The Nature Conservancy’s Approach to
Forest Restoration & Carbon:
Scientific Foundations for Linking Forest Resilience
Projects to Carbon Policy
By David J. Ganz and Elizabeth W. Bloomfield
Part I: Relationships Among Forest Treatments, Climate Change and Emissions................ 3
I A. Introduction to TNC’s Approach......................................................................................... 3
The Nature Conservancy’s Approach to Forest Treatments................................................... 3
Fuels Treatments and Climate ................................................................................................ 4
I B. Forest Resilience, Mitigation and Adaptation ..................................................................... 4
I C. Avoided Emissions .............................................................................................................. 5
I D. Potential for Carbon Offset Projects.................................................................................... 8
I E. Other Ecosystem Services.................................................................................................. 10
Part II. What Kinds of Treatments are Needed to Promote Resilient Forest Structures
and Carbon Sequestration? ....................................................................................................... 12
II A: The role of resilience treatments when considering carbon exchange............................. 12
II B. Effects of climate change on forests................................................................................. 12
Part III. What to Look for When Evaluating Others’ Research............................................ 14
III A. Models Versus Stands – Landscape Context .................................................................. 14
III B. Life Cycle Assessments .................................................................................................. 15
III C. Literature Sources ........................................................................................................... 15
III D. Advocacy Sponsorship.................................................................................................... 16
Part IV: Conclusions and Recommendations........................................................................... 17
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is committed to restoring and conserving a broad array of
habitats around the globe, including fire-adapted forests. In the United States, significant changes
to fire-adapted forests have accrued through decades of fire suppression, logging and grazing,
making them susceptible to uncharacteristically severe fire, insect and disease events. Climate
change is an additional stress. Forest management practices that reduce fuels, including
mechanical thinning, prescribed fire and wildland fire use, are acknowledged as key to
restoration. Fuels treatment practices are also used by a wide spectrum of practitioners for
objectives other than forest restoration, such as protecting property from wildfire, harvesting
feedstock for biomass energy, or meeting treated acres targets by agencies. In fact, depending on
the project design, forest treatments can meet multiple objectives, thereby resulting in “co-
Additional possible benefits of fuels treatment involve carbon. Interest in carbon markets is
stimulating treatment proposals that seek carbon offset payments for changing forest
management to store additional carbon. One aspect of this forest management and carbon
relationship is the need to better understand the carbon trade-offs from fuel reduction treatments,
designed to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and improve degraded forest conditions. What
is the net result in terms of carbon exchange when trees that store carbon are removed from
stands to reduce the threat of stand replacing fires that emit green house gases and remove
standing carbon stocks?
In the context of all the possible objectives forest treatments are designed to achieve, it is
important to recognize that TNC focuses its efforts on projects and protocols whose primary
objectives are to increase the resilience of forests. We call forest restoration treatments with such
objectives “forest resilience practices.” Resilience is defined as “the capacity of an ecosystem to
tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a
different set of processes.” TNC’s climate change mitigation, avoidance and adaptation strategies
need to be consistent with this objective, thus advancing the science, practice and policy of
allowing restored ecosystems to abate the threat of climate change.
There are relationships among climate-induced environmental stressors like drought, insect
epidemics, length of fire season and invasives and management stressors like fire suppression,
unsustainable silviculture 1 and extensive fragmentation from development and road networks.
The combination of these environmental and management stressors are expressed as highly
altered (1) forest structure, (2) epidemic levels of insects and diseases and (3)
uncharacteristically severe fire behavior. Forest resilience practices are aimed at reducing the
impacts of these stresses, consistent with TNC’s role in conserving ecosystem biodiversity.
There is a pressing need to interact with policy makers as climate change legislation is
developed. Based on the best available science, how should TNC approach forest restoration in
fire-adapted ecosystems within the context of balancing carbon sequestration and emissions?
For instance, high grading sites by removing only the biggest and most valuable trees from a stand to receive the
highest returns at the expense of future growth potential. These types of unsustainable silvicultural practices leads to
poor quality and shade-tolerate trees tend to dominate in these continually high-graded sites.
The purpose of this paper is to introduce the key topics that need to be considered when linking
forest management to the science and policy of carbon and climate change. There is open and
constructive debate in the field of forest carbon, both scientifically and politically. This survey
of the conflicting research findings and emergent trends is not meant to be a comprehensive
literature review. It is offered as an insight into the sides of the debate, with some
recommendations for how to better evaluate the often conflicting messages coming from the
This paper addresses the following topics to aid our policy experts, field programs and close
• The relationships among forest treatments, carbon budgets and emissions;
• The kinds of treatments and analyses TNC should be considering to ensure projects
achieve resilience while abating climate change threats; and
• What to look for when evaluating others’ research.
While this paper draws upon information from around the world, this synthesis is intended
primarily to inform forest management practices and policy in the United States. Moreover,
much of the discussion in this paper is particularly relevant for fire-adapted forest ecosystems
with frequent, low- to moderate-severity fire regimes.
Part I: Relationships Among Forest Treatments, Climate Change and
I A. Introduction to TNC’s Approach
Climate change science and politics permeate the current context for forest management
practices. Federal cap and trade legislation has now been introduced, and a few state and some
regional greenhouse gas programs are already functioning. Forest carbon offsetting and the
EPA’s findings that green house gases pose a risk to human health and welfare will affect fuel
reduction techniques on both private and public lands (Climate Change Science Program 2009).
Program managers within and outside TNC are increasingly seeking guidance on the potential of
forest management practices, particularly restoration treatments like thinning and prescribed fire,
to qualify for some form of funding tied to developing carbon markets. TNC policy experts are
seeking clear scientific bases for crafting and supporting climate change policies that will lead to
resilience-based forest practices at international, federal and state levels.
