By David J. Mildrexler et al
Large-diameter trees store disproportionally massive amounts of carbon and are a major driver of carbon cycle dynamics in forests worldwide. In the temperate forests of the western United States, proposed changes to Forest Plans would significantly weaken protections for a large portion of trees greater than 53 cm (21 inches) in diameter (herein referred to as “large-diameter trees”) across 11.5 million acres (∼4.7 million ha) of National Forest lands. This study is among the first to report how carbon storage in large trees and forest ecosystems would be affected by a proposed policy. We examined the proportion of large-diameter trees on National Forest lands east of the Cascade Mountains crest in Oregon and Washington, their contribution to overall aboveground carbon (AGC) storage, and the potential reduction in carbon stocks resulting from widespread harvest. We analyzed forest inventory data collected on 3,335 plots and found that large trees play a major role in the accumulated carbon stock of these forests. Tree AGC (kg) increases sharply with tree diameter at breast height (DBH; cm) among five dominant tree species. Large trees accounted for 2.0 to 3.7% of all stems (DBH ≥ 1” or 2.54 cm) among five tree species; but held 33 to 46% of the total AGC stored by each species. Pooled across the five dominant species, large trees accounted for 3% of the 636,520 trees occurring on the inventory plots but stored 42% of the total AGC. A recently proposed large-scale vegetation management project that involved widespread harvest of large trees, mostly grand fir, would have removed ∼44% of the AGC stored in these large-diameter trees, and released a large amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Given the urgency of keeping additional carbon out of the atmosphere and continuing carbon accumulation from the atmosphere to protect the climate system, it would be prudent to continue protecting ecosystems with large trees for their carbon stores, and also for their co-benefits of habitat for biodiversity, resilience to drought and fire, and microclimate buffering under future climate extremes.