Thinning, fuels management, wildfire, and carbon

Open access paper in PNAS Nexus:

Near-term investments in forest management support long-term carbon sequestration capacity in forests of the United States


The forest carbon sink of the United States offsets emissions in other sectors. Recently passed US laws include important climate legislation for wildfire reduction, forest restoration, and forest planting. In this study, we examine how wildfire reduction strategies and planting might alter the forest carbon sink. Our results suggest that wildfire reduction strategies reduce carbon sequestration potential in the near term but provide a longer term benefit. Planting initiatives increase carbon sequestration but at levels that do not offset lost sequestration from wildfire reduction strategies. We conclude that recent legislation may increase near-term carbon emissions due to fuel treatments and reduced wildfire frequency and intensity, and expand long-term US carbon sink strength.

My comment: The authors state that:

We use data from >130,000 national forest inventory (NFI) plots to clarify the potential effects of planting and increased fuel management on carbon trajectories in the conterminous United States (Fig. 1). We constructed 30-year projections of the NFI based on Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 [13] and five general circulation models under Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 to assess forest carbon stocks and fluxes associated with two fuel treatment levels and one planting scenario (Fig. 1, SI Appendix).

Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 2 is a “middle of the road” narrative, while RCP8.5 is considered an extreme scenario that essentially assumes no future efforts to reduce atmospheric CO2. Some call it implausible.

Why not include a more optimistic scenario to balance the extreme RCP8.5? Or just go with the middle of the road model?

21 thoughts on “Thinning, fuels management, wildfire, and carbon”

  1. The beginning says, “…Near-term investments in forest management [maintenance] support long-term carbon sequestration capacity in forests of the United States.” Respectfully, of course they do. We all know this. And, near-term investments in forest maintenance create near-term positive impacts on a changing climate.

    A dominant issue facing a changing climate includes CO2 emissions. Nothing new here, as well. And, we all know that the massive destruction and increased costs due to unplanned wildfires during the last three decades, especially in the west, has a direct relationship to the lack of forest maintenance.

    Let’s not get distracted. The short-term national emergency America is facing is the lack of forest care that is contributing to annual damages of about $900 billion. Let’s stay focused on the immediate issue that will also have significant impacts on a changing climate now and ahead.

    Yes, this will take time and resources.  Recently, I wrote an email that included the following. I think it is relevant to this discussion:

    “…We are faced with a National Emergency. To be sure, as I say to my Middle School science students, “…Everything is Connected.” But, a coordinated investment in forest maintenance could have dramatic impacts on reducing destruction and the cost of damages. The impacts [destruction of property and lives lost] easily outweigh the small investments we are talking about in forest [forest are more than just trees] care along a rural to urban land gradient.

    Sometimes I wish I was President FDR during the Great Depression. That was a time when great ideas were called for [i.e., The New Deal and its TVA and CCC; etc.] and deployed. Wouldn’t it be so grand if a President even knew they had this National Emergency at their feet; would craft a logic sequence showing the connections; outline the resource requirements; and, deploy a specific call to action to address the peril of America’s forests in balance.

    There was a Commission that was called for and they produced a very large report. The report, “On Fire”, even suggests immediate action. But I suspect little will happen, unfortunately. What an opportunity lost for America. I would have to think that if FDR had a “trillion-dollar as year thorn” in his side, he would find and deploy a solution.

    You know, America’s great western forests will soon become America’s great western brushfields if nothing changes. Now, in my mind, that’s a national shame.

    And, for everyone who wants to engage in a CO2 discussion and all of the abandoned sawmill sites for those of us interested in local jobs, we must have a collective, cohesive voice. Yes, everything is connected and it will take our best work to link the dots. Yet, we have to start somewhere and I want to do my part.”

    My main point: Let’s stay focused. The lack of forest maintenance is the key culprit we are facing regarding the destruction from unplanned wildfires and the associated emissions from these exceedingly destructive incidents have on a changing climate. We must voice our concern to those who really “decide and not just play” [Hersey].

