Dead Trees Sequester No Carbon: What We Learned About Offsets Should Apply to National Forests (or Not?) And A Request for More Voices


A ponderosa pine seedling peeks out of the Hayman-Fire scarred landscape near Cheesman Reservoir. After the fire, Denver Water spent more than 10 years working with volunteers and Colorado State Forest Service crews to plant about 25,000 trees per year on the 7,500 acres of Denver Water property destroyed by Hayman.

There’s a recent story in E&E news about MOG (Mature and Old Growth), that was framed as being about timber interests versus environmentalists (no one here will be surprised by the mention of Dominick Della Salla and the John Muir Project.. on the other side, we have…”timber interests”, as in Bill Imbergamo with the Federal Forest Resource Coalition.  I’d argue that the timber wars are actually over, and the question today has a variety of voices that need to be heard.  For example, people concerned about old growth and mature forests burning up; dying due to bark beetles and other insects, proponents of Native American burning practices, fire suppression folks who appreciate operating zones, and so on.  I’d like to develop a list of potential sources, possibly including state foresters, entomologists and pathologists, prescribed fire and fire suppression practitioners and academics, Forest Service and BLM partners for restoration and fuels projects, and others.

If you have suggestions for contacts and you feel comfortable, please put them in the comments. If you don’t feel comfortable you can email them to me.  The idea would be to have a list that reporters could select from that would give a more comprehensive framing than “loggers versus Hanson et al.”, which I could ship off to any reporters interested in the issue.

Thank you!  Now on to the story…

Let’s talk about carbon..the erstwhile reason (this time) to go after the same old-same old (no logging on federal lands) with the same groups.

On the other side are advocates for less logging, or no logging, on federal lands, who say more protections will help sequester carbon and fight climate change.

People keep saying this, but without intervention in some cases (fuel treatments, beetle sanitation), trees will die. And Dead Trees Sequester No Carbon. So yes, there are places accumulating much carbon that are unlikely to burn up, but this effort is targeted to the entire US.  So it’s not really about that, is it?

It seems logical to me that if keeping out of forests really helped with carbon sequestration, then… people would be all for carbon offsets in western forests! From this NY Times story

Carbon-offset programs, which are designed to fight climate change, typically pay landowners to manage their land in ways that store carbon. Usually, that means paying landowners to not chop down trees.

Wildfires, however, don’t respect those agreements.

An estimated 153,000 acres of forests that are part of California’s carbon-offset project have burned so far this summer, according to CarbonPlan, a nonprofit climate-research organization. Three projects have been affected. In Oregon, a quarter of the Klamath East project, or close to 100,000 acres, has burned in the Bootleg Fire since early July.

(my bold in both spots).

While the rest of the NGOs are working, as the FS asked us, on the definition framework… this group went ahead, made up his own definitions and mapped them.

The use of the NASA information is “an amazing accomplishment,” given its level of detail, said DellaSala, who offered to share the data with the Forest Service.

“It’s not rocket science. It should not take a year,” said DellaSala, who added that 80 years of age is a benchmark for mature trees.

I don’t know how they can tell how the age of trees from NASA information, I have trouble telling how old they are (without knowing the area) without an increment borer.


Commenters told the Forest Service on an agency webinar several weeks ago that “mature” defies a simple definition, considering trees that live hundreds of years might not be considered “mature” at 80 years old.

I think what the commenter said was something like “if aspen lives to x years and bristlecones live to y years, you can’t use the same age for each species.”


The John Muir Project called for a partial moratorium on logging while the Forest Service inventory is underway and until protections are in place, and asked supporters to submit letters to the agency in support of the idea. The Forest Service, though, has said the executive order doesn’t call for any changes in projects underway or planned.

“For the purpose of this immediate moratorium, individual trees and stands of trees, whether burned in a fire (dead or alive) or unburned, that are 50 years old or older, should be excluded from cutting and removal in any areas where logging operations are allowed, and should be prohibited from being cut and removed in any area where logging operations have already been approved,” a sample letter says.

