Globally, forests can absorb up to 30 percent of the carbon released by burning fossil fuels.
But when they are clearcut for lumber and to clear farmland, or allowed to burn uncontrollably, they also release huge amounts of carbon, said Steve Running, professor of ecology at the University of Montana and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's latest report on global warming.
"So forests could be a significant part of the solution or could make the problem worse," said Running, who did not take part in either study. "I think this is going to be a very interesting challenge for forest ecosystem management over the next few decades, to see if we can develop a plan of walking the tightrope like this," he said.
Robert Doudrick, Forest Service staff director for research and development, said the two studies offered valuable information to be considered as the Forest Service tries to keep its options open in the face of an uncertain future over climate and energy.
"Whether or not carbon is our primary responsibility has yet to be decided," he said. "Whether biomass supply and an energy future for our country will be more important than wildlife habitat are issues that are yet to be decided. We are required on every piece of property to make that sort of decision.
… Co-author Beverly Law, professor of global change forest science at OSU, said they designed the study because of the growing demand for information about whether forests should be managed as carbon offsets for burning fossil fuels. Currently U.S. forests absorb an estimated 16 percent of the nation's carbon emissions.