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Potential to Increase Carbon Sequestration with Tree Planting

Distribution of understocked timberland by ownership in the continental United States

Director's Choice
A Minute with the Scientist

Grant Domke: You may recall, back in January, at The World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, President Trump announced his intent, and the U.S.'s intent, to engage in the One Trillion Trees Initiative. Usually, at The World Economic Forum or at an international meeting, you don't hear the U.S. President bring up forestry and tree planting—and the fact that they did sort of, I think, sort of—well, it certainly got my attention.

And then, two weeks later, and I literally got a note—it was actually a phone call from the White House—with a whole suite of questions around current carbon stocks in U.S. forests, how much land is available for reforestation, how much land is available for afforestation, and so, it was surreal. I'll be honest, it was a little surreal. It all happened really fast. And, I ended up having, I think, two or three conversations with folks at the White House, initially, in terms of trying to field some of their large questions. And my initial reaction was, well, “These are great questions,” and it was really some of the questions that were coming from the White House and from, sort of, USDA-level that led us down this road of starting to carve out some more nuanced questions that ended up as the research highlight here this year.

Tree planting is appealing to all of us there, I think there's a farmer in all of us. We all like the idea of growing things. Trees are appealing, they're charismatic things, even though they're, you know, they're living, but they're not furry, and we all, I think, sort of appreciate that. And, this paper, I hope, helped to unpack the multitude of benefits that trees provide and opportunities in the United States to enhance those benefits that really affect all of us, you know, that make all of our lives better.

My name is Grant Domke and I'm a research forester and group leader in the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the team worked on this project for approximately four months.

Almost one-third of Earth's total land area is comprised of forest, which is also the largest terrestrial carbon sink. A Northern Research Station scientist and his partners have established that fully stocking the Nation's understocked forests could increase carbon sequestration by about 20 percent.

A Northern Research Station scientist led the most in-depth study to date on how increasing the number of forest trees might offset carbon emissions in the United States. To mitigate tree loss and offset carbon emissions, several initiatives are underway to increase tree planting in forests and landscapes that are not technically defined as forests, such as urban forests. To determine carbon emissions offset from approximately 1.38 trillion trees currently growing in the conterminous United States, researchers examined publicly available data from more than 130,000 forested plots from the national forest inventory conducted by the Forest Inventory and Analysis Program. Forests and harvested wood products annually offset the equivalent of more than 14 percent of economy-wide carbon dioxide emissions in the Nation, however, almost 33 million hectares of productive forest land are understocked with trees. Fully stocking all understocked productive forest land with trees could increase carbon sequestration by approximately 20 percent. Current efforts by the federal and state governments and private entities result in an estimated 1.2 billion trees planted on forest land annually, and these trees sequester between 16 and 28 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. These findings suggest that concentrating tree planting on understocked productive forest land may substantially increase carbon sequestration capacity in the United States.