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USDA Forest Service leads in forest carbon cycle science

Posted date: December 09, 2019

New research and tools help managers evaluate the impacts of disturbances on forest carbon storage

FORT COLLINS, Colo., Dec. 10, 2019 – A new report about the influence of natural disturbances and management activities on carbon cycles in our national forests was just published by USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station. Why is this important? Forests are resilient and constantly changing, and healthy forest ecosystems provide essential services such as clean water and air, fuel and fiber, and places to recreate. Less obvious and just as critical is the role they play in storing and cycling carbon. Forests can offset significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. Natural disturbances like wildfires, and how we manage forests, can impact the amount of carbon dioxide that enters and leaves the atmosphere.

The research team working on the project completed carbon inventories for each USDA Forest Service national forest region. Then they developed models and tools for assessing how different factors such as timber harvesting, natural disturbances, aging, and changing climatic and atmospheric conditions can influence the carbon stored in vegetation and soils.

Forest managers and planners are using the newly released datasets, models, and tools to improve understanding of how land management activities can influence carbon cycling at project-level and regional scales. Duncan McKinley, program specialist with the USDA Forest Service Office of Sustainability and Climate said, "I'm pleased to see this information being used and applied on over 20 forests so far. Our goal is to help specialists learn how to use this information and have it help inform decision making on all our forest units." 

"The information and tools developed to help assess and monitor trends in carbon are very helpful in the broader conversation about sustainability of natural resources," said Emrys Treasure, the USDA Forest Service Southern Region inventory, monitoring, assessment, and climate change coordinator. He continued, "Sustainable management of carbon doesn't play out in the context of one stand or one project, but across a landscape and over the long-term with many contributing factors. This research helps us tell the carbon story and work collaboratively with stakeholders and partners to develop a shared understanding of sustainability." 

Rocky Mountain Research Station research ecologist Sean P.  Healey says, "It's been rewarding to work directly with Forest Service resource specialists, as well as NASA and university scientists, to provide carbon data and tools that are needed and can be used right away."


Birdsey, Richard A.; Dugan, Alexa J.; Healey, Sean P.; Dante-Wood, Karen; Zhang, Fangmin; Mo, Gang; Chen, Jing M.; Hernandez, Alexander J.; Raymond, Crystal L.; McCarter, James. 2019. Assessment of the influence of disturbance, management activities, and environmental factors on carbon stocks of U.S. national forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-402. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 116 pages plus appendixes.

The Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS) is one of seven units within the U.S. Forest Service Research and Development. RMRS maintains 14 field laboratories throughout a 12-state territory encompassing parts of the Great Basin, Southwest, Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains. RMRS also administers and conducts research on 14 experimental forests, ranges and watersheds and maintains long-term research databases for these areas. While anchored in the geography of the West our research is global in scale. To find out more about the RMRS go to You can also follow us on Twitter at




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Lisa Bryant
Public Affairs Specialist
970 498-1287