Trade-offs and opportunities for forest carbon and wildlife

A few months ago we discussed a paper by Law et al that suggests establishing “Strategic Forest Reserves” to increase CO2 sequestration.

There are several arguments against this proposal, such as the likelihood of fire or other disturbances eliminating some or all of the CO2 in the reserves. A new open-access paper in Conservation Science and Practice offers another view: “Identifying trade-offs and opportunities for forest carbon and wildlife using a climate change adaptation lens.” In short, there are resources and values beyond CO2 that ought to be factored in. An article about the paper explains:

“The importance of diverse habitat conditions across the landscape may be increasingly overlooked, especially by the public, as forest carbon storage takes center stage,” said lead author Caitlin Littlefield, a recent research associate in the UVM Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources (RSENR). “As more attention is focused on maximizing forest carbon, we risk unintentionally compromising the long-term sustainability of other objectives, such as maintaining important habitat for at-risk wildlife species.”


On a warming planet, a key challenge natural resource managers face is protecting wildlife while mitigating climate change—as through forest carbon storage—to the greatest extent possible. But in some ecosystems, habitat restoration for imperiled species may be incompatible with maximizing carbon storage. For example, promoting early successional forest conditions does not maximize stand-level carbon storage, whereas uniformly promoting high stocking or mature forest conditions in the name of carbon storage excludes species that require open or young stands. Here, we briefly review the literature regarding carbon and wildlife trade-offs and then explore four case studies from the Northern Forest region of the United States. In each case, human activities have largely dampened the influence of natural disturbances; restoring or emulating these disturbances is typically required for habitat restoration even when doing so equates to less carbon storage at the stand level. We propose that applying a climate adaptation lens can help managers and planners navigate these trade-offs and steer away from maladaptive practices that may ultimately reduce adaptive capacity. Instead, critically evaluating the consequences of stand-level management actions on both carbon and wildlife can then facilitate landscape-scale climate adaptation planning that supports a diversity of habitats alongside opportunities to invest in maximizing forest carbon.

30 thoughts on “Trade-offs and opportunities for forest carbon and wildlife”

  1. Littlefield and d’Amato add further arguments to why forest management under the guise of maximum carbon storage is a bad idea. In short the preserve model does not meet the needs of all wildlife, as many species are dependent on early or mid-seral habitats. However, the article is a bit incomplete in my estimation as they don’t mention the elephant in the room, which is fire. In my estimation Law, DelaSalla and others are engaged in a whole lot of wishful thinking and foolishness. There is no way we can just keep adding trees to the forest on either side of the Cascades Range an expect it to do anything other than burn down. The best management approach is to manage for resilience, which means less dense forests, interspersed with openings. We need forests where having fire pass through does not mean mortality to all trees. That is the bottom line.

    • The authors do mention wildfire several times. For example, “In the examples below, restoring low severity fire and reducing fuels in fire-prone systems reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfire and associated carbon loss (Liang et al. 2018).”

      Law et al address wildfire, such as here: “Drought and wildfire are becoming more common in this region and could destabilize forest carbon and biodiversity in some areas; thus, our framework incorporates ecosystem model simulations to identify forests with high future vulnerability and reduces their priority for protection.”

      My sense is that Law et al see CO2 sequestration via forest preservation as far more important than the potential for wildfire and other disturbances, since another paper by Law and coauthors claim that logging leads to higher CO2 emissions than any other activity (electricity generation, transportation).

  2. One of the things I thought was interesting about this piece was
    “What happens when strategies to maximize carbon on the ground do not tidily align with disturbance-oriented strategies to promote important habitat for imperiled wildlife species? As we (the authors) have repeatedly heard during targeted conversations with natural resource managers across the region as well as via more formal listening sessions (Janowiak et al. 2020) and surveys (Schattman et al., 2021), many managers are acutely aware of this question as public pressures mount to avoid any forest management that seemingly compromises carbon storage. Even within the growing body of literature that examines the relationship between carbon storage and wildlife habitat or biodiversity, the importance of maintaining heterogeneous habitat conditions is frequently obscured. ”

    This sounds like a “science situation that shouts watch out” in which the literature and the concerns of people in the real world are possibly diverging.

    • Thanks for posting that excerpt, Sharon. Interesting the 1st two papers listed under Recommended (to the right of the paper) are seemingly from different viewpoints:

      “Tree diversity and carbon storage cobenefits in tropical human‐dominated landscapes”

      “Existing land uses constrain climate change mitigation potential of forest restoration in India”

  3. NRV (natural range of variation, for the uninitiated) for vegetation and species is the requirement for national forest lands, which lines up nicely with the authors’ conclusion: “plans to leverage the natural climate solution of forest carbon storage ought to be crafted with habitat diversity targets in mind.” I am always suspicious that arguments for early seral habitat for wildlife are driven by not-at-risk game species (along with logging interests), but this seems ecologically well-reasoned (for the eastern ecosystem types they considered).

