Forest Carbon Emissions Model Report No. 3

W.I.S.E. is pleased and honored to announce the web publication of Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen’s Impacts of California Wildfires on Climate and Forests: A Study of Seven Years of Wildfires (2001-2007), FCEM Report No. 3. The Executive Summary and link to the full text are now posted at the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences [here]. The Forest Carbon And Emissions Model Reports No. 1 and 2 are [here].

For Immediate Release:

To Offset Greenhouse Gas Damage Caused From California Wildfires During 2001-2007, State’s 14 Million Cars Would Need To Be Locked In Garages For 3 1/2 Years, Study Finds

A raging wildfire can burn out of control for a long period of time, but eventually it will be extinguished.  However, the effects of that wildfire can linger for years and be a prime contributor to global warming.

A study by Dr. Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Professor Emeritus of Forest Science at Texas A&M University, released today found that California’s increasing wildfire crisis is causing more destruction and undoing much of the progress California is making to fight global warming.

Dr. Bonnicksen, who holds a Ph.D. in forestry from the University of California, Berkeley, and has studied California forests for more than 30 years, is author of America’s Ancient Forests: from the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery (John Wiley, 2000).

This report, entitled “Impacts of California Wildfires on Climate and Forests,” chronicles how the wildfires that scorched California from 2001 to 2007 seriously degraded the forests in the state and contributed to global warming.  The report notes that political and economic obstacles to managing and restoring forests contribute to causing the wildfire crisis.

Emissions from the last seven years of wildfires documented in this study are equivalent to adding an estimated 50 million more cars onto California’s highways for one year, each spewing tons of greenhouse gases.  To offset this damage, all 14 million cars in California would have to be locked in garages for 3 1/2 years to make up for the global warming impact of these wildfires.

From 2001 to 2007, fires burned more than 4 million California acres and released an estimated 277 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, resulting from combustion and the post-fire decay of dead trees.  That is an average of 68 tons per acre.

This study and previous studies use a new computer model, the Forest Carbon and Emissions Model (FCEM), to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires and insect infestations, and opportunities to recover these emissions and prevent future losses.

“Our most important question is: Can we recover from our mistake of letting forests become unnaturally overcrowded with trees and vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires?” said Dr. Bonnicksen, “the answer is yes, if we care about restoring our forests and fighting global warming.”

There are many other harmful effects of these wildfires as well, including killing wildlife, polluting the air and water, and stripping soil from hillsides.  Ironically, the greenhouse gases they emit are wiping out much of what is being achieved to reduce emissions from fossil fuels to battle global warming.

“While California’s actions to reduce global warming are significant, reducing the number and severity of wildfires may be the single most important action we can take in the short-term to lower greenhouse gas emissions and really fight global warming,” Bonnicksen said.

Some public forests in California have more than 1,000 trees per acre when 40 to 60 trees per acre would be natural.  These dense forests contain small trees that can carry fire into the canopy, and heavy concentrations of woody debris lying on the ground intensify the flames, which helps increase the size and severity of forest fires.  Reducing the number of all sizes of trees per acre by thinning is effective in helping prevent crown fires in forests.

Yet that is only part of the wildfire tragedy.

During the seven years covered by this study, California wildfires deforested about 882,759 acres of public and private land.  Only an estimated 120,755 acres were replanted.  That means about 762,004 acres of forest was converted permanently to brush because no live trees remain standing to provide seed for a new forest.  That is an average loss of 109,000 acres of forests each year, or the equivalent of nearly four times the area of San Francisco.

California’s forests are dwindling due to permanent deforestation from wildfire.  In addition, the estimated 134 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) released by fires and the decay of dead trees from forests that were permanently converted to brush from 2001 to 2007 will continue to worsen global warming.

Harvesting dead trees to prevent them from releasing CO2 from decay, storing the carbon they contain in long-lasting wood products, and using the money from the sale of the wood to replant a young forest that absorbs CO2 through photosynthesis, is the only way to restore deforested areas and recover this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere, Dr. Bonnicksen said.  He added that this is done routinely on private industrial forestland but rarely on public forestland.  Therefore, he said, it is critical to expedite and increase the harvesting of fire-killed trees and replanting of young trees on public forests destroyed by wildfire.

The immensity of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s wildfires and the permanent loss of huge areas of forest are a warning.

The report emphasizes that every effort must be made to reduce the amount of fuel in public and private forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires.  That means managing forests to make them healthy, productive, and resistant to crown fires.

Major constraints to managing and thinning private forests are government regulations and the high cost of Timber Harvest Plans (THPs).  Solving this problem by streamlining regulations and reducing THP costs on private forests, and expediting environmental reviews for thinning and timber harvesting on public forests, could dramatically reduce wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions.