Note the current rationale is for carbon storage and sequestration, the the moratorium includes dead trees.  It’s the same old stuff with different packaging- or dare I say veneer?

Clearly we need more voices for reporters to call on… please append or send.  Thanks again for suggestions.


28 thoughts on “Dead Trees Sequester No Carbon: What We Learned About Offsets Should Apply to National Forests (or Not?) And A Request for More Voices”

    • Well, we can’t define what M is.. so there’s a problem. The forests probably have an estimate of OG but you could overlay mapped OG with mapped “high” vegetation severity (75 to 100 percent of veg cover was lost). I suppose the FS is probably doing that now.
      Here’s an example from the Mendocino in the Plasket Keller EA Phase I page 2

      Fire has always been a part of the Mendocino National Forest. Historically, low- to moderate-intensity
      wildfires tempered forest densities and allowed for a diversity of vegetative species at various stages of
      growth. This, in turn, supported an array of wildlife and forest uses. More recent fires, however, have
      burned hotter and consumed more acreage than ever recorded. The 2018 Ranch Fire and 2020 August
      Complex, for example, collectively burned 939,311 acres (87.6% of the administrative area) within the
      Mendocino National Forest. Almost half of those acres (423,850 acres) burned at a “high” severity
      classification, meaning 75 to 100 percent of vegetative cover was lost (see Figure 7).

  1. We are definitely back to the “war in the woods” – at least in the Pacific Northwest. I wouldn’t consider it to be the “timber wars” anymore either. I wonder if the folks advocating for protection of mature and old forests are recognizing the mortality and declines being seen in western red cedar and western hemlock? And the fir engraver mortality in central and southern Oregon? We can save all of the “mature” forests that you want, but these forests will not necessarily become the replacement old growth…

  2. FWIW: I reached out to some researchers I know who study issues like these and got this response when I ask her for a response to this blog post:

    “I wouldn’t even know where to begin – completely misinformed and confuses carbon stores with sequestration – the person has a very limited understanding of carbon dynamics in forests and especially the value of maintaining existing stocks dead or alive.”

  3. Back in 1988, this was a majestic stand of old growth, which had been tended by seasonal residents for hundreds of years. Now, parts of this area have burned 3 times in the last 35 years. No trace of “carbon stores”, and the land has not been building much carbon in those years. Even the brush species are having trouble growing in that fire-damaged soil.

    The preservationists never include human effects and impacts on today’s real-world forests. This is one way of preserving a forest to death, but since it is in Yosemite, that is how ‘whatever happened’, happened.

  4. Interesting; sorry to say I have little hope we ever save much old growth/mature trees/WUI houses whatever we do. As mentioned, the “timber wars” have been replaced by the “trust wars”. Having been in the melting pot of 4-FRI, in all its glory, and having that Planning effort come to fruition, the contract/contractor was an absolute dud! All the good will gained in that collaborative, while making great strides in relationships, managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory….

    I may be a timber beast, but a kinder gentler one. I’ve learned the lessons of “us vs them”, beginning in the late 1970’s to, well, really, now. I embrace the “restoration cut” as a means of getting treatment accomplished. Silviculturally, it makes good sense, and is an easy sell, once an individual sees the finished product product.

    However, If we can’t learn to play together in the sandbox, we will wake up one day with no sand!

  5. Been working laying out yet another salvage sale on 1,000 acres of nuked timber. unless you are out working and living in these woods, you might buy some of the BS cooked up by those who pretend that our forests aren’t in crisis. For those of us are out there, these the truth is overwhelmingly obvious that the fires we are having benefit no one. Maybe they ought to organize urban bus tours of the millions of acres of forest burned at high severity here in CA?

  6. I hesitate to throw any specific person under the bus here, but I wish that reporters dealing with forest management issues would make more effort to talk to the scientists who have devoted their lives to these problems. My colleagues and I relied heavily on PNW and RMRS reports – maybe reporters could do the same? (I don’t mean to exclude the other FS research stations – it just happened that the efforts of those two were the most salient to the jobs I worked on.)

