Private Forests Doing Public (Carbon) Good


Recently, I have been hearing more and more about forest carbon and how the forests of this nation and the entire world are critical to mitigating carbon emissions. Too often, this is presented as an alternative to timber harvesting – that keeping the forests untouched is necessary for carbon to build.

I had a friend who used to tell me, “If we are using data, let’s all see the data; if we’re using opinions, let’s use mine.” Fair enough, I suggest skipping right over the opinion option and seeing what the data can tell us.

Using the USDA Forest Inventory & Analysis (FIA) dataset, I used their tool EVALIDator (version 2.0.6) to get estimates from the most recent FIA survey (dates vary by state, but the final data year for all was between 2019 and 2022, with 2020 as an average) and from 2010 (for all states except NV, NM, WA, and WY – for those I used the year closest to 2010). 

I queried private timberland in all states except Alaska and Hawaii (I mean, those are great states, but not a ton of FRA members). 

Here’s what I found:

– In 2010, the private timberlands in the lower 48 held 9.87 billion tons of tree carbon (above and below ground);

– By 2020, this had increased to 10.65 billion tons of tree carbon.

In short, in the last decade, forest carbon on private timberland in the lower 48 states increased by 780 million tons or roughly 78 million tons annually. When we convert this to CO2 equivalent (Co2e), the volume that matters when discussing carbon (email me if you want more information on this), that’s 259,734,203 metric tons of CO2e annually. Of course, this number means little to most people, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA), it equates to the annual emissions of over 56 million cars annually. Is that a lot? Well, according to the Department of Transportation, in 2020, there were 103 million private and commercial cars in these states, so to put it simply, the forest carbon on private timberland, on an annual basis, offset more than half of the private car emissions in these same states.

All of that while these forests were providing the raw materials for lumber, paper, energy, pellets, and a whole lot more. Let’s not forget that forests also provide habitat, jobs, recreation, clean water, and a host of other benefits.

Forests are essential for the products they provide, meeting human needs in many ways. They anchor the nation’s rural economy, providing jobs in the woods and the mills. And they are part of our climate solutions. The good news is that all of these uses are compatible, and we need not choose (in fact, there’s an argument to be made that we shouldn’t choose, but that’s a discussion for another day).

If you would like more information on forest carbon in states where you operate, please take a look at FRA’s Carbon Reports, which provide a great resource to help understand the carbon benefits that are compatible with working forests. FRA also produced a video that shows the role of forestlands in sequestering and storing carbon.

The Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program of the U.S. Forest Service provides the information needed to assess America’s forests.
FRA shows the role of forestlands in sequestering and storing carbon.