Pacific Northwest Forests Top at Storing Carbon

Mar 4, 2010

Wilderness Society analysis names top ten national forest “carbon banks”

SEATTLE — The top ten carbon storing national forests in the U.S. are all found in the moist westside forests in Washington, Oregon and southeast Alaska, according to a new Wilderness Society analysis. The analysis, based on United States Forest Service data, ranks the forests among the Earth’s greatest “carbon banks.”

“The mature and old growth forests in the Pacific Northwest and southeast Alaska are among the Earth’s greatest carbon storing ecosystems,” said Dr. Jerry Franklin, Professor of Ecosystem Analysis at the University of Washington’s College of Forest Resources.

The ten national forests in the U.S. with the highest carbon density — Willamette (OR), Olympic (WA), Umpqua (OR), Gifford Pinchot (WA), Siuslaw (OR), Mt. Hood (OR), Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie (WA), Siskiyou (OR), Tongass (AK), and Rogue River (OR) — do something that humans can’t see with their own eyes: they breathe in air filled with carbon, such as carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, and store it within the trees cells, roots and even soil.

“Most people know that our forests provide valuable wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities, but it’s what goes unseen that can help us now and in the future,” said Mike Anderson, Senior Resource Analyst at The Wilderness Society and co-author of the analysis. “Our forests, especially mature and old growth, can act as gigantic piggy banks, storing up the carbon to help combat the threat of climate change.”

Altogether, these forests store approximately 9.8 billion metric tons of carbon on about 19 million acres. Some of it is stored in living trees and other vegetation — both above and below ground — some in standing or down dead wood and some in the soil.

“To get a better idea of how much carbon this really is, we could compare it to the CO2e contained in the fossil fuels burned in the U.S. each year, about 5.8 billion metric tons,” said Ann Ingerson, a Wilderness Society researcher and co-author of the analysis. “Loss of a portion of this stored carbon can add to our greenhouse gas emissions burden just as we are struggling to achieve the drastic reductions needed.”

Over a million acres of the top ten national forests–one of the greatest carbon banks on Earth — are not formally protected and are vitally important to America’s ability to combat climate change.

"Home to my favorite place to take my family on weekends, the Willamette National Forest tops the list. I am encouraged to see that among the many benefits our public lands provide to our communities, such as clean drinking water, we can include cleaning our air,” stated Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson. “Carbon sequestration and storage is a part of the national forests’ gift to Americans and we must do what we can to preserve these treasures.”

The Wilderness Society, along with American Bird Conservancy, Earthjustice, National Center for Conservation Science and Policy and Sierra Club, believes that this wealth of forest carbon should be protected as a natural and national asset along with the many other important services that healthy forests provide — from clean water to wildlife habitat.

“We shouldn’t forget that the most important thing we can do to stabilize Earth’s climate is to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” Anderson notes. “But we must protect our forests too.”


Analysis Authors

Ann Ingerson is an Economist at The Wilderness Society. Since joining the organization in 1999, her work has focuses on the community benefits of wild lands, threats to open space in the East, land protection funding and the role of forests in mitigating climate change. Before The Wilderness Society, Ann taught at Sterling College in Vermont for 18 years. She has a B.A. in Philosophy and Economics from Williams College and a M.S. in Agricultural Economics from Oxford University.

Mike Anderson is a Senior Resource Analyst at The Wilderness Society. He has been with The Wilderness Society since 1985 working on national forest management and policy, ranging from roadless area conservation to watershed restoration. Mike received his undergraduate degree from Yale University and his J.D. from University of Oregon School of Law.

This is a joint release by the American Bird Conservancy, Earthjustice, National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society.