TNC, which conducts prescribed burns on about 100,000 acres per year in the United States, has
a direct stake in ensuring that this management tool remains available. Because they release
carbon in the short term, prescribed fire and wildland fire use may be curtailed absent a strong
scientific rationale for their role in avoiding much larger emissions from fires in high fuel forests.
The Nature Conservancy’s Approach to Forest Treatments
TNC’s strategies for conserving global biodiversity have evolved from a land protection model
to include an extensive web of private and public lands partnerships. It is through these
partnerships that TNC leverages conservation outcomes well beyond its own reserve network.
Science and policy expertise serves to frame TNC’s work beyond its borders. Understanding the
scientific and policy context surrounding the critical global threats to biodiversity, and working
with partners to act on those threats, is TNC’s great strength as an organization.
TNC’s work to build forest resilience in fire-adapted ecosystems often entails collaborating with
others to face the threats created by past management, expansion of the human footprint and
climate change. Designing forest resilience strategies that meet partners’ objectives, while
satisfying biodiversity conservation, is an active field of practice for TNC. There is considerable
pressure from many interest groups to treat forests for “hazard reduction” outcomes. The Healthy
Forests Restoration Act of 2003 articulated this current context driving fuel reduction projects on
On the other hand, there is also pressure from other interest groups to protect forests from a new
era of unsustainable logging that they fear could be masquerading as “forest health” or
“biomass” treatments. Just the term “fuels treatment” means different things to different
practitioners, scientists and policy makers. Fuels treatments can vary from removal of shrubs and
trees in a perimeter around a forest cabin, to hundreds of acres of small-diameter tree removal, to
thousands of acres of prescribed fire or wildland fire use. Differences in the definition of what
qualifies as “fuels” can lead to conflicts over objectives (Reinhardt et al. 2008). An example
includes conflicts over whether to set diameter caps and spacing requirements to differentiate
between ladder fuels and the overstory (Abella et al. 2006; Larson and Mirth 2001; Coughlan
We define TNC-sponsored “fuels treatments” as a collection of practices that lead to more
resilient forest conditions at all scales as the primary objective. Rather than attempting to restore
pre-European conditions, forests require climate adaptation strategies that anticipate longer fire
seasons and more severe and extensive fires.
Fuels Treatments and Climate
Stands and landscapes that used to experience low- or mixed-severity frequent fires, where fire
has been excluded and fire-resistant trees have been removed, are at risk for widespread loss to
fire. Property and lives are also at risk. Biomass removed in fuels treatment projects can supply
raw materials for economic use, which is why fuels projects can serve multiple objectives and
meet the needs of a range of partners.
Fuels treatment plays a role in climate change policy. Forest carbon stocks are considered a key
component of emerging carbon markets, and there is much debate about the types of
quantification required to assign market values to carbon storage in dynamic forest ecosystems.
Uncharacteristically dense forests act on the one hand as a carbon sink, but are at risk for
converting into carbon sources from fire, especially as climate stressors accumulate (Marlon et
al. 2008; Finkral and Evans 2008; Flannigan et al. 2008).
Weidinmyer and Neff, in a 2007 article on fire and carbon policy, observed that global fire is a
highly variable phenomenon, making carbon measurements attributable to fire very difficult.
Absent other factors, the carbon released in fires is likely balanced over the long term and
regional to global scales by forest growth. In the short term, however, measured in the time and
spatial scales of treaties and carbon trade transactions, net carbon emissions from large fires can
be significant (Weidinmyer and Neff 2007). At these more localized time and spatial scales, the
ability to model and monitor carbon flux from different forest management systems will be
critical to robust markets. In order for fuel reduction practices like thinning and prescribed fire to
qualify for funding tied to developing carbon markets, it will be necessary to study the efficacy
of these practices in mitigating wildfire effects, maintaining or enhancing carbon stores through
the duration of projects, and last but not least, their ability to lead to long-term resilience. From
the policy context, treatments that release emissions (like prescribed burning, pile burning and
wildland fire use) should not be penalized for short-term pulses when long-term resilience is the
desired outcome. In addition to these allowances, a variety of forest management systems must
be studied in order to determine what they can provide the developing markets while still
providing co-benefits to civil society.
I B. Forest Resilience, Mitigation and Adaptation
The Conservancy seeks strategies that balance the storage of carbon in forests while maintaining
or enhancing forest resilience and ecosystem health. Given the seriousness of the problems
associated with climate change, and the ability of forests to sequester carbon, these strategies
need to be implemented as case studies to provide mitigation actions sooner rather than later.
Restoration of fire-adapted forests is optimized through climate mitigation: practices that reduce
the release of greenhouse gases or help remove them from the atmosphere through sequestration.
TNC must also consider the value of forest resilience practices as climate adaptation strategies:
which include a suite of adaptive measures to help forests maintain their integrity as climate
changes. With a changing climate, drought, fire, insects, disease and invasive species are
expected to cause some forest carbon sinks first to weaken and then transform from sinks to
sources (Kurz et al. 2008; Nabuurs et al. 2007; Friedlingstein et al. 2006; Hurtt et al. 2002).
TNC recognizes that many forest carbon projects are going to be considered in the policy arena
and private sector solely for their impacts on carbon in aboveground vegetation . There are other
important carbon stores in forests that do not behave in the same way as live trees. For example:
• Dead trees and soil-based carbon, also known as black carbon, will reach their highest
storage potential immediately after a fire (Deluca and Aplet 2008). This is an important
idea that often gets overlooked when evaluating the role of fire in the carbon budget.
