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Pennsylvania Forests: Keeping Carbon in Penn’s Woods

April 26, 2019 12:00 AM
By: Greg Podniesinski, Natural Heritage Section Chief, DCNR's Bureau of Forestry

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​A major factor in climate change is rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, driven in large part by emissions from human activity. One strategy to offset rising carbon dioxide is to convert carbon into forms other than atmospheric gases, to tie it up or “sequester” it.

In Pennsylvania, much of our more than 16-million acres of forest land (public and private) are doing just that -- absorbing carbon dioxide gas; and through photosynthesis, turning it into leaves, branches, stems, and roots.

On the 2.2 million acres of state forests, an average acre stores about 250 tons of carbon.

What may surprise you is that, in a healthy forest, up to 40 percent of the carbon is stored in the soil in the form of organic, carbon-rich upper soil layers, microorganisms, invertebrates, and fungi.

Another 23 percent is in the leaf litter and woody debris of the forest floor, while roughly 37 percent of forest carbon is stored in trees themselves.

Managing Pennsylvania Forests to Sequester More Carbon

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Only 37 percent of forest carbon is stored in living trees. The rest is stored in forest soil, leaf litter, and woody debris.

To store (sequester) even more carbon, DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry is evaluating new ways to manage state forests.

One potential strategy is to increase the average rotation time, which means waiting longer to harvest trees. Older, larger trees store more carbon (though at a slower rate as they age).

Positive side-effects of this strategy are providing more habitat for plants and animals that prefer mature forests, and providing larger timber for durable wood products.

Also, reforesting abandoned strip mines and planting riparian forest buffers contribute to increased carbon storage.

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Delaying harvest by several decades can increase the amount of carbon sequestered on forest land.

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Planting riparian forest buffers creates new forests to further absorb and store carbon.

Wood Products Also Store Carbon

State forests also provide raw material for a variety of wood products that store carbon.

Using wood for furniture, tools, and building materials sequesters carbon for decades or centuries, while providing lasting utility.

While you may not realize it, even landfills store carbon through the burial of discarded wood products and materials (old furniture, demolition debris, paper, cardboard, etc.).

When used as a substitute for materials like steel and cement (which release large amounts of carbon dioxide in their manufacturing), wood use can help reduce carbon emissions.

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Using wood products in homes and businesses can store carbon for many years.

Wood can also substitute for other, more carbon-intensive materials.

Using wood and wood by-products (like wood chips and sawdust from lumber mills) for fuel can serve to reduce overall carbon emissions by substituting for non-renewable fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal.

While burning wood returns carbon to the atmosphere, regenerating forests on sustainably managed lands removes that carbon again over time.

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Waste wood from sawmills or residue from timber harvests can be used as biofuels like these wood pellets.

As DCNR’s Bureau of Forestry continues to examine ways to increase carbon storage and decrease carbon emissions on state forest land, we will likely use a mix of the strategies above while implementing our philosophy of ecosystem management to maintain a healthy, working forest for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians.

We encourage you to takes steps in your lives to sequester carbon while limiting carbon emissions, as well.

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