Data used in this report come from a variety of government and other sources.  They include the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region Ecosystem Planning Staff, U.S. Forest Service Region 5 Silviculturalist, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

For a copy of the full report please visit the Western Institute for Study of the Environment at


25 Aug 2009, 11:54pm
by Larry H.

I posted these excerpts on a liberal eco-website, and all hell broke loose, revealing their flawed strategy to combat forest management. It’s not a new strategy but, they clearly admitted that since this study didn’t appear to be peer reviewed, that it was suspect and worthless. I pointed out the the gist of it was unassailable and that only the models and numbers may be slightly skewed. However, they researched Dr. Bonnicksen’s name and came up with all sorts of reasons they could not trust his work.

From my many, many seasons of salvage logging experience, I know, without a doubt, that all those figures are “in the ballpark”. A few violently defend their agenda, willing to be in denial and watching forest after forest fall to ashen destruction. Not one of them addressed the issues of the study, only misdirecting the debate to “killing the messenger”.

Once I stood firm on the facts that wildfires destructive in many ways, they all clammed up, implying I was a “troll”. However, with all the people who come there and view the arguments, only a few opposed me. I tend to think that many are on the fence but, are afraid to agree with the warnings I have brought. The most vocal are the most irrationally-partisan. A few seem almost to be the perfect “political straightman” who are ridiculously ignorant, and probably even embarrassing to other Democrats.

While I sometimes drift over to arrogant confidence in explaining facts seen from personal experience, I try to keep a more middle-of-the-road approach. Unfortunately, I do have my limits and their unpleasant lunacy causes me to react with that confident arrogance. They cannot stand a middle-of-the-roader gaining any traction in their ranks. In essence, I am more dangerous to their political agenda than a red state political icon.

26 Aug 2009, 12:37am
by Mike

Dr. Bonnicksen is the author of America’s Ancient Forests, the Forest Carbon And Emissions Model, and dozens of peer reviewed forest science reports. He is the father of restoration forestry, one of the leading proponents of saving forests, and a friend of mine.

He is not afraid to speak out for good stewardship of forests, and that has made him the target of some of the meanest and most vituperative ad hominum attacks. Despite that, he is a man of tremendous character, wisdom, and graciousness.

The FCEM has been peer reviewed by Dr. Bruce Krumland, consultant in statistical design and analysis, forest inventory, and modeling, Klaus Scott, Air Pollution Specialist, California Air Resources Board (CARB), Dr. Mark Nechodom, USDA Forest Service Sierra Nevada Research Center, Dr. Chris Dicus, Wildland Fire & Fuels Management, California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), Philip S. Aune, retired U.S. Forest Service Silviculturalist, and numerous other experts.

The data used in building the FCEM came from Martha Beninger, Applied Forest Management; James Ingram and Elaine Gee, Eldorado National Forest; Karen Jones, Tahoe National Forest; Rich Wade and David Harcus, Sierra Pacific Industries; Mike Aguilar, Mason, Bruce, & Girard; Keith Crummer, Plumas County Fire Safe Council; Ryan Tompkins, Plumas National Forest; Ike Riffel, Shasta Forest c/o W.M. Beaty & Associates, Inc.; the Fire and Resource Assessment Program (FRAP), California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; Michael Landram, Regional Silviculturalist, U.S. Forest Service Region 5; Ralph Warbington, Section Head, Planning and Inventory, Ecosystem Planning Staff, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region, and numerous published sources.

The findings of FCEM #3 are scientific in nature and not biased by political leanings. If Dr. Bonnicksen has political opinions, I don’t know what they are because he has never expressed them to me, nor are they evident in any of his published work.

The political reactions of any faction are not germane. They are, as Larry points out, unpleasant lunacy and not worth consideration.

26 Aug 2009, 12:58pm
by Bob Z.

What makes all of the “unpleasant lunacy” unbearable, though, is when it gets transformed to federal policy and results in the widespread destruction of our rural communities and public forests.

Larry H. is doing commendable work by placing good science, common sense, and real experience (”knowledge”) into the hands and blogs of these nitwits. Their “green science” is crumbling, their funding sources are losing both funds and confidence in their pronouncements, and their lawyers are becoming increasingly exposed as money-grubbing opportunists. (At least I hope that is what is taking place — it seems to be, at least).

Congratulations to WISE for publishing another fine Bonnicksen report, and to Larry H. for delivering it publicly and directly to the unpleasant loonies. We may save some of our forests and needed professions yet. Future generations deserve no less.

