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With the ravages created by the climate emergency including flooding in the Midwest, wildfires in the West, cities going underwater on the coast of Florida, and extreme heat, we might begin to look at our public lands as carbon storage sites.

One of the misconceptions guiding public forest policy is the assumption that logging/thinning can preclude large high severity fires, which is assumed to result in tremendous amounts of carbon emissions.

The timber industry and some agencies try to suggest that cutting trees to “restore” forest ecosystems and/or to turn these trees into “wood products” stores carbon and at the same time will reduce wildfires.

There are two things wrong with this assumption.

The first problem is that extreme fire weather is responsible for nearly all massive wildfires. Under extreme fire weather conditions of drought, high temperatures, low humidity and in particular, high winds, nothing stops the fires. Indeed, there is even evidence that by opening up the forest to drying and wind penetration, thinning can sometimes exacerbate fire spread.

The second problem is that the process of logging/thinning emits a tremendous amount of carbon.

There is tremendous “leakage” of carbon during the logging and wood processing cycle. Depending on the final product, as much as 75% of the carbon in the original tree is lost during the transition to lumber, paper, or whatever.

By contrast, even if the forest were to burn, most of the carbon remains on site. Why? Because what burns in a forest fire is the small fine fuels — branches, cones, grass, shrubs, needles and so forth. These comprise about 5% of the carbon found in a tree. Left behind are the tree boles as snags, as well as roots in the ground. Tree boles and roots are where the bulk of the carbon in a tree is found, and as a result even after a fire, most of the carbon is left on site.

As a new study “Fixing a snag in carbon emissions estimates from wildfires” concluded, the common assumption behind policy and earlier studies of carbon emissions from fires have always assumed that 30-80 percent of the trees combusted in a high severity blaze. However, the truth is that the complete combustion of mature trees is negligible. That is why we get snags after a fire.

The researchers found that that estimates of carbon emissions from regional wildfires were exaggerated by as much as 85% over the actual emissions. So, the assumption that preventing wildfires will substantially reduce carbon losses is also overstated.

Furthermore, those snags and down wood that results from high severity blazes are a critical habitat for many wildlife and plant species. Snag forests that result from high severity blazes are among the rarest habitat in the West, and the most transient because the forests typically regrow over time, and the snags fall to the ground.

As a society, the highest and best use of public forests is to protect them for carbon storage, wildlife habitat, recreation and wildlands.

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George Wuerthner is an ecologist who has published a number of books on fire ecology. 

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