A view from the Buckhorn Wilderness in the Olympic National Forest, Washington. Coastal forests in the Pacific Northwest store globally significant amounts of carbon in trees and soil. USDA Forest Service photo by Matthew Tharp.
Urgency is growing among legislators, conservation organizations, and the wood products industry to better understand how forests store carbon and how management choices affect the carbon balance. The Pacific Northwest Research Station is taking a convening role with states and nongovernmental organizations to address research needs across stewardship boundaries. Partnerships are forming between California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to move forward with consistent methods for carbon reporting, and discussing the key needs to be addressed with research.
“Landowners want to know more about carbon because it is a nontimber forest product and an ecosystem service. But they need better tools and methods for quantifying how much carbon is in their forest and predicting how that may change over time. There is a lot of carbon in forests, so anything that affects forests – management, rules and regulations, disturbance, local economies – affects our carbon footprint,” says Sharon Stanton, program manager for the station's Resource Monitoring and Assessment program.
The Forest Service is a leader in developing tools for carbon assessment, management, and forest carbon cycle science. Although carbon has been a major topic of research in the Pacific Northwest for many decades, new questions are arising that highlight the need for synthesis and modelling. The lush and productive forests of the Pacific Northwest store globally significant amounts of carbon. The USDA Agriculture Innovation Agenda has recently highlighted the need to enhance carbon sequestration through soil health and forestry and leverage the agricultural sector’s renewable energy benefits for the economy.
Trees draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Plants use photosynthesis to produce various carbon-based sugars necessary for tree functioning and to make wood for growth. Every part of a tree stores carbon, from the trunks, branches, leaves, and roots. By weight, dried tree material is about 50 percent carbon. Carbon can also be found in soils. Carbon in soils comes from the organic matter from trees and other vegetation in varying degrees of decomposition. In fact, soil carbon represents about 50 percent of the total carbon stored in forest systems in the United States.
Land managers and policymakers have identified carbon dynamics as one of the Pacific Northwest region’s top science needs. In response to this need, the station is focusing on this issue in its Carbon Dynamics Research Initiative, which seeks to:
Science coproduction emphasizes the value of the client. This is achieved by jointly identifying the decisions that the science will inform, the scope, constraints, and research methods, desired media for science delivery, and continued support to ensure appropriate science application,” says Joe Donnegan, deputy program manager for the station's Resource Monitoring and Assessment program.
Climate change may affect the ability of U.S. forests to continue to store and sequester carbon. This research initiative explores the role of forests in carbon sequestration, and creates management options for helping forests maintain or increase their capacity to store carbon, even under future conditions.
More information about this initiative is available here: Carbon Dynamics Research for Land and Watershed Managers.