The Role of Forests in Carbon Sequestration and Storage

By Jocelyn Durkay and Jennifer Schultz | Vol . 24, No. 3 / January 2016

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • The United States has 766 million acres of forestland, which absorb nearly 16 percent of carbon dioxide emissions per year.
  • Forests sequester (or absorb) and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • State and federal policies can help maximize forest carbon storage, promote sustainable forest practices, benefit the environment and support forest product industries.

The United States is home to approximately 766 million acres of forestland covering about 33 percent of the nation’s total land area. Forests are found throughout the country and contain more than 800 species of trees. Although significant regional changes have occurred, the total area of forestland has been fairly stable for the past 100 years.

Fifty-eight percent of U.S. forestland is privately owned—by individuals, families, Native American tribes, corporations and nonprofit groups. The other 42 percent is under the control of federal, state and local governments. Ownership patterns vary by region, with private ownership dominating in the North and South and public ownership dominating in the Rocky Mountains and Alaska.

The country’s publicly and privately owned forests and grasslands can sequester (absorb) and store a tremendous amount of carbon, and have significant potential to do more. The U.S. Forest Service reports that the nation’s forests and forest products offset nearly 16 percent of domestic carbon dioxide emissions by storing 866 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, a quantity equivalent to the annual emissions from 50 million gas- or diesel-fueled vehicles.

Forests absorb carbon dioxide from the atmopshere and store it in different repositories, called carbon pools, which include trees (both living and dead), root systems, undergrowth, the forest floor and soils. Live trees have the highest carbon density, followed by soils and the forest floor. Harvested wood products and landfills also store carbon. When a carbon pool decomposes or is burned, it releases carbon as carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Invasive insects and diseases, drought, wildfires and urban development—all of which can be compounded with a changing climate—can affect the amount of forestland and the rate of carbon sequestration and storage.

State Action

States are supporting increased carbon sequestration and storage and sustainable forest management practices through a number of approaches. Maintaining healthy forests benefits the environment, renewable energy production and the lucrative timber industry.

Tax and Other Incentives. Owners of forestland may qualify for preferential treatment in property tax assessments. In Maine, North Carolina and Vermont, for example, property taxes are based on the value of the land in its current use, rather than on market value. This allows forestland valuation to be based on its actual use, rather than on what it might be if sold or developed. Alternatively, some states tax forestland at a flat rate—$1 per acre in Indiana.

A number of states encourage using conservation easements as a means to protect valuable forestland from conversion to non-forest uses. Under California’s forest legacy program, participating landowners must prepare a management plan, including actions to protect soil, water, recreation, timber and wildlife resources. California is one of 15 states that offers a conservation easement tax credit, which allows landowners to claim up to 50 percent of the fair market value of donated land.

States also can establish funds to support the productivity, health and carbon benefits of privately owned forests. For example, Oregon’s forest resource trust provides financial and technical assistance to qualified private and local government owners to plant trees and improve management of forestlands for timber production and environmental purposes. Many states have also established grant programs to help permanently conserve private forestlands from development.

Biomass. States can promote the use of woody biomass—such as forest thinning, harvest and mill residues; trees damaged by or at risk of wildfires, insects and disease; urban wood waste; and other lowvalue forest materials—that can be burned to generate heat or electricity. Woody biomass is considered renewable and carbon neutral if it complies with state renewable energy definitions or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s draft definition of sustainably derived biomass.

Carbon Offsets. States can offer forest offsets by establishing markets that create an economic value for activities that have positive impact on carbon sequestration and storage. Offset markets certify and sell emissions reductions that can count against an emissions-generating practice, resulting in a neutral emissions impact. Common forest offsets include afforestation (establishing a new forest), reforestation, improved forest management and avoided deforestation. The nine Northeast and mid-Atlantic-states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California recognize forest offsets in their capand-trade programs. Oregon also authorizes the sale of carbon offsets.

Federal Action

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service, housed within USDA, are examining how to use existing programs and policies to encourage greater domestic carbon storage and forest health. A USDA initiative announced last year is aimed at improving carbon storage through farming and forestry practices. This Climate Smart Agriculture and Forestry Strategy will use publicprivate and voluntary partnerships to reduce greenhouse gases by 120 million metric tons—or about 2 percent of net emissions—by 2025 through 10 identified building blocks. They include expanding existing conservation programs to aid carbon storage, protecting privately owned forests, improving stewardship of federal forests, promoting the use of wood in construction and planting urban forests.

The Forest-Climate Working Group (FCWG), was founded in 2007 to bring together leading organizations from the forest industry, landowners, conservation groups, academic leaders, carbon markets and state government. The FCWG has provided input to federal policy development related to forests and climate change and has developed a policy toolkit for states to explore different approaches.

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