    • “arguments for early seral habitat for wildlife are driven by not-at-risk game species.” But many not-at-risk game species need early seral habitat. It is reasonable to manage for a diversity of habitat ages and types, regardless of the timber output. Of course, timber sales can and do help pay for habitat work.

      • Many game species do need early seral habitat and that is a management option, but my point was that this is often used to support claims that there are “wildlife benefits” for reducing habitat needed by genuinely at-risk species that need rare late seral habitat.

        • But those are wildlife benefits.. just some species of wildlife and not other species of wildlife. They’re just not “rare late-seral wildlife species benefit”. Wildlife is everything from prairie dogs to falcons to skunks to coyotes to elk to…
          Rare mammal species are different from “wildlife” IMHO. Here’s the Merriam-Webster wildlife definition: “living things and especially mammals, birds, and fishes that are neither human nor domesticated.” Now we know that fish bios have their own worldview and disciplinary terrain (or watershed), so that leaves mammals and birds.

          If you mean “rare species of wildlife” that’s OK but I don’t think it’s wrong to define wildlife more broadly.

          • For game species, it sometimes seems intended to come across as “wildlife” needs the habitat, when actually the wildlife populations are fine, but hunters want more. I find that disingenuous.

        • Where is the literature that can scientifically demonstrate that any species — including those that are “genuinely at risk” — “need rare late seral habitat?”

          How is “need” defined in this instance? Maybe “apparently prefer” is more accurate? What is so “rare” about “late serial habitat?” This sounds more like politics than biology, and maybe because it is.

          How much of this “needed” “late seral habitat” burned in a wildfire the past 20 years, and how is that change in habitat affected “at-risk” populations? These are important questions, given rural economies and catastrophic wildfires the past few decades.

          • I can tell you that probably every forest plan assessment I’ve encountered says there are fewer late-seral forests than historically, often to the point of being outside of the documented historic range. Whether species “prefer,” “need,” of “depend on” them is semantics; the issue is whether that is a factor that is causing species to be at-risk, and there are many where this is true according to the biologists and the Fish and Wildlife Service (using the criteria for ESA listing which includes “the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat or range”). I agree that the more of this that burns, the more we need to be careful with what’s left.

          • Hi Jon: I agree with the forest plan assessments that you have reviewed that there are fewer “late seral” (both Spellchek and I really don’t like this term) forests now than in earlier historical time. I don’t think that is a true statement for all earlier times though, and think that serious human pandemics from 1500 to 1860 had a lot to do with the older forests “discovered” by early literate explorers, white settlers, loggers and researchers. Look at age classes and distribution patterns for an insight to this claim.

  4. This paper seems to forget which forest types are under-represented (mature & old-growth) and which are over-represented (young forests). Conservation of mature & old-growth and restoration of many mid-seral forests is required to recreate conditions where late successional wildlife can survive and persist. This will also provide a lot of carbon benefits.

    Early seral habitat needs are easily met by (1) managing post-fire for complex habitat (less salvage and replanting), and (2) tweaking tree farming practices on private lands to retain more structure and diversity.

    • I’m not sure how much of this is true, 2nd Law. “Under-represented” according to who, and compared to what? To say your vision of “restoring” older forests from “mid-seal” forests is “required” for some species is, at best, pure speculation. And what the heck are “carbon benefits?”

      We really don’t have “seral stages” in our forests, either. The Clinton Plan tried to enforce them on us, but reverted to the more-accurate “age classes” in their Glossary. My best guess is that you have had very little, if any, practical forest management experience. These are all unproven hypotheticals with debatable terms leading the way. (Note: Spellchek remains my wurst enema in these discussions, and keeps turning “seral” into serial, feral, and even teal! I have caught most of them, though).

      • Asking “questions” without any factual support behind them but with an intent to discredit the prior asserted point, is very Tucker Carlsonesque (and that is not intended as a compliment).

        • Okay Jon, I’ll take that as an insult, if that was your intent. I’m sure you can do better with practice, though.

          Actually, my experience has been that by asking questions, we can further discussion by encouraging thought. Maybe rhetorical questions especially. Not sure what you meant by “no factual support.” either. I was questioning his use of qualitative measures, personal values, and un-defined technical terms, so don’t know what “facts” would (or could) be applied. Also not sure how you could infer my “intent to discredit” w/o at least asking me, which comes across as very Carlac the Magnificentesque (intended as Dad humor) of you.

    • Young forests are underrepresented on federal lands in the PNW. Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson have made this point repeatedly. Of course, recent megafires have set back the clock on large areas.