Changes in these non-living carbon pools need to be considered for a complete
accounting, and disturbance regimes need to be evaluated for their natural roles in
moving and storing carbon.
• A recent study from British Columbia demonstrated that the lack of accounting for
forests killed by insect epidemics resulted in an overestimation in previous studies of the
potential for forests to offset anthropogenic carbon dioxide (Kurz et al. 2008).
• The inclusion or exclusion of soil organic matter and roots may overestimate
sequestration or underestimate carbon losses associated with burning or site preparation
(e.g., plowing) (Hamburg 2000).
Therefore, it is important to consider the entire duration of carbon projects as forests change with
time. TNC promotes those forest restoration treatments that best allow managers to implement,
monitor and adapt using a long-term pathway for ecosystem resilience and health.
I C. Avoided Emissions
There is debate among scientists about the effect of management practices on reducing carbon
emissions. Several scientists have demonstrated that restoration treatments (especially prescribed
fire) will reduce carbon emissions and thus contribute to mitigation strategies (PSW 2009;
Canadell et al. 2007; Houghton et al. 2000; Krankina and Harmon 2006; Nabuurs et al. 2007).
However, because the results of studies are mixed, it is difficult to make clear statements about
the role of forest treatments in reducing long-term emissions by preventing uncharacteristically
Fuel reduction activities also release carbon to the atmosphere from prescribed fire or pile
burning, disturbance of soil and forest floor during thinning operations, transport and processing
of thinned trees and decay and burning of logging slash and other biomass (whether in the forest
or in a biomass plant). To help distinguish among the various studies and results, an overarching
recommendation is to review and understand the scope and intent of any given study. In general,
study designs that account for more emission source and sink factors as a result of the treatments
will be more useful in informing policy regarding the role of forest treatments in reducing carbon
emissions. This means that the more factors there are that account for the full life cycle 2 of
carbon, the more useful the project results will be in reducing uncertainty about the role of forest
management in carbon emission reductions.
The following six studies are good examples of recent work comparing either stand- or
landscape-level benefits from implementing treatments:
• The Teakettle Experimental Forest in California has had an ongoing carbon assessment to
examine the relative carbon emission costs of different fuels treatments and their
potential effectiveness at reducing wildfire intensity. This study has found that fire-
suppressed forests have substantially lower live-tree carbon stocks when compared to
forests experiencing historical active-fire conditions, and are at risk of creating large fire
emissions if burned by wildfire (Hurteau and North 2009). All fuels treatments created
carbon emissions, but emissions can be reduced and future carbon stocks increased by
modifying treatments to reduce surface fuels, small trees and intermediate-sized, fire-
sensitive species (North et al., in press).
• The Biomass to Energy Project in California was a landscape-level modeling project that
showed that strategically placed fuel treatments with biomass energy byproducts had
clear life cycle climate change benefits, including a 65 percent net reduction in
greenhouse gas emissions, from 17 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents to 5.9
million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (PSW 2009).
• Preliminary modeling results from another California study shows that a typical 1-acre
pine stand, after fuels were treated with both thinning and pile burning, produced roughly
35 percent fewer emissions when compared to pre-treatment emissions, yielding 83 tons
of wildfire emissions, including emissions from pile burning (Schmidt 2008).
• In another study by Finkral and Evans (2008) in Northern Arizona, results were mixed.
The study demonstrated on an experimental site that restoration treatments led to a net
measured increase in emissions from the loss of standing carbon stocks and combustion
of fuel in logging machinery, burning slash, and the transport and consumption of the
firewood products generated from the treatment. Predictive models in the study, however,
gave a different view of the longer-term effects by showing that the treated stand would
release less carbon than the untreated stand if one considered the avoided emissions by
limiting crown fires.
• A spatially explicit ecosystem simulation modeling project in Washington compared the
east Cascades with the west Cascades and the Coast Range (Mitchell et al. 2009). Similar
to the Finkral and Evans study, the predictive models did not demonstrate a net increase
in emissions for Coastal Range and west Cascades when considering avoided fire
emissions in ecosystems with lengthy fire return intervals and intensive over-story
removals as treatments. Alternatively, in systems with short fire return intervals, this
study did demonstrate that the removal of highly flammable understory vegetation
lowered the overall biomass combustion, thereby increasing overall carbon storage in
fire-adapted ecosystems like the east Cascades.
A full life cycle assessment tracks all of the projected emissions from forestry operations (and potentially
downstream products), including the machinery performing the fuels treatment, the log truck hauling material out of
the forest, and the emissions of the manufacturing plant. The assessment also compares these results with the
emissions projected from leaving the biomass resources on site, sequestering carbon and burned in the next wildfire.
A key concept that emerges from this cross-section of studies is the need to follow the carbon
beyond the project site. The Biomass to Energy study demonstrated a net carbon benefit when
fuels treatments were sited to reduce high hazard stands, and harvested fuels were used as an
energy source. The Finkral and Evans study cited above also demonstrated that the benefit was
lost when the harvested fuels were transported and used as firewood, instead of accounted as
material substitution or biomass. However, that study also went on to predict a net benefit when
the long-term effects of crown fire reduction were accounted for. The Mitchell et al. (2009)
ecosystem simulation study also found that, with the exception of xeric ecosystems in the East
Cascades, fuel reduction treatments and biomass utilization does not lead to maximum carbon
storage and avoided fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions over the next 100 years. This study
recognized that the field of woody biomass to energy is rapidly evolving and that many variables
need to be considered when calculating the conversion efficiencies of biomass to biofuels. The
researchers elected to compare the potential energy content (potential energy ratios) of woody
materials to fossil fuels, without investigating other bioenergy potentials.