26 Aug 2009, 3:37pm
by Doug fir

During “typical” fire years in the late 1990s, forest fires in western Oregon removed only about 1/50th as much carbon as logging did (0.1 TgC/yr emissions from fire vs. ~5.5 TgC/yr emissions from logging). Logging in western Oregon transfers more carbon out of forests every year than did the unprecedented 2002 Biscuit fire (~5.5 TgC/yr from logging vs. ~4.1 TgC from Biscuit fire). Yet carbon emissions from the Biscuit fire in 2002 erased only about half of the net carbon absorbed via photosynthesis in the forests of western Oregon (~4.1 TgC from Biscuit vs. ~8.2 TgC/yr uptake from forest growth), so even during an extreme fire season forest growth still offset 25% of Oregon’s fossil fuel emissions (~4.1 TgC uptake from forest growth vs. 15.6 TgC/yr fossil fuel emissions). Law, B.E., Turner, D., et al 2004. Disturbance and climate effects on carbon stocks and fluxes across Western Oregon USA. Global Change Biology (2004) 10, 1429-1444.

Using Bonnicksen’s figures that means that logging in western Oregon releases 5.5 MMT (same as a teragram) of CO2 every year, so if Bonnicksen’s figures are correct, logging is equivalent to permanently adding 4 million cars to the roads. The Oregon DMV website says that there are currently about 4 million registered vehicles in Oregon, so we can say that that business-as-usual logging in western Oregon is equivalent to doubling the CO2 pollution from all existing cars and trucks in the state.

26 Aug 2009, 4:20pm
by Larry H.

Another good sign is the fact that the eco-website’s smarter posters are surpringly quiet. I get the impression that many posters there would rather that their own “trolls” would just shut up. They are clearly hanging themselves in front of all those Democratic faithfuls.

Also, peer review is required for publishing in mainstream outlets but, it is NOT required to be scientifically-correct. They have nitpicked Dr. Bonnicksen’s peers, saying that since it wasn’t a “closed review”, it doesn’t count. Besides, who gets to pick those peers to review the studies? Of course, it’s the magazine’s editors, who would NEVER pick someone who is politically-opposed to their readers! The Donato Sham showed that, for sure, the peer review processes are “questionable”, at the very least!

26 Aug 2009, 6:02pm
by Mike

Doug, I think you have misread or misunderstood the FCEM Reports.

Greenhouse gas emission from forest fires in Oregon surpasses all other emission sources [here].

In 2006 and 2007 an estimated 48 to 56 teragrams (Tg) per year were emitted by forest fires in Oregon. In comparison, in 2005 56.2 Tg of carbon dioxide was emitted by the transportation, waste, residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural sectors combined!

In 2007 wildfires burned ~750,000 acres in Oregon, emitting the greenhouse gas equivalent of ~11.1 million cars driven all year.

In 2006 wildfires burned ~650,000 acres in Oregon, emitting the greenhouse gas equivalent of ~9.7 million cars driven all year.

Forest fires throughout the U.S. burn in a variety of forest habitats, many of which have much lower biomass densities than Oregon forests. In Oregon our forests have significantly more above-ground biomass than the U.S. average, and range from 100 to 700 Mg/ha. A reasonable, conservative estimate of the carbon content of average above-ground biomass for Oregon forested environments is 200 Mg carbon (C)/ha.

Forest fires do not volatilize all above-ground biomass. The combustion factor can range from 10 to 80 percent. For the calculation below we use 25 percent, a reasonable, conservative average.

In addition, when 25 percent of the biomass is consumed in a fire, the release of greenhouse gases from post-fire decay can be as much as three times that amount over the next 25 to 50 years.

For Oregon forested environments the carbon (C) emitted by forest fires is estimated to be:

200 Mg C/ha x 0.25 combustion factor (25 percent) = 50 Mg C/ha emitted immediately by the fire,

x 3.67 CO2:C atomic weight ratio = 183.5 Mg CO2/ha estimated to be emitted by Oregon forest fires.

The average passenger car emits ~5 Mg of CO2 per year (from: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2005. Emission facts: greenhouse gas emissions from a typical passenger vehicle. Office of Air Quality and Transportation, EPA, Washington, DC. EPA420-F-05-004.)

Thus one Oregon forested hectare burned by wildfire emits as much CO2 as 36.7 passenger cars driven all year, or ~15 passenger car equivalents per acre of forest burned. In addition, post-fire decomposition may emit three times that much CO2 over the next 25 to 50 years.