    Very respectfully,

  2. Hard to believe this paper got through peer review. The last sentence of the abstract doesn’t make sense. The Figure 2 caption has typos and poor explanations. The conclusions and even the title are highly speculative. We might expect this from the USFS, but from Oxford University Press/National Academy of Sciences?
    The results appear to show that forest carbon sequestration will decrease through 2032 as a result of IRA/Infrastructure Act-supported forest management, and that there is a large amount of uncertainty as to whether or not these policies will be beneficial or detrimental to carbon sequestration by 2050 (see Fig 2C), even though they use the unproven assumption that fuel reduction decreases wildfire carbon emissions.
    It’s hard to view this paper as an endorsement of the IRA and Infrastructure Acts. Perhaps a more honest title would be: “IRA/Infrastructure Act-supported forest management will decrease forest carbon stores in the near term (through 2032), with highly uncertain results over the long term (2050)”.

    • What do you mean the last line doesn’t make sense? To me any paper that uses climate models is by necessity “highly speculative” and many that don’t use them are also highly speculative.

      • This is the last sentence in the abstract: “We conclude that recent legislation may increase near-term carbon emissions due to fuel treatments and reduced wildfire frequency and intensity, and expand long-term US carbon sink strength.”
        Doesn’t it say that recent legislation may increase near-term carbon emissions due to reduced wildfire frequency and intensity??

        • I think what they meant was that the reduced wildfire frequency and intensity was over the longer term but you’re right that sentence doesn’t make sense as written.

  3. “No Action” alternatives (and their equivalents) have some scientific value, but are absolutely vulnerable to political and scientific spin. Maybe there should also be a class of analysis that focuses on delayed expected reactions, analyzing what mitigation might happen if the “No Action” results start showing up. A more ‘real world’ analysis of how humans would react to “business as usual” climate impacts.

    Because, of course, us humans WILL make climate-affecting decisions in the face of sudden climate impacts. It is silly to assume humans will do nothing, for the next few decades. Just look at the last few decades.

  4. So here’s what I think about this.
    (1) Scientists study what they are funded to do, with the tools they have available, and the disciplines they were trained in.
    (2) Somehow it seems to be assumed by many that forest management should be done to maximize carbon storage, and that other concerns are not important. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that we are exposed to an unceasing proliferation of papers about carbon in forests.
    (3) In my lived experience, there could be a simple goal- to keep trees on landscapes and get them growing when they die. That would be pretty good for carbon. And it’s hard enough to do that in many places. Instead of helping people do that, we have hired an army of data sleuths and carbon modelers who use different assumptions about the future and arrive at different conclusions.
    (4) But in reality, we have no clue. Climate change will be somewhere between “trees will adapt” or “all trees will die” while folks are busily estimating how much they will be growing in 2070 or whatever.
    (5) So given all that, I don’t see that trying to model this stuff is a useful exercise. No disrespect to the scientists involved.. they (and the rest of us) are hapless victims of others’ research priority and funding decisions.

    • Thanks Sharon:

      I’m in full agreement. During the past few decades the reliance on “peer reviewed literature” as the basis for scientific research has degenerated into modelers giving passing grades (and taxpayer-funded paychecks) to other modelers — and this “science” is then transformed into policies as if computer models were actually capable of producing accurate predictions of future conditions. Just what Eisenhower warned against, and our burning forests and dying wildlife and rural communities are exact indications why.

      This is a funding problem, as you point out, and our taxpayers are being duped as a result. One consistent outcome of these models — whether for endangered species populations, climate, or “critical habitat” — is that they have been consistently wrong from the beginning, as expected and predicted. And really expensive, no matter how measured.

      It is sometimes hard to believe that this charade has been going on for more then three decades without interruption, but climate is a 30-year average and old-growth forests used to be 200 years old. People have cashed in and retired before their prediction are shown to be wrong, but a new generation has adopted these techniques for income, tenure, and votes and continue to be very successful with this approach. Hard to say when this will finally end, but funding is probably the best predicter.

      • Jesus Bob, like you have ever written a paper subject to peer review or reviewed a manuscript? No, your “widely spread” (read by whom?) “opinions” (a bar chart is not science) in your agenda/opinion/factual-less ‘articles’ do not count. Your “public” classes do not count. Your “comments” here don’t affect anyone or any regs. Gosh, you love to be a tough guy on the internet while you don’t change anything, yet complain about it nonstop.

