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Forest Carbon Management Adaptation Menu

Forests play an important role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide and storing carbon within soils and forest biomass.

Forests play a important role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases by capturing carbon dioxide and storing carbon within soils and forest biomass. This forest carbon sink offsets nearly 15 percent of total U.S. fossil fuel emissions, comprising more than 90 percent of the U.S. land sector sequestration capacity. Forest management actions are necessary to support maintaining or enhancing forests as carbon sinks, particularly as forest mortality and stressors increase from a changing climate.

To support land managers interested in maintaining or enhancing forest carbon stocks and the capacity to sequester additional carbon into the future, decision-makers need tools and resources to translate broad concepts of carbon management into specific, tangible actions. This menu of adaptation strategies and approaches for forest carbon management provides options for actions to support integrating climate change considerations into carbon management activities.

Effects from Climate Change

Identifying practices for managing forest carbon into the future calls for a recognition of the influences of a changing climate on forest ecosystems. For example, forests in the Midwest and Northeast are vulnerable to gradual changes from altered temperature and precipitation regimes, the shifting stressors from insect pests, invasive species, or forest pathogens, and the potential for rapid changes from alterations in small-scale natural disturbances.

Forests elsewhere in the United States may be most vulnerable to declines in health and productivity from increased frequency of large-scale disturbances, such as interactions between drought, insect pests, and wildfire. The changing climate and its interaction with stressors may alter past carbon trends and responses to management in many places. These shifts may in turn complicate or even negate presumed best practices in carbon management, such that adaptation actions may be needed to maintain forest productivity and carbon stocks.

close up of a tree

Some previous syntheses of forest carbon-management strategies do not explicitly incorporate a changing climate, but there is thus a growing recognition that effective management of forests for carbon sequestration warrants consideration of future climate projections and expected impacts on ecosystems.

Adaptation in Action

The focus of the forest carbon management menu is to aid managers in planning land management actions for enhancing carbon within forested ecosystems, however many of the strategies and approaches outlined here can apply to urban and agricultural settings as well. These lands have been considered in the development of this menu within the context of the importance of tree canopy cover for carbon stocks, however, we recognize there will be many strategies and approaches for managing for carbon not included, such as actions for soil or crop management (e.g. tillage, cropping systems, grazing, etc.). Additionally, this menu does not consider the carbon benefits of harvested wood products but only considers carbon stocks and sequestration within forests.

The forest carbon management menu is designed to be used as a stand-alone resource, and it can also be used to supplement structured adaptation planning with the Adaptation Workbook process (published in Forest Adaptation Resources: Climate Change Tools and Approaches for Land Managers).

Download the full menu

Strategies and approaches

The 7 strategies, 31 approaches, and 100+ tactics were developed through an assessment of existing adaptation tools, focus group discussions, and workshops with natural resource professionals.

Adaptation strategies are very general and can be applied in many ways across different ecosystems and cultural contexts. Adaptation approaches are more specific, describing in greater detail how strategies could be put into practice.

These strategies and approaches are designed to serve as stepping stones to allow natural resource managers and planners to translate broad concepts into targeted and specific actions (tactics) for putting climate change adaptation into practice to achieve a specific management objective in a specific location.

Example tactics are provided in the menu as illustrations of a few of the possible actions that could implemented for climate adaptation.

Menu of Adaptation Strategies and Approaches Developed for Forest Carbon Management

  • Approach 1.1 Avoid forest conversion to nonforest land uses.

    Approach 1.2 Reforest lands that have been deforested and afforest suitable lands.

    Approach 1.3 Increase the extent of forest cover within urban areas.

    Approach 1.4 Increase or implement agroforestry practices.

  • Approach 2.1 Reduce impacts on soils and nutrient cycling.

    Approach 2.2 Maintain or restore hydrology.

    Approach 2.3 Prevent the introduction and establishment of invasive plant species and remove existing invasives.

    Approach 2.4 Maintain or improve the ability of forests to resist pests and pathogens.

    Approach 2.5 Reduce competition for moisture, nutrients, and light.

  • Approach 3.1 Restore or maintain fire in fire-adapted ecosystems.

    Approach 3.2 Establish natural or artificial fuelbreaks to slow the spread of catastrophic fire.

    Approach 3.3 Alter forest structure or composition to reduce the risk, severity, or extent of wildfire.

    Approach 3.4 Reduce the risk of tree mortality from biological or climatic stressors in fire-prone systems.

    Approach 3.5 Alter forest structure to reduce the risk, severity, or extent of wind and ice damage.

  • Approach 4.1 Promptly revegetate sites after disturbance.

    Approach 4.2 Restore disturbed sites with a diversity of species that are adapted to future conditions.

    Approach 4.3 Protect future-adapted seedlings and saplings.

    Approach 4.4 Guide species composition at early stages of development to meet expected future conditions.

  • Approach 5.1 Prioritize low-vulnerability sites for maintaining or enhancing carbon stocks.

    A Approach 5.2 Establish reserves on sites with high carbon density.

  • Approach 6.1 Increase structural complexity through retention of biological legacies in living and dead wood.

    Approach 6.2 Increase stocking on well-stocked or understocked forest lands.

    Approach 6.3 Increase harvest frequency or intensity because of greater risk of tree mortality.

    Approach 6.4 Disfavor species that are distinctly maladapted.

    Approach 6.5 Manage for existing species and genotypes with wide moisture and temperature tolerances.

    Approach 6.6 Promote species and structural diversity to enhance carbon capture and storage efficiency.

    Approach 6.7 Use seeds, germplasm, and other genetic material from across a greater geographic range.

  • Approach 7.1 Favor existing species or genotypes that are better adapted to future conditions.

    Approach 7.2 Alter forest composition or structure to maximize carbon stocks.

    Approach 7.3 Promote species with enhanced carbon density in woody biomass.

    Approach 7.4 Introduce species or genotypes that are expected to be adapted to future conditions.

Download the full menu


Ontl, Todd A., Maria K. Janowiak, Christopher W. Swanston, Jad Daley, Stephen Handler, Meredith Cornett, Steve Hagenbuch, Cathy Handrick, Liza McCarthy, and Nancy Patch. "Forest management for carbon sequestration and climate adaptation." Journal of Forestry 118, no. 1 (2020): 86-101.


The Northern Institute for Applied Climate Science and regional partners led the development of the forest carbon adaptation strategies and approaches, which can be used with the Adaptation Workbook process (published in Forest Adaptation Resources: Climate Change Tools and Approaches for Land Managers). The Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science (NIACS) a collaborative, multi-institutional partnership led and supported by the USDA Forest Service.