Regarding the Biscuit Fire carbon emissions, the Law and Turner numbers (2004) were significant under-estimates. A better analysis is :

Bernard T. Bormann, Peter S. Homann, Robyn L. Darbyshire, and Brett A. Morrissette. 2008. Intense forest wildfire sharply reduces mineral soil C and N: the first direct evidence. Can. J. For. Res. 38: 2771–2783 (2008) [here, here].

Bormann et al found that more than 10 tons per acre of carbon and between 450 to 620 pounds per acre of nitrogen were vaporized by the fire. Some 60% of soil carbon and 57% of soil nitrogen losses came from mineral soil horizons (below the duff and humus top layers). In addition they found that 127 megagrams (127,000 kilograms) of soil per hectare disappeared.

Moreover, in forest fires the carbon is volatilized to atmospheric carbon dioxide, whereas logged carbon remains sequestered in wood products.

26 Aug 2009, 9:24pm
by Bob Zybach

Doug and Mike:

While it is true that logged wood is sequestered in products, it is also true that the products — much like rotting snags — end up releasing C02 back into the air over time. This process is usually much quicker with snags with paper products and presto-logs, and much slower with treated railroad ties and violins.

However, the amount of C02-producing energy needed to manufacture wood products is often times much, much less than the energy used to produce alternative products (e.g., wood beams vs. concrete beams, or bamboo fishing rods vs. fiberglass rods).

A second important factor is when wood waste and chips are used to produce fuels and electricity in lieu of coal-fired or gas-fired plants or petroleum-based cooking and heating products. Again, the substitution of renewable wood products for fossil fuels results in a significant reduction in C02 emissions over time.

In sum, nearly all wood rots or burns eventually, but if it is used effectively, it will result in vastly reduced C02 emissions.

26 Aug 2009, 9:42pm
by Mike

And wood-built houses use less energy than houses built with alternative products.

from: Upton, Brad, Reid Miner, Mike Spinney, and Linda S. Heath. 2008. The greenhouse gas and energy impacts of using wood instead of alternatives in residential construction in the United States. Biomass and Bioenergy, Volume 32, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 1-10.

Data developed by the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials were used to estimate savings of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption associated with use of wood-based building materials in residential construction in the United States. Results indicate that houses with wood-based wall systems require 15-16% less total energy for non-heating/cooling purposes than thermally comparable houses employing alternative steel- or concrete-based building systems. Results for non-renewable energy consumption are essentially the same as those for total energy, reflecting the fact that most of the displaced energy is in fossil fuels. Over a 100-year period, net greenhouse gas emissions associated with wood-based houses are 20-50% lower than emissions associated with thermally comparable houses employing steel- or concrete-based building systems. …

27 Aug 2009, 9:25am
by Doug fir

This so called substitution effect is far less significant than reported.

• The substitution analysis assumes that consumers will readily switch between wood, steel, and cement. In fact, north American consumers have a strong preference for wood houses and will not readily switch to another building method unless relative prices changed dramatically. In technical terms, the demand function from wood vs. steel/cement is not highly elastic.
• There are many uses of wood that are unlikely to be substituted by steel and concrete. Only a subset of wood products are in uses that actually are likely to be substituted by steel and concrete. So if credit is given for substitution, it cannot apply to all wood products, just a small subset.
• The substitution analysis starts with unrealistic initial conditions. The analysis fails to account for the loss of carbon from old growth forests because, they start the substitution analysis with bare ground containing little or no carbon, instead of starting with an old growth forest.
• The CORRIM study appears to assume a 0% discount rate which is inconsistent with rational decision making because it effectively places no value on the carbon stored in forests in the short-term under a no-harvest scenario compared to a harvest scenario. Near-term carbon storage is critically important while the economy transitions to low carbon methods, yet it will take over a century for substitution to off-set the initial carbon deficit associated with logging mature forests. Under well-established principles of discounting, it is clear that the net present value of current carbon storage in existing mature forests exceeds the net present value of distant future benefits of substitution.
• In order to take credit for substitution the timber industry must show some form of additionality. The existing market share of wood products is part of the baseline. Credit can only be given expanded use of wood that substitutes wood for future uses of steel and concrete. Wood’s market share is unlikely to increase.
• Substitution offers no guarantees that fossil fuels will stay in the ground. Fossil fuel use associated with the manufacture of steel and concrete will not be permanently avoided, but just delayed. The longest it could be delayed will be the earlier of:
o The point in time when the rising price of fossil fuels is undercut by the declining price of renewable energy.
o The point in time when we stop using fossil fuels for making steel and cement.
o The point in time when the fossil fuels that would have been used to make steel and cement are extracted and used for some alternative activity.
• The CORRIM analysis fails to recognize that the production techniques used to make steel and concrete are continually improving leading to increased energy efficiency. For instance, steel recycling rates are always increasing, the addition of fly ash during the manufacture of concrete reduces its carbon footprint. Cement producers recently agreed to a voluntary 25% reduction in carbon emissions. The energy grid that powers the steel mills and concrete plants are always becoming less carbon intensive.
• Building materials other than wood, steel, and cement ignored. We would be wise to adopt next-generation building methods that may be preferable to all three. For instance, if the land use impacts can be managed, putting annual plant fibers into long term storage as building materials could have a significant carbon storage and climate benefits. Another alternative other than building with wood, concrete and steel, is to build fewer, smaller, and/or longer-lasting buildings, i.e. don’t blindly accept demand for wood products as a given, but instead try to use public policy to reduce demand for wood, steel, and concrete.
• The substitution argument takes demand for granted. NCASI says “Attempts to increase carbon storage in forests via prohibitions on harvesting can: … Increase the costs of forest products, causing them to lose market share to competing products that do not store carbon and are more energy and carbon intensive… ” This fails to recognize that increased prices can also lead to reduced demand which allows more carbon to stay in the forest longer. We should also consider public policy options for reducing demand for wood products and other building materials. For instance, low prices for wood products fail to account for the climate costs/consequences of logging. This causes industry to over-produce wood and encourages consumers to build houses that are irrationally large.
• Buildings made of steel and concrete typically last longer and have lower maintenance costs, which mitigates the initial high carbon footprint of the materials.
• A well-designed carbon tax or cap and trade system would resolve this issue by using price signals in the market to encourage people to use more climate-friendly technologies and focus on carbon mitigation that is practical, measurable, and accountable, like forest conservation.
• It is extremely difficult to verify that a given wood product from a given harvest activity actually being used to substitute for steel and concrete.