A number of authors also acknowledged differences between modeled and field-based estimates
when implementing fuel reduction treatments (Mitchell et al 2009; North et al., in press). North
et al. (in press) suggest that evaluating these differences and tradeoffs will hinge on other factors
such as the availability of treatment funds, air quality restrictions on burning, and how much risk
managers are willing to accept. In summary, depending on the factors accounted for in the
various studies, some research points to clear carbon benefits from fuels treatments, whereas
other research points to negative or negligible effects of treatments. The general trend of the
research demonstrates that fuels treatments have value in that they restore the myriad of benefits
of forest resilience and, in addition, these treatments will likely reduce net carbon emissions from
uncharacteristic fire in fire-adapted ecosystems (PSW 2009; Nechodom et al. 2008; Ganz et al.
As part of the life cycle assessment approach to understanding the pathways to avoided
emissions from management, it is important to also understand the debate on the appropriate
temporal and spatial scales for evaluating investments in biomass energy infrastructure or small-
diameter tree conversion technologies. Health and Birdsey (1993) originally hypothesized that
the total carbon storage from harvesting and wood products would exceed that of an unharvested
forest, but found that even over a 90-year time frame, the no-harvest scenario stored more
carbon. Other studies also have shown that more emissions can result from forest management as
compared to fire. Projects in Oregon (Law et al. 2004; Turner et al. 2007) and California
(Pearson et al. 2006) included manufacturing in the total emissions accounting. While these were
typically estimated at smaller project scales, they showed that annual emissions from logging and
manufacturing exceeded those from wildfire.
In contrast, given the trend of forests in the western United States experiencing higher severity,
frequency and extent of wildfire (Miller et al. 2009; Safford et al. 2008; Westerling and Bryant
2008; Gavin et al. 2007; Westerling et al. 2006), restoration treatments like prescribed burning
and wildland fire use can provide greater carbon benefits than the commercial alternative alone,
which is carbon stored in wood products. This is especially the case if one considers standing
dead volume from snags and black carbon that remains on site (Deluca and Aplet 2008). If the
emissions from avoided wildfire and the substitution with other building materials (such as
cement) are accounted for, then the carbon advantages of forest resilience treatments and their
subsequent wood products are even more pronounced (Lippke 2007; Winistorfer et al. 2005).
On balance, when looking at the larger landscape-scale and longer-term context, carbon
emissions associated with biomass and small-diameter harvests are trivial compared with the
emissions associated with a wildfire event (PSW 2009). The previously mentioned studies in
Oregon (Law et al. 2004; Turner et al. 2007) and California (Pearson et al. 2006) are at smaller
project scales that do not provide the benefits of landscape-scale treatments for avoiding wildfire
emissions. Given recent wildfire emissions estimates for the United States and accounting for the
co-benefits associated with restoration treatments, the amount of wood products manufacturing
and logging emissions still make a wildfire emissions avoidance strategy viable under the
developing carbon market. There is evidence that landscape-scale fuels treatments were effective
in reducing fire severity in the Angora Fire (Safford et al. 2009; Murphy et al. 2007), the Cone
Fire (Skinner et al. 2004; Ritchie et al. 2007), the Rodeo-Chediski Fire (Strom 2005), and the
Biscuit Fire (Raymond and Peterson 2005). If these types of studies can make a strong
connection between the avoided wildfire emissions associated with these types of treatments,
then the carbon market will be able to account for the full range of benefits of restoration
I D. Potential for Carbon Offset Projects
As described in the preceding section, the research on fuels treatments does not provide
conclusive results regarding carbon benefits. This is primarily due to scaling issues and the
various projections of wood products manufacturing and logging emissions compared to wildfire
emissions. Irrespective of what some may perceive as dynamically conflicting results, there are
several fuels treatment carbon abatement pilot projects underway that demonstrate the potential
for TNC and its partners to capture the true benefits of restoration treatments, especially the use
of prescribed burning in fire-adapted ecosystems. Several of these examples are from overseas.
While fuels treatment generally includes mechanical treatment, TNC is aware that those carbon
abatement programs relying on prescribed burning will yield the highest biodiversity benefits
because they will restore ecological processes. In the event that TNC and its partners pursue
carbon offset opportunities in the western United States (in forests that historically burned with
high frequency and low severity), mechanical treatments may be needed and tailored to the
“context of place” such that fire can be reintroduced either through prescribed burning or
wildland fire use (Brown et al. 2004).
Forest carbon sequestration has been proposed as a way to help offset anthropogenic carbon
dioxide emissions (Woodbury et al. 2007). In forests that historically burned with high frequency
and low severity, adding to the carbon baseline by increasing stocking levels may exacerbate the
modern shift toward high-severity fire produced by fire suppression and climate change. Current
carbon accounting practices can be at odds with efforts to reduce fire intensity in many western
states because they do not consider the potential for avoided emissions to be tracked with
Narayan et al. (2007) demonstrated such a potential for the European countries during an
analysis of prescribed burning and wildfire emissions under the Kyoto protocols. In comparing
the 33 European countries, Narayan et al. (2007) found that only one, Croatia, could achieve its
entire Kyoto Protocol mandates by applying prescribed burning achieving a net carbon dioxide
emissions reduction of 121 percent by changing the dynamic of wildfire emission losses. Three
other nations showed a potential net carbon dioxide emissions reduction of about 4 to 8 percent
of the Kyoto requirements by prescribed burning alone (Portugal, Italy and Bulgaria). While
these benefits are less than impressive, it should be noted that currently Kyoto does not “count”
carbon sequestration resulting from improved forest management. As new protocols are
developed, this may become an opportunity in European carbon markets, especially for those
countries with fire-adapted ecosystems like Portugal, Spain, Southern France and Italy.
