Skip to main content

Forest Carbon and Land Management

Some content excerpted from "Carbon and Land Management" on the USFS Climate Change Resource Center and the USFS report Considering Forest and Grassland Carbon in Land Management (WO-GTR-95).


Forests play a critical role in mitigating climate change by capturing carbon dioxide and storing carbon within soils and forest biomass.

Forest management actions are necessary to support maintaining or enhancing the forest carbon sink, which offset about 15 percent of total U.S. fossil fuel emissions. Management actions can be designed to maintain existing carbon stocks or enhance sequestration capacity while providing co-benefits for other sustainable resource management objectives, such as timber supply, wildlife habitat, or water quality.

Terrestrial ecosystems, including forests and grasslands, play an important role in sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2), thereby helping to remove it from the atmosphere and lessening the effects of anthropogenic climate change (1-3). There are a number of greenhouse gas mitigation actions that can help to reduce the effects of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas sources and enhancing carbon sinks in forests and grasslands (4, 6, 3). Ecosystem carbon is of particular interest because of the importance of CO2 and methane (CH4) as important greenhouse gases, as well as the ability of ecosystem vegetation to absorb and sequester CO2 (1, 7). Land management actions can also affect the emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O)—another very potent greenhouse gas—although the role of forest and land management is small regarding this compound.

When considering carbon in the context of land management activities, it is necessary to consider the overall management objectives associated with a piece of land, the carbon stocks in different pools, and the flows of carbon between these pools. Carbon accrues in plants and soil. In forests, carbon is stored in live trees, standing dead trees, downed wood, the forest understory, and soils and can be transferred among these different pools and to the atmosphere (see discussions of forest carbon pools and fluxes in Janowiak et al, 2018). The industrial side of the forest carbon cycle should also be considered, as carbon can also accrue in wood products and substitute for fossil fuel-based products (fig. 1).

Forests and grasslands are managed for many different objectives and a variety of goods and services, including timber, range, water, recreation, and wildlife. The amount of carbon absorbed and stored within a particular ecosystem is affected by land use change, management activities, disturbance, the use of harvested wood, and climate. Carbon may be of interest in developing management plans and options, but rarely is it the primary management objective.

 The forest sector carbon cycle includes forest carbon stocks and carbon transfer between stocks. Adapted from Heath et al. (2003) and USDA (2011).
Figure 1. The forest sector carbon cycle includes forest carbon stocks and carbon transfer between stocks. Adapted from Heath et al. (2003) and USDA (2011). Published in Janowiak et al, 2018.

Management objectives and considerations

Management objectives dictate the decisions land managers make. These objectives vary widely based on the landowner as well as the conditions of the ecosystem in question, and objectives may include any number of desired ecosystem benefits: water protection, wood production, wildlife, specific recreational opportunities, aesthetics, privacy, and more. Greenhouse gas mitigation is thus part of a wider array of management aims for forests and grasslands. Managers may choose to incorporate greenhouse gas mitigation as a management objective for a number of reasons, including increasing forest productivity or deriving benefits from participating in carbon markets. However, focusing solely on carbon could lead to non-optimal management decisions, and, in some situations, managing for carbon benefits may be at odds with other goals.

The tradeoffs inherent in balancing multiple management goals necessitate the recognition that it may not be possible to meet all goals, including those for carbon, in a single stand or at a single point in time. Consideration of the effects of management actions on carbon require thinking broadly across large spatial scales and long timeframes to determine the true effects on atmospheric greenhouse gases. Managers may consider the effects of wildlife management activities on carbon; the provisioning of water, or risk reduction in forest management activities, among other topics and objectives. 

Read more on this topic: Janowiak et al., 2018. Considering Forest and Grassland Carbon in Land Management (WO-GTR-95), and the topic pages featured at USFS Climate Change Resource Center


Associated Topic Pages at the USFS Climate Change Resource Center


Content originally prepared by the following authors for the USFS Climate Change Resource Center:

  • Maria Janowiak, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI. 
  • Chris Swanston, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI.
  • Todd Ontl, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, US Forest Service, Houghton, MI.
  • This content was drawn from the USFS Climate Change Resource Center (CCRC) topic page "Carbon and Land Management", and the report Considering Forest and Grassland Carbon in Land Management (WO-GTR-95).


1. United States Department of Agriculture, U. 2011. US Agriculture and Forestry Greenhouse Gas Inventory: 1990-2008. Washington, DC: Climate Change Program Office, Office of the Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Agriculture. 159.

2. Stocker, T.; Qin, D.; Plattner, G.; Tignor, M.; Allen, S.; Boschung, J.; Nauels, A.; Xia, Y.; Bex, B.; Midgley, B. 2013. IPCC, 2013: climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of working group I to the fifth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change.

3. King, A.W.; Dilling, L.; Zimmerman, G.; Fairman, D.; Houghton, R.; Marland, G.; Rose, A.; Wilbanks, T. 2007. The first state of the carbon cycle report (SOCCR): The North American carbon budget and implications for the global carbon cycle. The first state of the carbon cycle report (SOCCR): The North American carbon budget and implications for the global carbon cycle.

4. Birdsey, R.; Alig, R.; Adams, D. 2000. Chapter 8: Mitigation Activities in the Forest Sector to Reduce Emissions and Enhance Sinks of Greenhouse Gases. In: L. A. Joyce, R. Birdsey and (eds.), eds. The impact of climate change on America's forests: a technical document supporting the 2000 USDA Forest Service RPA Assessment. Fort Collins, CO: Rocky Mountain Research Station, USDA Forest Service.

5. Heath, L.S.; Smith, J.E.; Birdsey, R.A. 2003. Carbon trends in US forest lands: a context for the role of soils in forest carbon sequestration. In: Kimble, J.M.; Heath, L.S.; Birdsey, R.A.; Lal, R.; eds. The potential of U.S. forest soils to sequester carbon and mitigate the greenhouse effect. Boca Raton: CRC Press: 35–45.

6. Millar, C.I.; Skog, K.E.; McKinley, D.C.C.; Birdsey, R.A.; Swanston, C.W.; Hines, S.J.; Woodall, C.W.; Reinhardt, E.D.; Peterson, D.L.; Vose, J.M. 2012. Adaptation and mitigation. In: J. M. Vose, D. L. Peterson and T. Patel-Weynand, eds. Effects of climatic variability and change on forest ecosystems: a comprehensive science synthesis for the U.S. forest sector. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station: 125-192.

7. Murray, B.; Sohngen, B.; Sommer, A.; Depro, B.; Jones, K.; McCarl, B.; Gillig, D.; DeAngelo, B.; Andrasko, K. 2005. Greenhouse gas mitigation potential in US forestry and agriculture. Washington, DC: Environmental Protection Agency. EPA.