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Individual Highlight

Research Determines Carbon Costs and Benefits of Fuels Treatments

Snapshot : In the western United States, nearly a century of fire suppression has increased tree densities and fuel accumulations. In forests that were historically maintained by frequent, low-severity fire, fire suppression has increased the risk of high-severity wildfire. Fuel treatments are being widely implemented to reduce this risk and restore forests to a more open, fire-resistant structure.

Principal Investigators(s) :
North, Malcolm P. 
Research Location : Teakettle Experimental Forest
Research Station : Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW)
Year : 2010
Highlight ID : 230

Summary

In the western United States, nearly a century of fire suppression has increased tree densities and fuel accumulations. In forests that were historically maintained by frequent, low-severity fire, fire suppression has increased the risk of high-severity wildfire. Fuel treatments are being widely implemented to reduce this risk and restore forests to a more open, fire-resistant structure. Like all management activities, such treatments are evaluated for a range of goods and services provided by forests and rangelands; one of which is carbon sequestration. These treatments carry a near-term carbon cost because standing tree biomass is reduced to lower the risk of future high-severity fire and its large carbon emission. Treatments aimed at reducing this risk often employ thinning and/or prescribed burning to reduce both tree density and surface fuel loads. There are several carbon (C) costs to these treatments including increased C emissions from prescribed fire, thinning residue and milling waste, the treatment's consumption of fossil fuels and a reduction in C stocks. However, effective treatments lower the risk of large C loss from high-severity fire and can increase available resources for leave trees, accelerating growth and C sequestration. In an on-going study at the Teakettle Experimental Forest, PSW and Northern Arizona University research scientists quantified the carbon consequences of different levels of thinning and burning treatments immediately and 7-years post-treatment. They found that carbon stocks were reduced and emissions increased with increasing treatment intensity. While removing larger trees in the overstory thinning treatments increased fire resistance, the carbon cost was substantially higher. Seven years following treatment, tree growth in all treatments had re-sequestered some or all of the carbon removed or emitted during treatment implementation. Given the measured growth-rates, they estimated that the understory thin and burn treatments will re-sequester all of the carbon removed and emitted during treatment in as few as 15 years after treatment, whereas overstory thin treatments will continue to have net negative carbon balance for many more years because of the removal of many large trees.

Forest Service Partners

External Partners

 
  • Northern Arizona University

Research Topics

Priority Areas

  • Wildlife and Fish
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