Another example from Australia is called the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA)
project, a partnership between Australian Aboriginal Traditional Owners and Indigenous Ranger
Groups, Darwin Liquefied Natural Gas (DLNG, a subsidiary of Conoco Phillips), the Northern
Territory Government and the Northern Land Council. Through this collaboration, indigenous
people are being paid 1 million US dollars per year for 17 years to conduct traditional strategic
fire management across 28,000 km² of West Arnhem (Whitehead et al. 2008). From 2005 to
2007, the project showed reductions of about 145,000 tons of equivalent carbon dioxide
annually, with a total reduction of 435,000 tons. This amounted to a 38 percent reduction from
pre-project wildfire emission levels, and was initiated to offset a portion of the greenhouse gas
emissions from DLNG, equating to a cost of approximately $15 per ton of carbon dioxide
equivalents (Whitehead et al. 2008). This is roughly equivalent to half of the modeled avoided
emission benefits of landscape-scale fuels treatment in similar fire-adapted ecosystems in
California (PSW 2009).
The WALFA case demonstrates that restoration projects in fire-adapted ecosystems can provide
a convenient and cost-effective means for emissions reduction. While these opportunities are not
recognized by national or international climate change frameworks as a means to abate carbon
dioxide emissions, there are several pilot projects developing in a global carbon market. Like
other forest carbon strategies that are being proposed, fire regime restoration has the potential for
a triple bottom line: emissions reductions, community benefits in the form of payments and
biodiversity benefits (Griscom et al., in press). The WALFA project demonstrates that fire
regime restoration can indeed reduce emissions from fire below a historical baseline at a
reasonable cost, while creating ancillary benefits for indigenous groups and regional
biodiversity. As a result of the success of WALFA, there are other landscape-scale projects being
modeled in Australia. However, there are several considerations that must be addressed before
fire regime restoration would be viable on a national or even global scale, including improved
treatment modeling tested against on-the-ground restoration, better restoration results monitoring
protocols, and more sophisticated emissions measurements and models (Griscom et al., in press;
Russell-Smith and Whitehead 2008; Russell-Smith 2007).
In the United States, there are several initiatives underway to pave the way for similar
opportunities for avoided wildfire emissions. At this juncture, credible modeling as well as the
landscape-level and stand-level implementation and monitoring of restoration treatments are
critical to the development of this carbon abatement strategy. The first initiative is called the
Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) and the work of the Fire Integration
Project 3 , which aims to build the necessary science for avoided wildfire emissions to be included
The Fire Integration project is being performed by the US Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station,
The Nature Conservancy, UC Berkeley, University of San Francisco and Spatial Informatics Group LLC.
in the California Climate Action Registry Forest Sector Protocols (CCAR FSP; CCAR 2007).
The CCAR’s current accounting methods do not require forest managers to report wildfire
emissions; they are only required to adjust the forest baseline. A more complete accounting
would include the amount of carbon dioxide equivalents released from fire events, similar to the
IPCC (2006) guidelines. Similar to the results from the Teakettle Experiment in California
(Hurteau and North 2009; North et al. in press), the Fire Integration Project advocates that the
protocols under development should include wildfire emissions and not discount the future
wildfire emissions based purely on the level of uncertainty. Forest structures that are resistant to
stand-replacing fire would not differ substantially from their baseline.
Modeled future California climate conditions suggest that there will be rises in temperature and
increasing growing season length (Field et al. 1999; Hayhoe et al. 2004; Cayan et al. 2008).
These changes may increase the number of large fire events (Miller et al. 2009; Westerling and
Bryant 2008; Gavin et al. 2007; Westerling et al. 2006). Recent research also suggests current
estimates of wildfire carbon emissions may be only a portion of the actual carbon losses if the
fire is high-intensity and leaves only a small number of surviving trees (Kashian et al. 2006;
Bormann et al. 2008; Dore et al. 2008, North et al. in press). Given these trends, both the Fire
Integration and Teakettle Experiments are needed to validate this type of carbon abatement
program such that it may become part of the markets under development.
I E. Other Ecosystem Services
More work is required to institutionalize the concept of ecosystem services in TNC’s
conservation strategies. While the focus of this present effort is on wildfire emissions accounting
for carbon mitigation practice and policy, the economic losses due to unwanted wildfires should
consider ecosystem service values in a “total economic value framework” (Ganz et al. 2007). In
evaluating the efficacy of fuels treatments for forest resilience, consideration should be given to
both the market-based and non-market values that are at risk from wildfire, particularly live
carbon and other ecosystem goods and services. There are several opportunities for TNC and its
federal partners to use the total economic value approach to compare and contrast individual fuel
mitigation treatments and their actual efficacy on building resilient landscapes.
The evaluation of ecosystem goods and services can be integrated with spatially explicit fire
behavior models like FARSITE and FlamMap to weigh potential benefits from a fuels treatment
(Ganz et al. 2007). Specifically, the fire models would produce a baseline wildfire damage
probability under a no-treatment scenario. The amount and probability of damages to
environmental assets could then be compared to the predicted amount and probability of
damages under alternative treatment scenarios, net of treatment cost. Treatment scenarios
evaluated could range from shaded fuel breaks, strategically placed land area treatments, or the
break up of fuel continuity around individual communities and homes. Well designed treatments
should result in lower burn probabilities, lower intensities and fewer burned acres when a
simulated fire does occur. Because these models are spatially explicit, the predicted fire
perimeters and intensity products of modeling can be overlain with ecosystem goods and
services to estimate the extent of damage or benefits under each fire scenario. For each scenario,
including the no-treatment baseline, then, the cost of treatment (zero in the case of the baseline)
can be compared to the probability of fire multiplied by the estimated ecosystem services
benefits and damage from each fire (Ganz et al. 2007).
