Forest Management Can Keep Carbon in Forests and Protect Communities from Wildfire in the American West

TNC Science Brief

The U.S. is investing billions of dollars to reduce forest fire risks. New research maps the hot spots where investments in strategic forest management could offer the biggest payoff for people and climate.

The Gist

Published in Environmental Research Letters, the study, a collaboration among The Nature Conservancy, University of Montana and USDA Forest Service, estimated the risk of wildfire-caused carbon loss across the conifer forests of the western United States.

Opportunities for using proactive forest management to simultaneously mitigate the greatest risk from wildfire to carbon and human communities in the western US. The framework can be applied to other values at risk, and the researchers highlighted forest thinning and prescribed or cultural burning as treatments where humans could proactively reduce the risk of wildfire-caused carbon loss. After overlaying the 308 opportunity hot spots on previously published maps of 140 high-risk all lands firesheds for human communities, researchers observed that 64 firesheds overlapped. Here, they represented those firesheds in gold to emphasize that improving reciprocal relationships between humans and forests can support multiple ecological, social, and cultural values concurrently.

Researchers then compared areas identified as at risk for carbon loss to wildfire to human communities also vulnerable to wildfire (as identified in the Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy.) The overlap showed high value “opportunity hot spots” where forest management tools, such as thinning, prescribed fire and cultural burning, could reduce risk from wildfire to both carbon storage, and human communities and infrastructure.

The Big Picture

The paper notes that decision-makers do not necessarily need to choose between climate- and wildfire-mitigation goals. While the study covers 11 Western states, says co-author, Travis Woolley, forest ecologist for TNC in Arizona. “The need for strategic forest management in California, New Mexico and Arizona is particularly urgent, given that a large portion of their forests are highly vulnerable to wildfire-caused carbon loss.” 

“Our approach can help land managers plan where to invest in proactive forest treatments with the most potential to protect communities,” says lead author, Jamie Peeler, landscape ecologist and NatureNet Postdoctoral Science Fellow with the University of Montana. “It also could be applied to reduce risk from wildfire to other important values such as municipal water, culturally important plants, recreation and wildlife habitats.”

Although wildfire reduces carbon stocks through emissions and decomposition, carbon stocks in forests recover over years, decades, or centuries as vegetation regenerates and sequesters carbon from the atmosphere (black arrows). Consequently, these fluxes mitigate wildfire-caused carbon loss and keep total carbon stocks in forests stable over broad spatial and temporal extents. However, due to changing climate and wildfire regimes, fluxes that maintain stable carbon stocks are being disrupted (red arrows). (a) In frequent-fire forests, high fuel loads are interacting with climate change to enable more high-severity wildfire, which releases more carbon directly to the atmosphere and transfers more carbon from live to dead pools that decompose over time. (b) Additionally, high-severity wildfire creates large burn areas with few surviving seed sources and reduces organic soil matter. Interiors of these burned areas might fail to regenerate trees and recover lost carbon—especially if wildfire is followed by hotter and drier climate conditions. (c) In infrequent-fire forests, short return intervals prevent vegetation and organic soils from fully recovering from the previous wildfire. (d) Consequently, re-burned areas may lack favorable seed sources and site conditions to regenerate trees and recover carbon, which can adversely affect broader carbon stability. Photos used with permission from (b) C Bienz and (d) J Peeler

The paper emphasizes that, though “risk-informed prioritization maps can identify target geographies, they do not account for complex social, ecological, political, and economic dynamics occurring locally.”

The maps, therefore, are not intended to replace local knowledges or values that ultimately inform proactive forest management. Rather, they could inform and help prioritize investments in community-based collaborations that plan, implement, and maintain treatments. Ideally, note the authors, community-based collaborations represent people and agencies that reside in a particular place and share a collective interest in its well-being.

The authors also highlight the importance of community involvement in any forest-management planning. And note specifically it will be important for “community-based collaborations” to prioritize groups with long-standing place-based knowledge, like Tribes, who have historically been excluded from forest and fire management.

The Takeaway

Congress recently passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) which includes a “Wildfire Crisis Strategy” to dramatically increase the pace of forest restoration across the West. The plan includes unprecedented levels of funding ($3 billion dollars) from the federal government to reduce fuels in fire-adapted forests across 50 million acres of forests in the next 10 years which is at least two times more than current rates.

“This type of science collaboration,” noted USDA Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, “strengthens our efforts to support land managers in designing and implementing effective projects with multiple benefits, making good work even better. It also is key in informing our overall efforts to address the wildfire crisis facing our nation’s forests by doing the right work, in the right place, at the right time.”

Read the Paper

Peeler, J.L., et al. (2023). Identifying opportunity hot spots for reducing the risk of wildfire-caused carbon loss in western US conifer forests. Environmental Research Letters.

View paper