the map shown here, compare the purple private ownership in the east against the green public ownership in the west. This keeps the radical enviros from locking up too much timber on the stump and kept the forest industry in the east intact when the federal harvests were cut by 85+% in the 90’s.
      b) Northeasterly air flow from the gulf of Mexico and moisture from the gulf stream provides more moisture regardless of the heat which only improves growth.
      c) I would expect that the % of eastern forest on steep slopes is lower than in the west. This would allow for more management in the form of controlled burns, firebreaks, insect and disease control, better control of stand density and a road network that allows good access to forests for control of fires and also serves as firebreaks. The enviros have reduced these functions in the west even where slope is not an issue.
      d) The patch work of interspersed small towns, agricultural acreage and forests in the east contributes a significant function as fire breaks.
      e) The fire break function provided in the west by harvesting activities between ~ 1940 through to 5 to 10 years after the 1990 federal harvest reduction in the west has been lost.
      f) The significant rural citizenship in the east has had over 3 centuries of experience to show them that the forests are sustainable in spite of the totally exploitative practices prior to the 40’s/50’s which relied only on natural regeneration.

    • The risks are spread among many stands. Beetles and fire affect a subset of the landscape and the value of carbon contracts need to be adjusted at the margin to account for such risks, but they are not deal breakers. The forest landscape is still storing more carbon every year.

      • 2ndLaw

        Would you agree that once stand density passes some trigger level appropriate to the species mix, site and environment – the endemic risk transitions to becoming pandemic which significantly increases the incidence of and rate of spread for fire, insects and disease?

        1) For instance, in the south, it was established in the 80’s that when loblolly stands carry more than 120ba, a Southern Pine Beetle attack is impending and as it spreads to other stands the chances for an epidemic increase exponentially.
        2) Would you agree that the same principle applies to wildfire in terms of density of stems? Do you agree that the higher the number of stems/acre on increasingly larger acreages significantly increases the chances of an ignition event turning into a wildfire and likewise significantly increases the probability of spread and rate of spread through retained ground floor and ladder fuels as well as through tree & stand proximity – all other things being equal?


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