In order for TNC and its federal partners to use the total economic value approach to compare
and contrast individual fuel mitigation treatments, the use and coverage of ecosystem service
estimates need to increase. First, it is critical to improve the quality of spatial and valuation data.
More and better field studies are needed to improve the specificity of the data. There is also the
potential to assess ecosystem services changes over time in response to carbon and other forest
management policies. Time-sensitive research would assist TNC and its federal partners to
demonstrate how their management has led to increased societal benefits. A long-term
monitoring program should be developed to track the cost-effectiveness of the policies over time.
Part II. What Kinds of Treatments are Needed to Promote Resilient Forest
Structures and Carbon Sequestration?
II A: The role of resilience treatments when considering carbon exchange
The interest in carbon markets is stimulating treatment proposals that seek carbon offset
payments for either changing management to store additional carbon, or reducing the risk of
catastrophic fires and subsequent loss of carbon retention. In evaluating the various treatment
designs, TNC and its wide spectrum of practitioners interested in forest resilience need to
recognize that thinning alone does not typically constitute an effective fuels treatment, but
instead must be combined with treatment of surface fuels through prescribed burning, pile
burning or wildland fire use (Reinhardt et al. 2008; Agee and Skinner 2005). In the absence of
fire, many stands that historically burned frequently and had open structures have become dense
with vertical continuous canopies. This makes them prone to crown fire and is one of the prime
causes of the high-intensity, large conflagrations that have plagued the western United States in
Some types of thinning practices will reduce crown fire potential, but there are certain tradeoffs
in treatment effects on potential surface fire behavior and crown fire behavior (Scott and
Reinhardt 2001). Thinning will often result in increased potential surface fire behavior, for
several reasons. First, thinning reduces the moderating effects of the canopy on wind speed, so
surface wind speeds may increase within thinned stands (Graham et al. 2004). Secondly, it also
increases the solar radiation reaching the forest floor, causing surface fuels to dry out quickly.
Third, thinning may be done as pre-commercial treatments left on the forest floor as slash.
Finally, it may also cause an increase in flammable grassy and shrub fuels over time, due to
reduced tree competition for sunlight and water. Agee and Skinner (2005) have summarized
guidelines for treating wildland fuels with thinning. They offer four principles for creating fire
resilient stands in dry forests: reduce surface fuels, increase the height to the canopy, decrease
crown density and retain big trees of fire-resilient species such as pines. A number of authors
provide additional guidelines for fuels treatments by fire regime (Franklin and Agee 2003;
Brown et al. 2004; Dellasala et al. 2004). Most of these guidelines also suggest retaining large,
fire-resilient trees. Although thinning reduces a volume of standing carbon, several carbon
studies encourage forest management regimes designed to move forests toward the very same
fire-resilient, late-seral structures to store additional carbon in live trees (Fahey et al. in press;
Hurteau and North 2009; Hurteau et al. 2008).
II B. Effects of climate change on forests
The best way to buffer ecosystems against the adverse effects of future climates is to increase
their resilience. Fire was a major process on the historical landscape. The effect of climate
change on certain fire regimes will be to increase (1) the length of fire season, (2) severity and
frequency of drought, (3) lightning ignitions, (4) amount of fuel and (5) fuel continuity
(Flannigan and Wagner 1991; Wooton and Flannigan 1993; Weber and Flannigan 1997;
Flannigan et al. 2005; McKenzie et al. 2004; Westerling et al. 2006). Therefore, in anticipation
of more extensive and uncontrollable fires in the future, TNC and those partners interested in
forest conservation must prepare the landscape to accept these changes with minor effects to the
biota. The fact that there have been decades of fire exclusion in conjunction with predicted
climate change ahead may foster future fires that severely alter landscapes in structure,
composition and function to the point where carbon stores are depleted.
The types of restoration treatments that TNC invests in must account for the fact that fire regimes
will change, thus rendering certain fuels treatments ineffective. It will be difficult to craft
restoration treatments when the fire regime, and therefore desired stand conditions, are a moving
target. In addition, the most appropriate fuels treatment methods vary with forest type and spatial
context – there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” fuels treatment design, especially in the
face of shifting fire regimes. TNC must first understand how these shifts are taking place (within
its priority landscape designations), assign desired future conditions and then design and monitor
restoration treatments that will minimize the adverse effects of high-severity fire (Brown 1995)
and ensure post-fire landscapes contain ecologically viable patterns and composition. A number
of landscape-scale projects are using TNC’s Conservation Action Planning (CAP) methodology
to link the phenomena of shifting fire regimes to objectives for treatments. This will facilitate the
design and analysis of forest restoration treatments that best allow managers to implement,
monitor and adapt using a long-term pathway for ecosystem resilience and health.
Part III. What to Look for When Evaluating Others’ Research
III A. Models Versus Stands – Landscape Context
Much remains to be done to more precisely quantify fuels treatment effects on carbon stores and
potential wildfire severity under different fire weather scenarios and stand conditions (Fernandes
and Botelho 2003). There is relatively little understanding of the full ecological effects of fuels
treatments, in particular the extent to which mechanical treatments might emulate natural
ecological processes such as fire (McIver et al. 2009). There is also a recognition that regional
carbon fluxes from modeling efforts, including the extent to which treatments will change
wildfire behavior and carbon retention, will depend on the ability to accurately characterize stand
age and forest type across the region (Hudiburg et al. 2009; Turner et al. 2007). While the
general trend of the research demonstrates that there is value in performing fuels treatments,
especially for reducing overall carbon emissions, the vast majority of this research is based upon
modeling and comparative analysis. In all of these analyses, one must review how the forest
system behaves in response to disturbances, the spatial scale at which it is being modeled, and
the time period being considered. The movement back and forth from non-spatial models to
spatial models is also something to critically evaluate. Stand-level models are often non-spatial
whereas fire behavior models are spatially explicit. The study design should clearly identify the
types of models used and their limitations. (This recommendation is similar to the assumptions
and caveats provided by Mitchell et al. 2009).
