July 8, 2009

Dilemma: Prevent wildfires or fight global warming

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Two new scientific studies pose a difficult dilemma for people managing national forests: Should they thin out the often-overgrown forests to prevent wildfires and reduce the harm of those that do occur? Or should they let forests grow luxuriant and old in order to soak up as much carbon dioxide as possible and ameliorate climate change?

Across the West national forest managers know that a century of fire suppression has left forests dangerously overstocked, including areas of tightly packed and unealthy “doghair” forests with lots of little trees competing with each other. Thinning those out, though, releases a lot of carbon dioxide when the brush and small trees taken out are burned for energy or allowed to decompose. Not logging the forests would allow them to double the amount of carbon stored. So far, no one’s given the U.S. Forest Service marching orders on this point.

The new research is recounted by the AP’s Jeff Barnard in Grant’s Pass, Ore., who quotes University of Montana climate and forest researcher Steve Running, who was not involved in the studies:

“So forests could be a significant part of the solution or could make the problem worse. 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.”

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