      • Hi Steve: Yes, Jerry and Norm have made this claim repeatedly for decades, but I have consistently and publicly challenged this claim with historical documentation over the same period of time. General Land Survey notes and maps, eyewitness accounts, early aerial and Osborne photos, palynology and dendrochronology research do not confirm their statements.

        For the Oregon Coast Range, as one example, my dissertation focused on this very issue and showed that the majority of the region could be characterized by even-aged stands of seedlings, saplings, and second-growth Douglas fir for most of the past 500 years, with prairies, balds, meadows, berry fields, oak savannas, and riparian grasslands truly being “underrepresented,” by using their logic. I really don’t think it is up to a couple of academics to determine what appropriate “representation” of any forest condition might be, for any ownership. Those guys definitely have a bias, as do I, but these are value statements, not biology or history.

        Also, I think the recent “megafires” are unprecedented, particularly for historical time, based on the same research methods. Their severity and extent could have been greatly limited if good research and active management had been in place, in my opinion.

        • Bob, your analysis of historic conditions is awesome. And you’re right about our new abundance of snags. But how do present conditions compare. From what I have seen and heard, early seral habitat is in short supply (with the exception of the burned areas). Maybe 20 years ago, I heard a wildlife biologist say that elk would be increasingly rare in the west-side Cascades on Oregon, unless new young forest habitat opened up. Fire suppression (with recent major exceptions) and the steep decline in regeneration harvests — and lots of aging plantations.

          • Hi Steve: Thanks for the compliment — unfortunately, there isn’t much competition or acceptance of this research. Most of the western Oregon “early seral” landscape encountered by white immigrants in the mid-1800s was quickly converted to towns, crops, and pasture. Those millions of acres of prairie and oak savanna can’t be replicated due to changed land use patterns, but we can restore the meadows, berry fields, open riparian areas, and balds on our public forestlands to good advantage.

            I’m not sure of the accuracy, but a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation told me that elk have largely disappeared from the Siuslaw National Forest due to the elimination of logging and prescribed fire the past 30 years. The Elliott State Forest is another good example — logging stopped there a few years ago, and most signs of deer and elk have disappeared, too, despite over 100 elk living in the pasturage adjacent to the highway and to the Elliott a few miles east of Reedsport.

            I tagged my first deer in the Tillamook Burn in 1960, where my Dad had filled more than 25 tags a year or two before (different story). The main thing was that the deer population had exploded following the “Six-Year Jinx” of Tillamook Fires from 1933 through 1951, and the State decided a doe season was needed to protect the new plantations and other tree seedlings that were being heavily browsed.

          • “From what I have seen and heard, early seral habitat is in short supply (with the exception of the burned areas).”

            I’m confused – burned areas don’t count towards early seral habitat?

          • Burned areas do count towards early seral habitat, of course, but it isn’t desirable to have such large areas of such habitat.

          • I’m still confused regarding the seral habitat that does NOT result from fires that is in “short supply” (per Steve’s comment).

          • ON USFS lands in the Northwest Forest Plan area, harvesting declined sharply since ~1990 and fires have been successfully suppressed, with notable exceptions. There haven’t been many disturbances that created openings in the forest, thus there is relatively little early seral habitat. That’s why Franklin and Johnson advocate “ecological forestry” aimed at creating openings and thus more young forest habitat.

          • I’m still missing why creating openings is still desired and relevant now that we have tons of young forest habitat as a result of fires.

          • Not only that, but it western Oregon there is no such thing as “seral stages” at all. It’s an artificial construct that Ben Stout said was adopted “because it is easy to teach.” His forestry professor at Harvard was Hugh Raup, who did his graduate research specific to “seral stages,” and then wrote essays and corresponded on the issue. Jim Petersen is doing a seven-part series on Stout, Raup, and this topic that is just beginning in coming weeks:

          • Seral stages do exists, IMHO, but each is a continuum and there is no bright line between them. FWIW, I’m toward the older end of the middle-aged class of people.

          • I think age classes and types for dominant vegetation is better: grasslands, scrublands, seedlings, saplings, etc., being described as new plantations, 5-year-old seedlings, 80-year-old second-growth, etc. To be more precise, I’m a 73-year-old male. I think that is both clearer and more accurate, whether vegetation or biped.

      • Since wildlife doesn’t care about ownership, the status of habitat on nonfederal lands is relevant to management of federal lands. If there are sufficient young forests in the same ecosystem, there is no need to provide them on federal lands. On the other hand, the lack of old forests on nonfederal lands could require that federal lands provide more than their “share.”

        • My observation was that we had an excess of older trees on most of our federal lands prior to the Labor Day Fires. Now we have an unprecedented superabundance of snags and other dead wood on these lands — providing ever greater risk to the older trees that still remain, no matter the ownership.


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