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Tipping the balance to more carbon storage in Pacific Northwest forests

In partnership with the University of Washington, our Forests & Ecosystem Services team recently published a new peer-reviewed study that analyzes the carbon storage potential of two key components of FSC management.

In the Pacific Northwest, our forests are globally unique in their capacity to capture and store immense amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. We have long known that forests are an integral part of the solution to solving climate change. As policymakers and stakeholder groups consider the appropriate roles for forests in upcoming climate change policies and green builders are increasingly concerned about reducing the carbon footprints of their buildings, there is a growing urgency to answer questions about how our forests store carbon and how our management choices affect their carbon balance.

To address some of these questions, our Director of Forestry Analytics and Technology, David Diaz, led a research project with partners at the University of Washington to quantify the impacts of forest management choices on three Key Performance Indicators (timber output, carbon storage, and financial returns). This work culminated with a peer-reviewed article “Tradeoffs in Timber, Carbon, and Cash Flow under Alternative Management Systems for Douglas-Fir in the Pacific Northwest” published in the open access journal Forests. The study results illustrate a path forward for increased carbon storage in our forests by opting to change forest management practices to what we call climate-smart forestry.

An aerial view of a small area of trees that has been harvested.
A selective harvest patch cut shows an alternative management style to clear cutting.

A foundation for climate-smart forestry

The ethos of climate-smart forestry requires a long-term view of forest management and an appreciation for the array of economic, social, recreational, and health-related benefits forests offer to communities. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a globally-recognized voluntary certification program whose guiding principles and permitted forest practices offer the best example for what climate-smart forestry can look like on the ground in the Pacific Northwest. Some of the specific practices that help position FSC as climate-smart forestry include:

Encouraging longer rotations (growing trees for longer periods of time between harvests) and limiting average harvest sizes to no more than 40 acres, to ensure a diversity of sizes, ages, and native species that make up multiple forest conditions and habitats.

Protecting water quality and aquatic habitats with larger buffers around streams and wetlands than state forest practice rules.

Tightly restricting the use of chemicals and prohibiting particularly hazardous chemicals.

Safeguarding High Conservation Value forests, recognizing unique old growth forest characteristics and protecting and restoring habitat for threatened and endangered species.

Honoring and restoring the rights of indigenous people to access and shape the future of the places—including forests—they rely on and call home.

A man in a green coat and tan felt hat stands next to a tall stump and uses his finger to count the tree rings amidst downed logs
Counting tree rings on a hemlock stump following a thinning project at Garibaldi Forest.

What we set out to do

Forest management and conservation involve balancing complex tradeoffs, and markets and policy play a significant role shaping how our forests are managed. Our study sought to measure this inclusive view by quantifying how different management approaches affect how much carbon is stored in the forest (and in wood products), as well as what tradeoffs might be involved with cash flow and timber output.

The study compared forest management outcomes expected under “business as usual” (compliance with Oregon and Washington forest practice rules) with management scenarios following two of the key requirements of FSC certification: larger and more protective buffer zones around streams; and leaving more live trees standing following timber harvests. It is important to note that our study considers only two practices among a larger set of criteria required for certification of responsible forestry under the FSC standard.

The study modeled short harvest rotations (e.g., every 40 years), which are common practice in the region, and longer rotations (75 years); each rotation length was modeled with both minimum State forest practices rules and those of FSC described above. We quantified the outcomes of these approaches to forest management on 64 properties spanning western Oregon and Washington for a 100-year period.

A large machine is seen through a screen of trees
A selective harvest underway, using specially designed equipment to leave as little impact as possible.

Here’s what we found

FSC scenarios always stored more carbon than business-as-usual approaches.

Among the 64 properties we evaluated, FSC management produced carbon storage ranging from a minimum of 13% more carbon to as much as 69% more carbon than business as usual, averaging 29% more carbon than business as usual. This includes carbon that is stored in the forest and in wood products.

We would produce more timber AND store more carbon if we allowed trees to grow for a longer time before harvesting them.

When we extended harvest rotations from shorter (40-year) to longer (75-year) intervals while holding other forest practices constant, the average annual growth of timber volume (known as “mean annual increment” by foresters) was 4-12% higher in Oregon and 3-23% higher in Washington, with an average of 7% higher timber growth than the business-as-usual scenarios. Carbon storage for these longer rotation scenarios was 18-25% higher in Oregon and 20-26% higher in Washington, averaging 23% more carbon storage than business as usual.

FSC-certified wood carries an embedded carbon benefit.

In addition to the benefits it provides to drinking water, native fish and wildlife habitat, and recreational and employment opportunities in rural areas.

Conservation isn’t free.

Leaving more trees standing to protect streams, provide better wildlife habitat, or to store more carbon comes at a financial cost. Oregon and Washington law require smaller stream buffers and retaining significantly fewer live trees at the time of harvest compared to FSC.

This financial gap between FSC management and business-as-usual could be closed by carbon policy incentives or premiums for certified wood.

We found that FSC management scenarios would be as financially attractive as business as usual if landowners were rewarded $37 per extra ton of CO2 they stored or if they received a 10% price premium on wood they sold. These values are based on the landowner receiving the entire carbon price or timber premium and do not account for any costs captured by others in the supply chain for timber or carbon (e.g., mills, carbon project developers, etc.).

FSC certification is a good surrogate for ensuring additional carbon storage.

In addition, it would be a much simpler and more cost-effective approach than current carbon offset programs. The transaction costs for entering the carbon market under existing programs are so high that projects usually don’t pencil out until they reach at least 3,000-5,000 acres of productive forestland. That rules out 99.9% of family forests and other smaller producers. Recognizing that FSC certification essentially guarantees carbon benefits compared to business-as-usual, rewarding landowners for FSC certification would be a cost-effective way to engage thousands of landowners to increase carbon storage in their forests and to ensure they receive an equitable share of the revenue.

Two men operate an orange handmill, passing a log through to make slabs of wood.
Small-scale milling of trees harvested from Garibaldi Forest.

Where do we go from here?

To move the needle towards climate-smart forestry, new policies and market connections are needed. The study demonstrates an opportunity for carbon policy incentives to bridge the gap for landowners to make the shift from “business as usual” to more climate-smart forestry practices. The demand-side has a role to play as well. By offering a premium for certified wood, green builders can go beyond simply acknowledging “wood is good” and make an investment in FSC certified wood and the significant impact it delivers.

Finally, we must remember what this study cannot capture: forests are worth much more than timber, carbon, or cash. If we want clean drinking water, cool streams to sustain salmon, habitat for wildlife, beautiful places to connect with nature, or more jobs in our mills and in the woods, it’s time for us to get to work expanding the adoption of climate-smart forestry.

Brent Davies, Ecotrust’s VP of Forests & Ecosystem Services, also serves on the FSC US Board of Directors and the Washington Forest Practices Board.