• Who We Are
  • What We Do
  • Publications
  • News
  • Events

Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
Forest Conservation in the Anthropocene:
Future Challenges and Opportunities for EFI and the Forest Sector

V. Alaric Sample

A little more than a century ago, a French immigrant family in America sent their first-born son, Gifford Pinchot, to Europe to study forestry. The font of wisdom to which he came is here in Nancy, at what was then the Ecole Nationale Forestiere. His apartment is only a short walk from where we sit at this moment.

At the time, Americans were depleting their forests at a clearly unsustainable rate. Wood was still the primary construction material and the leading source of energy for industry and households alike, and America' s population was expanding rapidly. The Pinchot family saw forestry as it was being practiced in Europe as a way through this crisis. Later, the family would make an endowment to Yale to establish the first forestry school in the US, but at the time, Nancy was the place to be.

Al Sample at EFI 20th AnniversaryIn 2005, in conjunction with the centennial anniversary of the US Forest Service--which Gifford Pinchot led as its founding Chief--an American delegation came to Nancy for a symposium in which we explored the common roots of American and European forestry—how Gifford Pinchot took the knowledge gained studying sustained-yield forest management in Europe, and adapted it to a very different set of circumstances in America at the time (Sample et al. 2008). The geography, economy, and culture of this developing nation required a different approach, and it was several decades before sustained-yield forestry turned tide of forest exploitation, massive wildfires, and devastating floods . But by the time Gifford Pinchot died in 1946, the science and practice of sustainable forestry was firmly established in the US, on the 192 million acres (77 million ha) managed as National Forests, and on much of the 60 percent of US forest land still in private ownership.

If Gifford Pinchot were here to day, he would again be asserting his concern for the future of forests, given the surging demands of more than 7 billion people , and the effects of a rapidly changing climate on forests worldwide. At the time when Pinchot was raising the alarm about timber famine, the global population was significantly less than 2 billion people. And the very idea that humans could alter the climate at a planetary scale and change the course of entire ecosystems was still a century away.

We have created a vast body of scientific knowledge about forests and their sustainable management, but the past has no analog for the future we face. This is a future so different from the past that scientists have recognized it as a new geologic era--the Anthropocene--an “age of man” in which human influences have become the dominant factor in the world’s biosphere.

This represents both a challenge and opportunity for forestry and foresters. Most of the science on the functioning and response of forest ecosystems has been developed over the past two centuries during what we now realize was a period of relative climate stability. In our experiments, climate was considered a constant, at least for time periods relevant to most forest management decision making. That is no long an assumption that we can make. Some of the most fundamental science and “conventional wisdom” about how forest function and respond to management interventions--i.e., silviculture--must be reviewed and reconsidered; some of it may need to be recreated.

The world's climates have always been changing but now we see climatic shifts that in the past have taken place over a period of 35-45,000 years being collapsed into little more than a century or two--hardly enough time for most species to mutate, migrate, or otherwise naturally adapt to a changing climate. Conservation biologists looking to “buy time” for sensitive species to adapt are learning from forest scientists about active intervention strategies to create or sustain certain ecological structures and characteristics importa nt to these species’ near-term survival and “assisted migration.”

Water is now widely characterized as “the next oil” in terms of its increasing scarcity and value to a world population soon to reach 10 billion--and facing the uncertain effects of climate change on the world’s hydrology. The critical role of intact forests in water resource protection is well known. Fundamental social, political, and economic concerns over water supply and water quality will make the conservation and sustainable management of forests ever more important and more valuable relative to other land uses. As some regions of the world experience elevated temperatures and prolonged droughts--and other regions experience more severe storms and floods--sustaining the critically important water protection functions of forests will have a major influence on the health and economic well- being of individual nations, and among many neighboring nations this may make the difference between war and peace.

In the US, we are still grappling with the stunning realization that, as early as 2020, US forests are projected to switch from being a key mechanism for storing carbon to being themselves a significant net source of greenhouse gas emissions. Today, US forests store enough carbon to offset roughly 14 percent of all US greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent strategic assessment of US forest resources, published by the US Forest Service in 2012, examined the five most plausible scenarios for the development of US forests over the next fifty years. Under every one of these scenarios, US forests become net greenhouse gas emitters by 2030; under 2 some scenarios, this happens by 2020 (USDA Forest Service 2012). This is largely due to the increasing size, frequency, and intensity of wildfires, as most of the western US continues on a trend of elevated temperatures and extended drought. Already our “fire season” is on average 78 days longer than it was as recently as 2000.

