Public land, timber harvests, and climate mitigation: Quantifying carbon sequestration potential on U.S. public timberlands
Scientists and policy makers have long recognized the role that forests can play in countering the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas (GHG). In the United States, terrestrial carbon sequestration in private and public forests offsets approximately 11% of all GHG emissions from all sectors of the economy on an annual basis. Although much of the attention on forest carbon sequestration strategy in the United States has been on the role of private lands, public forests in the United States represent approximately 20% of the U.S. timberland area and also hold a significantly large share (30%) of the U.S. timber volume. With such a large standing timber inventory, these forested lands have considerable impact on the U.S. forest carbon balance. To help decision makers understand the carbon implications of potential changes in public timberland management, we compared a baseline timber harvest scenario with two alternative harvest scenarios and estimated annual carbon stock changes associated with each. Our analysis found that a “no timber harvest” scenario eliminating harvests on public lands would result in an annual increase of 17–29 million metric tonnes of carbon (MMTC) per year between 2010 and 2050—as much as a 43% increase over current sequestration levels on public timberlands and would offset up to 1.5% of total U.S. GHG emissions. In contrast, moving to a more intense harvesting policy similar to that which prevailed in the 1980s may result in annual carbon losses of 27–35 MMTC per year between 2010 and 2050. These losses would represent a significant decline (50–80%) in anticipated carbon sequestration associated with the existing timber harvest policies. If carbon sequestration were valued in the marketplace as part of a GHG offset program, the economic value of sequestered carbon on public lands could be substantial relative to timber harvest revenues.