27 Aug 2009, 10:19am
by Mike

The Upton paper is not a substitution analysis. It is a straightforward comparison of energy use by structural type.

There is NO LOGGING of old-growth going on. There has been no logging of old-growth for 20 years or more. There are no mills that saw old-growth logs.

NO ONE is suggesting a return to old-growth harvesting. Restoration forestry is designed to SAVE old-growth from catastrophic fire.

Every year old-growth is devastated by catastrophic fire. Trees up to 600 years old are killed dead by severe, intense fires, including megafires such as the Biscuit Fire, B&B Fire, Rattle Fire, and so many others. No old-growth logging has taken place for two decades, but millions of acres of old-growth have died in horrendous megafires.

The enviro lobby is stuck in the distant past. They want you to believe that old-growth is threatened by logging. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is, old-growth is threatened by catastrophic fire, and restoration forestry is the salvation of old-growth.

We wait, impatiently, for the lies to stop and the truth to be acknowledged. We are sick and tired of the two-faced, mendacious twisting of forest facts by the enviro lobby, whose motivations are anything but saving forests.

Again I ask you, Doug, when is the enviro lobby going to join the effort to save forests instead of promoting their destruction?

31 Aug 2009, 10:59am
by Forrest Grump

Gotta throw a undereducated thought in here. If carbon in wood cycles inevitably, then can we conclude that the carbon cycle itself is neutral in terms of atmospheric loading?

Then comes the question, if carbon is to enter the fast cycle (combustion), would it not be more rational to combust at least a portion of the carbon in a way that captures not only the energy but particulate matter? Call that open versus closed cycle.
And would it not also make more sense to ensure that the open-cycle burns that will occur be of intensities that serve the biologic function rather than completely destroy and disrupt the, um, desired ecological attributes? And would not closed-cycle processing help in that regard?

1 Sep 2009, 4:49pm
by Doug fir

No logging of old growth forests in 20 years?!

155,999 acres of suitable spotted owl habitat approximates old growth) was “removed” by “management” (i.e. logging) on federal lands from 1994 to 2003. See U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. 2004. Estimated Trends in Suitable Habitat for The Northern Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) on Federal Lands from 1994 to 2003. For Use By: Sustainable Ecosystems Institute for the Northern Spotted Owl 5-year Review. USDI Fish and Wildlife Serv.

And 583,500 acres of spotted owl habitat “losses” due to “regeneration harvest” on non-federal forest lands from 1994 to 2004. See Raphael, M.G. (2006). Conservation of listed species: the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Chapter 7 in R.W. Haynes, B.T. Bormann, D.C. Lee, and J.R. Martin (technical editors), Northwest Forest Plan—the first 10 Years (1994–2003): synthesis of monitoring and research results. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, Oregon. p 121.



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