    I can suggest specific names off line – I just don’t want them to be mad at me! 😀

  7. This post reflects the climate illiteracy prevalent in much discussion about forests and land carbon science in many media and policy spaces. I attribute an important part of the proliferation of this climate illiteracy to the sordid back room dealing coming for the most part (there are other economic sectors involved, like Wall Street) from the collusion of the fossil fuel industry, the timber industry, and corporate NGOs like The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and Conservation International in their pursuit of carbon markets. Carbon markets are insidious because they are fundamentally reliant on a misrepresentation of how the carbon cycles of our planet really work. There are few groups that have done as much damage to how the public understands climate change than The Nature Conservancy and their promotion of the myth that forests will magically scrub the atmosphere of the emissions from extracting and burning fossil fuels — or that harvested wood products have a sequestered carbon climate benefit value! A total fabrication about climate change if there ever was one. It is absolutely tragic the perpetuation by corporate conservation NGOs of false equivalencies and the erroneous concept that the land sector can ‘neutralize’ the emissions from burning fossil fuels. This post winds lazily among that climate illiteracy, but here are some articles that might at least help steer the conversation about forests and climate on this platform to a fact and science based starting point. This first article in particular helps by laying out some basics about land carbon science and helping the reader understand the difference between carbon stocks and carbon flows.

    And I wrote this up recently as a more easy to access discussion of the concepts

    • Gary, are you saying my post is “climate illiterate”? I was agreeing with the idea that offsets using forests were not a good idea. I didn’t say anything about harvested wood products, zero zilch nada, because all that depends on assumptions of various kinds.

      I live in a place (not uncommon) where trees often can’t be sold but people cut them and often burn them to reduce fuels. So that discussion is fairly irrelevant.

      Cutting through all the modeling and mumbo jumbo (sorry, but you called my post illiterate), I simply said that if you look at the photos here, you won’t see stands of forest trees sequestering. You will see other plants sequestering and dead trees emitting (plus the carbon emitted during the fire). Are you saying something different?

  8. I tried to offer some assistance in providing a reference that describes the difference between carbon stocks and carbon stores, as understanding that difference is important for understanding climate science, however you are still stuck in the flows (sequestration and emissions). The climate problem is really one of diminishing carbon stocks, especially from human industrial economic activity. Dead trees are an important part of forest carbon stocks, as well as providing crucial ecological function. Climate literacy starts with an adequate definition of the climate problem, so until then much of the discussion is just adding to the mumbo jumbo. There can be no question that much discussion about climate in the media can include a great deal of mumbo jumbo.

  9. Gary,

    I’m glad you called attention to the important point that “Dead trees are an important part of forest carbon stocks, as well as providing crucial ecological function.” Protecting soil carbon stores and robust nutrient cycling processes are critical for the regeneration of future carbon-sequestering vegetation and the preservation of essential ecological services.

    85% of the global deadwood carbon stock remains on forest floors and continues to store carbon each year. We recommend that deadwood be left in place — in the forest. Removing deadwood may not only be destructive for biodiversity and the ability of forests to regenerate, but it could actually substantially increase atmospheric carbon. For example, if we used deadwood as a biofuel it could release the carbon that would otherwise have remained locked up each year. If the world’s deadwood was removed and burned, it would release eight times more carbon than what’s currently emitted from burning fossil fuels. This is particularly important in cooler climatic regions, where decomposition is slower and deadwood remains for several years as vital carbon storage.

  10. Publications
    Yang, XG; Liu, YQ; Wu, ZC; Yu, Y; Li, FR; Fan, WY (2020). Forest age mapping based on multiple-resource remote sensing data. ENVIRONMENTAL MONITORING AND ASSESSMENT, 192(11), 734.

