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  1. Climate change has intensified the scale of global wildfire impacts in recent decades. In order to reduce fire impacts, management policies are being proposed in the western United States to lower fire risk that focus on harvesting trees, including large-diameter trees. Many policies already do not include diameter limits and some recent policies have proposed diameter increases in fuel reduction strategies. While the primary goal is fire risk reduction, these policies have been interpreted as strategies that can be used to save trees from being killed by fire, thus preventing carbon emissions and feedbacks to climate warming. This interpretation has already resulted in cutting down trees that likely would have survived fire, resulting in forest carbon losses that are greater than if a wildfire had occurred. To help policymakers and managers avoid these unintended carbon consequences and to present carbon emission sources in the same context, we calculate western United States forest fire carbon emissions and compare them with harvest and fossil fuel emissions (FFE) over the same timeframe. We find that forest fire carbon emissions are on average only 6% of anthropogenic FFE over the past decade. While wildfire occurrence and area burned have increased over the last threemore »decades, per area fire emissions for extreme fire events are relatively constant. In contrast, harvest of mature trees releases a higher density of carbon emissions (e.g., per unit area) relative to wildfire (150–800%) because harvest causes a higher rate of tree mortality than wildfire. Our results show that increasing harvest of mature trees to save them from fire increases emissions rather than preventing them. Shown in context, our results demonstrate that reducing FFEs will do more for climate mitigation potential (and subsequent reduction of fire) than increasing extractive harvest to prevent fire emissions. On public lands, management aimed at less-intensive fuels reduction (such as removal of “ladder” fuels, i.e., shrubs and small-diameter trees) will help to balance reducing catastrophic fire and leave live mature trees on the landscape to continue carbon uptake.« less
    Free, publicly-accessible full text available May 9, 2023
  2. Forests store a large amount of terrestrial carbon, but this storage capacity is vulnerable to wildfire. Combustion, and subsequent tree mortality and soil erosion, can lead to increased carbon release and decreased carbon uptake. Previous work has shown that non-constant fire return intervals over the past 4000 years strongly shaped subalpine forest carbon trajectories. The extent to which fire-regime variability has impacted carbon trajectories in other subalpine forest types is unknown. Here, we explored the interactions between fire and carbon dynamics of 14 subalpine watersheds in Colorado, USA. We tested the impact of varying fire frequency over a ~2000 year period on ecosystem productivity and carbon storage using an improved biogeochemical model. High fire frequency simulations had overall lower carbon stocks across all sites compared to scenarios with lower fire frequencies, highlighting the importance of fire-frequency in determining ecosystem carbon storage. Additionally, variability in fire-free periods strongly influenced carbon trajectories across all the sites. Biogeochemical trajectories (e.g., increasing or decreasing total ecosystem carbon and carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratios) did not vary among forest types but there were trends that they may vary by elevation. Lower-elevations sites had lower overall soil C:N ratios, potentially because of higher fire frequencies reducing carbon inputsmore »more than nitrogen losses over time. Additional measurements of ecosystem response to fire-regime variability will be essential for improving estimates of carbon dynamics from Earth system models.« less
  3. Abstract

    Atmospheric greenhouse gases (GHGs) must be reduced to avoid an unsustainable climate. Because carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered in forests and wood products, mitigation strategies to sustain and increase forest carbon sequestration are being developed. These strategies require full accounting of forest sector GHG budgets. Here, we describe a rigorous approach using over one million observations from forest inventory data and a regionally calibrated life-cycle assessment for calculating cradle-to-grave forest sector emissions and sequestration. We find that Western US forests are net sinks because there is a positive net balance of forest carbon uptake exceeding losses due to harvesting, wood product use, and combustion by wildfire. However, over 100 years of wood product usage is reducing the potential annual sink by an average of 21%, suggesting forest carbon storage can become more effective in climate mitigation through reduction in harvest, longer rotations, or more efficient wood product usage. Of the ∼10 700 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents removed from west coast forests since 1900, 81% of it has been returned to the atmosphere or deposited in landfills. Moreover, state and federal reporting have erroneously excluded some product-related emissions, resulting in 25%–55% underestimation ofmore »state total CO2emissions. For states seeking to reach GHG reduction mandates by 2030, it is important that state CO2budgets are effectively determined or claimed reductions will be insufficient to mitigate climate change.

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  4. Strategies to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions through forestry activities have been proposed, but ecosystem process-based integration of climate change, enhanced CO 2 , disturbance from fire, and management actions at regional scales are extremely limited. Here, we examine the relative merits of afforestation, reforestation, management changes, and harvest residue bioenergy use in the Pacific Northwest. This region represents some of the highest carbon density forests in the world, which can store carbon in trees for 800 y or more. Oregon’s net ecosystem carbon balance (NECB) was equivalent to 72% of total emissions in 2011–2015. By 2100, simulations show increased net carbon uptake with little change in wildfires. Reforestation, afforestation, lengthened harvest cycles on private lands, and restricting harvest on public lands increase NECB 56% by 2100, with the latter two actions contributing the most. Resultant cobenefits included water availability and biodiversity, primarily from increased forest area, age, and species diversity. Converting 127,000 ha of irrigated grass crops to native forests could decrease irrigation demand by 233 billion m 3 ⋅y −1 . Utilizing harvest residues for bioenergy production instead of leaving them in forests to decompose increased emissions in the short-term (50 y), reducing mitigation effectiveness. Increasing forest carbon onmore »public lands reduced emissions compared with storage in wood products because the residence time is more than twice that of wood products. Hence, temperate forests with high carbon densities and lower vulnerability to mortality have substantial potential for reducing forest sector emissions. Our analysis framework provides a template for assessments in other temperate regions.« less
  5. Abstract. Wildfire is a dominant disturbance agent in forest ecosystems, shaping important biogeochemical processes including net carbon (C) balance. Long-term monitoring and chronosequence studies highlight a resilience of biogeochemical properties to large, stand-replacing, high-severity fire events. In contrast, the consequences of repeated fires or temporal variability in a fire regime (e.g., the characteristic timing or severity of fire) are largely unknown, yet theory suggests that such variability could strongly influence forest C trajectories (i.e., future states or directions) for millennia. Here we combine a 4500-year paleoecological record of fire activity with ecosystem modeling to investigate how fire-regime variability impacts soil C and net ecosystem carbon balance. We found that C trajectories in a paleo-informed scenario differed significantly from an equilibrium scenario (with a constant fire return interval), largely due to variability in the timing and severity of past fires. Paleo-informed scenarios contained multi-century periods of positive and negative net ecosystem C balance, with magnitudes significantly larger than observed under the equilibrium scenario. Further, this variability created legacies in soil C trajectories that lasted for millennia. Our results imply that fire-regime variability is a major driver of C trajectories in stand-replacing fire regimes. Predicting carbon balance in these systems, therefore, willmore »depend strongly on the ability of ecosystem models to represent a realistic range of fire-regime variability over the past several centuries to millennia.

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