Large-Scale Forest Restoration Stabilizes Carbon Under Climate Change in the Southwest U.S. (September 2019)

A century of fire suppression along with a warmer climate have increased the size, frequency and severity of wildfires, which has increased risk to communities, water supplies, wildlife, forest cover and carbon stocks. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), a collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and stakeholders to accelerate forest thinning, was formed in response to the large fires. We examined the fate of forest carbon with different rates of forest thinning across 1 million acres of 4FRI in northern AZ by simulating carbon sequestration and emissions between 2010 and 2100 under four climate change scenarios and different rates of mechanical thinning followed by prescribed fire. We examined how forest thinning and prescribed fire will affect wildfire severity and forest growth under a changing climate. We found that accelerated forest thinning followed by prescribed fire resulted in a 9-16% increase in carbon, stabilizing forest carbon stocks for decades and buying considerable time to better understand the effects of climate change on forests. In the accelerated forest thinning scenarios, 70% of the gains in carbon were due to a decrease in wildfire severity and 30% were due to an increase in forest productivity. Fire-adapted forests comprise more than 40% of the total forest cover in the western U.S., the majority of those forests are at risk of catastrophic fire. This study suggests that accelerated forest thinning can sustain forest cover and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions by reducing catastrophic wildfire.

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