    Forest age is an important stand description factor and plays an important role in the carbon cycle of forest ecosystems. However, forest age data are typically lacking or are difficult to acquire at large spatial scale. Thus, it is important to develop a method of spatial forest age mapping. In this study, a method of forest age estimation based on multiple-resource remote sensing data was developed. Forest age was estimated by using average tree height estimated from the ICESat/GLAS and MODIS BRDF products. The results showed that forest age was significantly related to average tree height with a correlation coefficient of 0.752. Then, the average tree height was inversed using a waveform parameter extracted from ICESat/GLAS and was extended to continuous space with the help of the MODIS BRDF product. Thus, forest age mapping was realized. Lastly, the structure of forest age in the study area was evaluated. The results indicated that this method can be used to estimate forest age at the local scale and at large scale and can facilitate understandings of the real forest age structure features of a research area.



  11. Sharon: “Dead Trees Sequester No Carbon”
    Olga Krankina: “Dead trees do not go to heaven.”

    On the flanks of Mary’s Peak I have seen large snags that remain sanding after being killed in a fire in the 1870s.

    For those worried about carbon consequences of fire. I hope they express the same concerns about the carbon consequences of logging.

    During “typical” fire years in the late 1990s, forest fires in western Oregon removed only about 1/50th as much carbon annually compared to logging (0.1 TgC/yr emissions from fire vs. ~5.5 TgC/yr emissions from logging). Logging in western Oregon transfers more carbon out of forests EVERY YEAR than did the unprecedented 2002 Biscuit fire (~5.5 TgC/yr from logging vs. ~4.1 TgC from Biscuit fire). Law, B.E., Turner, D., et al 2004. Disturbance and climate effects on carbon stocks and fluxes across Western Oregon USA. Global Change Biology (2004) 10, 1429-1444.

      • I continue to think that this “existential threat” causing forests to be managed in order to “sequester carbon” as a method of controlling the weather is mostly nuts and a passing fad. Time will tell. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m feeling pretty confident on this.

        • I believe it is important that we ‘invest’ future sequestered carbon into the trees that will remain within our forests, instead of counting on all trees to keep their accumulated carbon. By modern thinning practices, we can do just that. We must also consider the life of the wood products that keep carbon sequestered, after the project is completed. Some people think that the carbon in harvested trees is magically gone, after it is cut down.

          To me, carbon sequestration is a good side effect to good forest management, and should not be the focus for not doing the work. We should also be considering the reality of the ‘100-year drought’, in all management plans. We do that for ‘100-year floods’.

  12. It is always wise to omit Hansen from any discussion on this topic. Even among his fellow ecologists he is a pariah and considered the ‘Alex Jones’ of the field.

    • And the interesting question is why are climate deniers obvious pariahs (not included by reporters) and fuels treatment deniers are highlighted by reporters compared to practicing fire scientists.

      • Are we at two different points of visibility and knowledge on these topics? Most reporters are now pretty well-versed (at a popular level any way) in climate science; fuel treatment science not so much. There probably was a time when climate change deniers were given more respect than they get now. There may be a time when a similar public consensus on fuel treatments will lead to less highlighting of minority views.

        • Jon: What, exactly, is a “climate change denier?” I thought everybody already knew that the climate is always changing — that’s why it is expressed as an “average.” If you are referring to human-produced CO2 as being capable of changing the climate, then the use of your word “respect” is troubling, and also irrelevant. Are you claiming that most people (“the public?”) do not “respect” scientists who you personally disagree with and characterize as “deniers?” That’s what comes across. Name-calling and arrogance are never good methods of stating a viewpoint, in my experience. And “public consensus” and “science” are not the same thing. You should know that.

          • Climate change denier has been long a term associated with anyone who disagrees with the mainstream, a pejorative term. If you express views outside of the mainstream thought channel, you are either accused of being a denier or of aiding and abetting deniers. My point was not to accuse people of being “fuels treatment deniers” but rather to raise the question “when is diversity of thought considered to be a good thing and when not” and who decides? Reporters? ENGO’s? Political parties and their supporters?

            • Websters has definitions for many pejorative terms (“name calling”), Jon — where is the part in the definition about so-called “public respect?” Although I do appreciate your use of a technicality as an evasion. And I do agree that the public is becoming more informed and in agreement as to the importance of active forest management.

        • Good point, Jon, on reaching public consensus on fuel treatments. A colleague in California says the tide is slowly turning. I wonder if there are any polls that would show it.


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