Can fuel-reduction treatments really increase forest carbon storage in the western US by reducing future fire emissions?

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Abstract

It has been suggested that thinning trees and other fuel-reduction practices aimed at reducing the probability of high-severity forest fire are consistent with efforts to keep carbon (C) sequestered in terrestrial pools, and that such practices should therefore be rewarded rather than penalized in C-accounting schemes. By evaluating how fuel treatments, wildfire, and their interactions affect forest C stocks across a wide range of spatial and temporal scales, we conclude that this is extremely unlikely. Our review reveals high C losses associated with fuel treatment, only modest differences in the combustive losses associated with high-severity fire and the low-severity fire that fuel treatment is meant to encourage, and a low likelihood that treated forests will be exposed to fire. Although fuel-reduction treatments may be necessary to restore historical functionality to fire-suppressed ecosystems, we found little credible evidence that such efforts have the added benefit of increasing terrestrial C stocks.

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