1993 US Northwest Forest Plan Turns Public Forests into Carbon Sink

Andrew Burger

Successful in realizing its original goal, the 1993 US Northwest Forest Plan is yielding unanticipated benefits two decades later, turning northwest public forests into net carbon sinks for the first time in decades.
US Forest Management Plan has not only saved old growth forest, at has turned the forest into a carbon sink

Enacted in 1993, before climate change was so prominent in the public media eye, the US Northwest Forest Plan's primary goal was the conservation of old growth forests on public land, and thereby also protecting threatened and endangered species, such as the northern spotted owl. Forest harvests in those public forests dropped precipitously, by 82%, the next year. Nearly two decades later, it turns out that the Plan has yielded unintended, though no less favorable results in terms of mitigating the effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

Northwest forests on public lands are now taking up more carbon dioxide via photosynthesis than they put back into the atmosphere via respiration, and have become a significant net carbon sink for the first time in decades as a result, according to researchers at Oregon State University and the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.

"The original goals of the Northwest Forest Plan had nothing to do with the issue of carbon emissions, but now carbon sequestration is seen as an important ecosystem service," OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society professor David Turner was quoted as saying in this Science Daily news report.

The researchers used a new system that included satellite remote sensing that enabled them to help better account for tree growth, decomposition, emissions from fires, wood harvest and variations in climate and, as a result, to more accurately simulate ecological processes over large areas.

Logging of old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest in the decades prior to the Plan's passage led forestry researchers to believe that the remaining forest had lost a significant amount of potential to store carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires turned out to modest as compared to the loss of carbon storage capacity as a result of timber harvesting.

The study has been published online in Forest Ecology and Management.

Photo courtesy of Chandra LeGue for Oregon Wild


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