The US Forest Service has recommended a three-part response strategy, combining both mitigation and adaptation to climate change (Vose et al. 2012):

1. Increase afforestation and decrease deforestation
  • Stem the conversion of forests to development and other land uses; the loss of forests and open space to development was recently estimated at approximately 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) per day—roughly 4 acres (1.6 ha) per minute.
  • Increase the resistance and resilience of dry forests in the western US to minimize the conversion to grassland ecosystems in the wake of major insect or disease outbreaks and wildfires
2. Manage carbon stocks in existing forests
  • Manage forest carbon with fuel treatments: carbon emissions from wildland fires in the coterminous US have averaged 67 million metric tons/year since 1990 (USEPA 2009, 2010); stand treatments to reduce fire intensity, especially crown fires that result in near-total tree mortality, have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions
  • Increase forest carbon stocks through longer harvest intervals and protecting forests with high biomass
  • Increasing carbon stocks by increasing forest growth through fertilization and increasing tree species diversity (to reduce insect and disease vulnerability).
3. Increase substitution of wood for fossil fuel s in energy production, and for other building materials to maximize long-term carbon storage
  • Increase biomass energy from the current 2 percent of US energy use to 10 percent would prevent the release of 130-190 million metric tons/year of carbon from fossil fuels (Perlack et al. 2005, Zerbe 2006); commitment to conservation and reforestation of harvested sites is critically important to this net gain.
  • Use of 1 metric ton of carbon in wood materials in construction in place of steel or concrete can result in 2 metric tons in lower carbon emissions, due to lower emissions associated with production processes (Sathre and O’Connor 2008, Schlamadinger and Marland 1996). Using wood from fast-growing forests can be more effective in lowering atmospheric carbon than storing carbon in the forest, where increased wood production is sustainable (Baral and Guha 2004, Marland and Marland 1992, Marland et al. 1997).
For forestry, the challenges are great, but the opportunities may be even greater. There is a higher level of interest and public concern over the state of the world’ s forests than at any time in recent history. Forest science is becoming more relevant than ever to sustaining the economic values and environmental services that forest ecosystems provide and that society needs--water resources protection, fiber, biodiversity, renewable energy, carbon mitigation.

There is much still to be learned about this Anthropocene world, but there is much that is already known and that can be brought to bear to help meet the most critical needs of an expanding society in a changing world. In the future we may well look back on the current period as one of the major turning points in the history of forest science, forest policy, and the practice of forest management.

Over the past 20 years, EFI has established itself as a place where some of today’s greatest minds come together to solve new challenges in fore st science, economics, and policy. As America and Gifford Pinchot once looked to Nancy for knowledge and a path forward, we will continue to look to EFI as a source of new knowledge and insights, and as a valued partner in helping address the challenges of forestry in the Anthropocene age. So on behalf of my colleagues at the Pinchot Institute and other fore stry organizations throughout the US, hearty congratulations to EFI on its first 20 years of accomplishments and success. Your journey has just begun.

Baral, A. and Guha, G. 2004. Trees for carbon sequestration or fossil fuel substitution: the issue of cost vs. carbon benefit. Biomass and Bioenergy 27:41-55.

Marland, G. and Marland, S. 1992. Should we store carbon in trees? Water, Air and Soil Pollution 64:181-195.

Marland, G., Schlamadinger, B., and Lie by, P. 1997. Forest/biomass-based mititgation strategies: does the timing of carbon reductions matter? Critical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology 27:S213-S226.

Perlack, R., Wright, L, Turholow, A, et al. 2005. Biomass as Feedstock for Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry: The Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply. Oak Ridge, Tennessee: US Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory. 60 pp.

Sample, V.A., and Anderson, S. (eds.). 2008. Common Goals for Sustainable Forest Management: The Divergence and Reconvergence of American and European Forestry. Durham, NC: Forest History Society. 399 pp.

Sathre, R. and O’Connor, J. 2008. A Synthesis of Research on Wood Products and Greenhouse Gas Impacts. Technical Re port TR-19. Vancouver, BC: FPInnovations, Forintek Division.

Schlamadinger and Marland. 1996. The role of forest bioenergy strategies in the global carbon cycle. Biomass and Bioenergy 10:275-300.

US Climate Change Science Program. 2007. The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle: A Report by the US Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. Asheville, NC: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center. 242 pp.

USDA Forest Service. 2012. Future of America’s Forest and Rangelands: Forest Service 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-87. Washington, DC. 198 pp.

US EPA. 2005. Greenhouse Gas Mitigation Potential in US Forestry and Agriculture. EPA 430-R-05-006. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Atmospheric Programs. 157 pp.

US EPA. 2009. Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry: Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 1990-2007. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Atmospheric Programs.

US EPA. 2010. Inventory of US Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, 1990-2008. EPA 430- R-09-006. Washington, DC: US Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Atmospheric Programs.

Vose, J., Peterson, D., and Patel-Weynand, T. (eds.). 2012. Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the US Forest Sector. General Technical Re port PNW-GTR-870. Portland, Oregon: US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 265 pp.

Zerbe, J. 2006. Thermal energy, electricity, and transportation fuels from wood. Forest Products Journal 56:6-14
Grey Towers National Historic Site Support Our Work Best in America