        Before you start, you have a long, long history of attacking “anon” comments instead of factually addressing those comments, followed by attacking with crude comments anyone who doesn’t align with your agenda, or supporting anyone who uses crude comments who do not align with your agenda (Gordon, FYI), which really shows your level of education and knowledge and agenda.

        No one funded your harebrained attempts at science, despite your BA ‘PhD’. Grow up.

        • I can see why you hide behind a pseudonym. You’re an idiot. I’d hide, too, but probably stick to facts and use a few more manners. You could read my peer-reviewed report on peer review, but I doubt your documented lack of reading comprehension skills would make that worthwhile.

          • Peer reviewed by whom? You’ve rarely if ever linked to it. Likely because it is on par with something Hanson et al would put out.
            You can say I am an idiot, but you’ve never proven yourself to not be one, much like you have never ever addressed legitimate criticisms of your agenda (even when facts are presented). PatrickF had some good points, and you resorted to personal attacks instead of addressing them (oh, wait, someone with a real name, who doesn’t like to their own personal website of BS is not a real person? Nice deflection).
            Make no mistake, you have an agenda, just like the well developed and critiqued and studied science you seem to think is below any legitimate consideration.

    • “But in reality, we have no clue.”

      That’s clearly hyperbole. We have plenty of clues weighted by degrees of confidence. And we have no choice but to act based on the best set of clues we can assemble. You seem to have a vendetta against clues we get from models and modelers, but how do you suggest we predict the future (with appropriate caveats) or provide likely scenarios so that we can act accordingly? (I see nothing wrong with including a “worst case” scenario, such as maybe RCP8.5.)

      • I don’t think we have a clue about how populations of forest trees, alone or assisted by humans will respond to whatever combo of climate, pollution, fire, invasive species and so on will present itself in the next 50 years. Let alone how people will respond.. or if we’ll all get blown up in a nuclear war. I don’t have a vendetta against “clues” from models, but a) they are not realistic as they often don’t take important parameters into account, b) they are not often formally reviewed for accuracy, say in 10 years or whatever, c) by the time the media gets hold of them, frequently all uncertainties associated with them are removed. Especially climate models. There are other ways of dealing with uncertainty to be sure.

  5. The biggest flaw in this analysis is that it identifies the wrong goal, reducing emissions in the long-term, when the much more important goal is to reduce emissions in the short -term, before our global carbon budget is used up. There is a single global carbon budget for cumulative GHG emissions for the period from the present to the end of the carbon economy which (because we have been slow to act) must occur in the next few decades.

    Even if thinning provides climate benefits in future decades, short-term carbon emissions conflict with climate policy priorities. The next few decades are critical to achieving goals related to decarbonizing our economy. Delayed climate benefits should be strongly discounted because we should have decarbonized our economy by then, so future effects are not nearly as important as near-term effects. If thinning causes a short-term pulse of GHG emissions, that’s a problem.

    “[T]here is a limited amount of time within which measures to avoid passing the two-degree threshold can adequately be taken – i.e., that there is an urgent need to take these measures.” Oslo Global Climate Principles, Commentary, March 2015.

    • 2nd.. I don’t think people are willing to give up thinning and fuels management.. which can be good to help fire suppression folks, protect communities and watersheds and infrastructures of various kind, and endangered and other critters, based on the concept that some short-term emissions will be reduced as long as the forests don’t burn up. While climate models tell us that they are likely to burn up.
      That’s why I argue for a programmatic EIS like analysis of all the climate tweaks we could do in the US and look objectively at the opportunities and impacts.
      Impacts of decarbonization efforts should not fall unjustly on, say, rural communities in dry forests, many of which may be disadvantaged in various ways.

      • “Unjustly.” Beyond the formal environmental justice realm (which does not appear to include “rural communities in dry forests”), this is pretty much a matter of opinion, and not a very practical criterion. (One could even consider them “advantaged” to the extent they are disproportionately represented in Congress.)

      • There is much people are “not willing to give up.” That’s a wholly irrelevant consideration to the global ecosystem. 2ndLaw’s point, like the thermodynamic reality their name is probably based on, is accurate.

    • Pushing for one-size-fits-all inaction, while disregarding the other many benefits of thinning is par for the course, for you, and others. Luckily, NEPA work does spell out all the site-specific details, in individual projects.


Leave a Comment