When evaluating studies on the effects of thinning on carbon stocks and wildfire emissions, it is
essential to evaluate the types and intensities of harvesting practices set up in the study design. If
the study is strictly a modeling exercise using numerical reductions in forest canopy, it may not
reflect the restoration thinning being practiced in the field to restore forest health. Resilience
thinning may not be the same as stand management for carbon. Thinning prescriptions should, as
closely as possible mimic stand dynamic processes such as natural patch establishment,
endemic insect and disease outbreaks, and characteristic fire). They should not be represented by
merely a numeric representation of biomass reduction (e.g. a percentage of stand removed).
Otherwise, the desired knowledge regarding the effects of resilience-based practices will not be
There are only a few documented cases where simulations are paired with on-the-ground
implementation of projects, especially when it comes to tracking the carbon stores pre- and post–
fire, including fire emissions sources and black carbon and standing dead sinks. There is a large
body of literature on post-fire effects and decay rates (on both wildfire and prescribed burns), but
only recently has the scientific community benefited from controlled and replicated empirical
studies like the Fire and Fire Surrogate Study, the Teakettle Experimental Forest, and the Sierra
Nevada Adaptive Management Project. While these also have modeling components, their
simulations are paired with on-the-ground restoration treatments. The benefits of these kinds of
studies are three-fold:
1. Comparison of different silvicultural techniques to reduce fire hazard in common forest
types that once experienced frequent, low- to moderate-intensity fire regimes;
2. Comparisons of costs and associated co-benefits of fuels treatments; and
3. Comparisons of models to on-the-ground treatments and field measurements.
It is best to have a combination of empirical modeling and on-the-ground assessments to use in
determining the spatial extent and location of fuels treatments. Modeling alone is always going
to be constrained by modeling assumptions and characterization of the site with data from other
locations (Mitchell et al. 2009). Modeling long-term carbon storage and expected fire severities
should not be confused with an assessment of exactly what treatments should be applied at the
landscape level based upon site-specific data on the patterns of fuel accumulation and ignitions
(PSW 2009; Mitchell et al. 2009; Nechodom et al. 2008; Ganz et al. 2007). Local conditions
should dictate the design, as certainly there is not one fuel treatment that fits all landscapes and
wildfire scenarios. As it is, there are only a few cases where fuels treatments have been tested by
an on-coming wildfire. As referenced in Part 1C above, mechanical plus fire treatments were
effective in reducing fire severity in the Cone Fire (Skinner et al. 2004; Ritchie et al. 2007), the
Rodeo-Chediski Fire (Strom 2005) and the Biscuit Fire (Raymond and Peterson 2005). In
addition, fire-only treatments were effective at reducing fire severity on the Hayman Fire
(Graham 2003), the Rodeo-Chediski Fire (Finney et al. 2005) and other fires (Biswell 1989),
though effectiveness of prescribed burn treatments will likely decline more rapidly over time as
surface fuels accumulate (Finney et al. 2005; Skinner 2005). Conversely, stands treated
mechanically with no surface fuel treatments burned with higher severity than those where
mechanical treatments were followed by prescribed fire, though with lower severity than
untreated controls (Skinner et al. 2004; Cram et al. 2006; Schmidt et al. 2008). With today’s
emphasis on using concrete scientific evidence for planning and implementation, one needs to
recognize that the evidence behind fuels treatment for carbon stores and forest resilience is still
under development and/or currently under review and analysis.
III B. Life Cycle Assessments
One research approach that is advocated by the scientific community is the use of life cycle
assessment approaches that consider all of the carbon stores and the co-benefits that are
associated with fuels treatments (PSW 2009; Nechodom et al. 2008; Ganz et al. 2007). A
disadvantage of life cycle assessments is that they are highly time intensive. Their value is that
they track the fuels treatment products from cradle to grave. If a life cycle approach is used for
comparing fuels treatments and associated co-benefits, the domain boundaries (what factors are
measured, and how far into time and space they’re tracked) need to be clear from the beginning.
Since forests are systems that have feedbacks which can strongly influence carbon responses to
actions (or non-action), it is important to define the limitations of what a true carbon project can
control. A project citing a life cycle approach needs to show definitive boundaries in terms of
time and space. In reviewing these studies, it is also important to determine if the life cycle
adheres to the protocol standardized by the International Standards Organization (ISO).
III C. Literature Sources
Whether a life cycle assessment, a replicated empirical study or a survey of the literature, it is
important to consider both peer-reviewed literature and unpublished reports to garner a full range
of possibilities for increasing the effectiveness of fire and forest resilience management
strategies. While studies that receive peer-review have been vetted by the scientific community,
it is important to recognize that it has become extremely difficult for land managers to get
applied research into the academic journals. Some publications like General Technical Reports
and conference proceedings may actually document important lessons from the field about which
fuels treatments are effective.
III D. Advocacy Sponsorship
Again, it should be noted that the evidence behind fuels treatment for carbon stores and forest
resilience is still under development and/or currently under review and analysis. While policy
makers need answers quickly, and advocacy groups may cite information that supports their
positions, it is important to recognize the scientific process is underway and needs to run its
course. If carbon abatement projects (such as the avoided wildfire emissions examples) are to
gain public acceptance and value in the market, it will be critical for the scientific community to
evaluate the best approaches for tracking carbon benefits. For an organization like TNC that is
land-based and science-based, it is critical to invest in private and public lands management,
especially given the need for systemic, long-term forest resilience and concrete carbon returns.
