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Pacific Northwest Forests: Carbon Sink or Carbon Source?

Published: September 28, 2016 by Editorial Team

Guest Post by Andrew Spaeth, Sustainable Northwest
The Climate Trust’s ‘Point of View’ guest blogger initiative fosters and amplifies expert industry voices
As published by Sustainable Business Oregon – September 28, 2016

Forests are critical in our efforts to stem the effects of climate change. Yet, in the Pacific Northwest, uncharacteristic megafires are emitting large amounts of greenhouse gasses. In 2015, wildfires were the second largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions in Washington State, only behind the transportation sector (Siemann et al. 2016).


Intuitively, it is easy to understand that forests play an important role in regulating climate. Photosynthesis captures carbon dioxide and stores it in trees. The role of forest management, however, is less clear.

In the dry forest ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, forests evolved with wildfire, which often occurred frequently and at low and moderate severity. Over the last century and a half, dry forest landscapes have been significantly modified by human activities, namely fire suppression, overgrazing, and past management practices (Franklin et al. 2013, Kalies and Kent 2016).

Today, wildfire is one of the most salient natural resource management and public policy issues in the American West, if not the country, and for good reason. In 2015, wildfires burned more than 10.1 million acres nationwide at a cost of more than $2.6 billion. Nearly 1.1 million acres burned in Washington last year, which was the largest in the state’s recorded history, and more than 630,000 acres burned in Oregon.

Poor planning and development pressures are increasing the risk of wildfire to human populations and causing dramatic increases in the cost of fire suppression. Across the country, home construction in the wildland urban interface (WUI) is putting wildland firefighters in increasingly precarious positions, sometimes leading to tragedies such as the loss of 19 firefighters in a single blaze, and the loss of at least 4500 homes that were destroyed by wildfire in 2015.

A warming climate is only exacerbating the already colossal problem. Fire season is now, on average, 78 days longer than it was in 1970, and in some places, such as Southern California, fire season is now as long as 300 days each year.

Despite the challenges associated with growing wildfires, there are a host of opportunities to support forest restoration and reduce the risk of uncharacteristic megafires in the Pacific Northwest. Active forest management in dry forest ecosystems plays a critical role in reducing fuel loads, conserving functionality and biodiversity, and returning forests to a natural, resilient condition that is capable of responding to wildfire in a more socially desirable and ecologically beneficial way (Franklin et al. 2013).

At the federal level, a wildfire funding fix would allow the Forest Service to achieve preventative treatments that will reduce long term risk. Most years the agency shifts funds away from forest restoration and watershed management in order to pay for wildfire suppression. Since the mid-1990’s, this “fire borrowing” has resulted in a 39% decline in non-fire agency staff. By 2020, it is projected that 67% of the Forest Service’s budget will be dedicated to fighting fires. Proposed legislation, such as the 2015 Wildfire Funding Disaster Act, would treat large wildfires like other natural disasters by allowing the Forest Service to access disaster funds to pay for fires once a spending threshold is met. Congress should act this year to pass a wildfire funding fix and ensure that federal land managers have the capacity and resources to reduce wildfire risk in the immediate and longer term.

Congress has demonstrated in the past that there is bi-partisan support for measures to address forest restoration needs. In 2009, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) was established as part of that year’s Omnibus Public Land Management Act. The program provides competitive funding to support restoration in twenty-three fire-adapted forest ecosystems across the country, including five large landscapes here in the Pacific Northwest. Since the program’s inception, more than 1,450,000 acres, including 945,000 acres in the wildland-urban interface have been treated for hazardous fuels. CFLRP is an effective and innovative program that should be fully funded through 2019 and expanded in the future to include more fire-adapted landscapes.

Although not necessarily intuitive, reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires will require that fire, either introduced prescribed fire or managed wildfire, is successfully implemented as a management tool. Forest thinning alone is not likely to ensure that fuels treatments are effective, whereas thinning treatments followed by prescribed fire are proving to be a critical combination in restoring forest resilience to future fire events (Kalies and Kent 2016). Forest stands that are both thinned and treated with prescribed fire result in lower post-fire emissions (i.e. carbon dioxide released through decomposing biomass), and less carbon lost due to tree mortality. Increasing the use of prescribed fire will require improved smoke management policy at the state level, enhanced agency capacity, and intentional outreach and education to communities and stakeholders about the importance of fire as a management tool in reducing the risk of uncharacteristic megafires.

In recognition of the important role of prescribed fire, Washington’s legislature recently passed House Bill 2928, the Forest Resiliency Burning Pilot Project. The legislation allows the Washington Department of Natural Resources to utilize state funds to support the implementation of prescribed fire on federal lands. Efforts are underway to build on this investment in order to provide additional resources and collaborative capacity to accomplish forest restoration goals, representing a critical opportunity to enhance state and federal partnerships and accomplish forest restoration thinning and burning.

Oregon has also been a leader by supporting passage of Good Neighbor Authority, which allows the state to carry out additional restoration work in partnership with federal land management agencies. Further, the state legislature is now in the second biennium of the Oregon Federal Forest Restoration Program, which provided $5 million to increase the pace, scale, and quality of forest restoration activities on federal lands. Building on the success of the last two bienniums, Oregon Department of Forestry, who manages the program, has requested an increase to $7.5 million, which the legislature and Governor Brown should support.

In the face of climate change, active forest management and restoration in the Pacific Northwest will be critical in ensuring that our forests continue to function as carbon sinks. Leveraging additional resources, building agency capacity, and supporting innovative state and federal partnerships will be critical in achieving that end.

Sustainable Northwest is a non-profit organization based in Portland, Oregon that believes a healthy economy, environment, and community are inseparable and that smart policies and investments can strengthen all three. To achieve this vision for our region, they work on systemic natural resource issues at the intersection of these three areas, focusing on water, forestry, and energy.

Franklin, J. F., Johnson, K. N., Churchill, D. J., Hagmann, K., Johnson, D., & Johnston, J. (2013). Restoration of dry forests in eastern Oregon: a field guide.

Kalies, E. L., & Kent, L. L. Y. (2016). Tamm Review: Are fuel treatments effective at achieving ecological and social objectives? A systematic review. Forest Ecology and Management, 375, 84-95.

Siemann, D., Ottmar, R., Halofsky, J., & Donato, D. (2016). Washington’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Comparison of 2012 Human Caused Emissions with 2015 Wildfire Emissions. Washington State Department of Natural Resources.

Image credit: Flickr/USDA