Where and how do we manage for carbon in forestry in a changing world? – The Applied Ecologist


Lilli Kaarakka shares findings from her team’s review article assessing the evidence for the potential of specific improved forest management (IFM) practices to sequester carbon and enhance carbon storage in forests.

Humans and forests share an infinite, intertwined history; forests have provided us with food, fuel and material for building homes, as well as a place of refuge and spirituality. In the most recent part of the Holocene, industrial agriculture, urbanisation and climate change have all left their footprint on forested landscapes, and deforestation has dominated the conversation around forestry management.

In the past decade, forests, and particularly the carbon within, have risen to the forefront of the natural climate solutions discourse. Today, two thirds of the offsets traded in the California Voluntary Offset Market are forestry-based and a vast majority of these are considered improved forest management projects. Yet, little practical guidance exists on how to integrate carbon management into operational forest management.

In response, in 2019, we set to explore the question ‘what is improved forest management?’

Forest management and carbon

Forest management (defined here as applying appropriate, sustainable practices to applied to forest vegetation to achieve certain outcomes) can influence carbon sequestration in three ways: by creating new forests (afforestation), by keeping forests as forests (avoided deforestation) and by manipulating existing forests (managed and unmanaged forests).

Climate change has played a prominent role in driving changes in the US forest by altering disturbance regimes, forest growth and dynamics. Photo; burn scars on Sequoia Sempervirens at CAL FIRE Mountain Home State Demonstration Forest in 2022 © Lilli Kaarakka

Indeed, in the United States, timber harvesting is the most extensive disturbance across forestland in terms of impacts on land and carbon. Thus, decisions around forest and land management alter the role of US forests as a C sink.

Early definitions of improved forest management – one of the key forest pathways identified – and analyses of its potential as a natural climate solution, have emphasized extended rotations (forgoing harvesting and leaving trees to grow in the stand). In contrast, other improved forest management strategies are commonly used in forestry and forest management, and the existing carbon markets but remain largely unassessed by for their carbon sequestration potential.

To that end, we find that there is an evident disconnection between the markets that certify the forest offsets (a government and/or state bodies that oversee and validate the offsets), the forest and land managers and the research community.

Forests are the largest terrestrial sink of carbon in the US. While the importance of forest management in maintaining and enhancing that terrestrial carbon sink has been established, until recently, very little guidance has existed in how to integrate C management into practical forest management © Lilli Kaarakka

So why is it important to connect theory with practice in forest management?

First, forest practitioners and land managers plan, design and apply forest management practices that directly involve managing biomass (thus, carbon). Recently, a number of tools have emerged aimed at integrating forest carbon into practical forest management while providing natural resource managers and landowners with strategies and approaches for helping forests adapt to climate change.

Second, forestry and land-manager communities are inherently aware that trees cannot grow everyone. These communities need to be engaged and included in the natural climate solution discourse.

Third, a majority of existing forest offset projects in the California market are considered improved forest management – thus providing an avenue to assess the forest practices applied in each.

Forests of the future

We find that considering a wider range of improved forest management strategies, such as those currently implemented and researched in silviculture (for example uneven-aged forest management) could assist in connecting forests and C management, and thus translate forestry-related natural climate solutions from ideas into action.

With an uncertain climate future, past forest management practices might become increasingly disconnected with the task at hand, i.e., sustaining forest and the resources they provide into the future. In this synthesis, we identify a suite of silvicultural practices that may enhance below and aboveground carbon. This research takes the first step in assessing how and where we manage forest for carbon by attempting to define the key market-term; improved forest management.

Considering a wider range of improved forest management strategies, such as those currently implemented and researched in silviculture, for example uneven-aged management, could assists in connecting forests and C management, and thus translate forestry-related natural climate solutions from ideas into action © Lilli Kaarakka

Finally, we should not forget the forest in all the carbon management talk: a sole focus on carbon misses an opportunity to evaluate the impact of improved forest management practices and conservation efforts on the whole ecosystem and other services the ecosystem provides. For forests to provide with the key for solving the carbon sequestration puzzle, we need to manage the entire landscape for multiple ecosystem benefits and services, with the inherent permission and approval of the landowner and society. 

Read the full Review: “Improved forest management as a natural climate solution: A review” in Issue 2:3 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

Discover more articles like this in our cross-journal Special Feature on Nature-based solutions for a changing world.

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