Part IV: Conclusions and Recommendations
• Forest management practices that reduce fuels, including mechanical thinning, prescribed
fire and wildland fire use, are acknowledged as key to restoration; however, “fuels
treatment” practices are also used for objectives other than increasing forest resilience,
such as protecting property, harvesting feedstock for biomass energy, or meeting treated
acres targets by agencies. “Hazardous fuels reduction” is a federal funding program that
pays for treatments ranging from real restoration to creating defensible space around
structures, with little ecological benefit. There is not universal agreement that fuel
reduction treatments meet broader forest restoration and long-term resilience goals.
• Early examples of payments in voluntary carbon markets and the anticipation of future
funding for voluntary and regulatory carbon markets are stimulating treatment proposals
that seek carbon offset payments for changing management to store additional carbon
and/or reducing the risk of catastrophic fires and subsequent loss of carbon retention.
Research to date does not offer conclusive evidence for regulatory market investments in
mechanical thinning to improve carbon stocks in fire-adapted ecosystems. Evidence
suggests, however, that reducing threat of crown fire and accounting for co-benefits from
product substitution 4 and biomass energy will demonstrate net carbon benefits over time.
Voluntary markets recognize this trend, and currently invest in a small number of fuels
treatment projects in fire-adapted ecosystems to reduce emissions from severe fire.
• It is important to recognize that the findings between fire-adapted ecosystems, such as
those from the east Cascades and maritime-adapted systems found at high altitudes and
west of the Cascades, show different results with respect to carbon benefits from
treatments. Ecoregional differences in forest type, age class distribution, natural
disturbance regimes and past management practices impose significant variation in how
carbon is sequestered and released. If the results from different regional studies,
particularly those based on models alone, are taken out of context, the market may restrict
future thinning investments.
• Climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies need to be consistent with the
objective of forest resilience, thus advancing the science, practice and policy of allowing
restored and resilient ecosystems to abate the threat of climate change. Prescribed fire and
wildland fire use could be curtailed absent a strong scientific rationale for their role in
avoiding much larger emissions from fires in high fuel forests.
• Substantial levels of investment in private and public land management will be required
for systemic, long-term forest resilience and concrete carbon returns, including
significant investments in post-fire reforestation and pre-fire thinning operations.
Substituting one building product with another, for instance replacing dimensional lumber with cement, which is a
higher green-house gas emitter. See Lippke, 2007.
• Given the history of national forest management in the United States, nearly all future
management strategies will be increasingly costly, whether driven by fire suppression,
vegetation management or intensive protection of high-value resources on the landscape.
• The sustainability of the nation’s forest carbon sinks over the next 100 years will depend
on increasing the effectiveness of fire and forest resilience management strategies.
• Current management levels (known as the “Business As Usual” scenario) will not
achieve the level of improvement in forest resilience and forest health, nor the reduction
of wildfire effects, presumed by current national policy direction.
• Constraining fuels treatments that restore fire regimes in fire-adapted ecosystems will
only exacerbate the problems presumed by current policy direction.
• One needs to differentiate between fire-adapted ecosystems with frequent fire return
intervals and those with lengthier regimes, especially those that are dominated by fire-
dependant species, such as lodgepole pine. Constraining fuels treatments and/or avoided
wildfire emissions benefits to xeric systems will lead to further degradation of other fire-
adapted ecosystems such as mixed conifer. Resiliency treatments must be designed to the
regime and may range from fuel reduction in frequent fire regimes, to wildland fire use in
infrequent, stand-replacement regimes. Climate adaption strategies must be regime-
1. When advising policy-makers or managers on the current state of knowledge regarding
fuels treatments and carbon, the following guidance is offered:
a. Forests are moderately to severely degraded, requiring extensive investment in
restoration regardless of any connection to carbon issues.
b. Treatments that use the return of fire to the landscape, either through prescription
or wildland fire use, have the most evident return on investment for both
resilience outcomes and carbon emissions benefits.
c. Treatment practices need to account for other ecosystem services benefits.
d. Treatments that require significant mechanical intervention prior to returning fire
should measure carbon flux, preferably through a life cycle assessment approach,
in order to build our understanding of the carbon trade-offs for emerging markets.
e. Collaboration is an important mechanism to overcome advocacy positions,
especially when it includes hosting and testing projects that measure the
relationships between carbon stocks and forest resilience treatments.
2. TNC and its federal partners should create a national-level team to:
a. Assess wildfire emissions, bioenergy benefits, and other carbon pools and
ecosystem services values and conduct a comprehensive economic assessment;
b. Develop optimal strategies and investments to ensure stability and resiliency of
forests and other natural systems; and
c. Commit staff and analytical capacity to setting up case studies to test the linkages
between forest management practices and carbon exchange across a range of
This analysis should be used to engage the public and TNC’s strategic partners in
meaningful dialogues about the long-term implications of management activities on our
This white paper has highlighted profound questions about trade-offs between near-term benefits
and long-term consequences that must be addressed as public policy questions and choices. It
also shows that while there is considerable science on forest resilience, carbon and fuels
treatments, there are still knowledge gaps that must be addressed before the public can feel
confident that treatments are well designed and meet their expectations for scientific rigor.
We are particularly grateful for the time offered to us by Dr. Alex Finkral of Northern Arizona
University, Dr. Alexander Evans of the Forest Guild, Steve Mitchell from Duke University, and
Wendy Fulks and Laura McCarthy of The Nature Conservancy, who provided insightful
comments and suggestions on both content and organization of this paper.
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