Short- and long-term effects of thinning and prescribed fire on carbon stocks in ponderosa pine stands in northern Arizona

C. D. Sorensen, A. J. Finkral, T. E. Kolb, C. H. Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Euro-American logging practices, intensive grazing, and fire suppression have increased the amount of carbon that is stored in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. Ex Laws) forests in the southwestern United States. Current stand conditions leave these forests prone to high-intensity wildfire, which releases a pulse of carbon emissions and shifts carbon storage from live trees to standing dead trees and woody debris. Thinning and prescribed burning are commonly used to reduce the risk of intense wildfire, but also reduce on-site carbon stocks and release carbon to the atmosphere. This study quantified the impact of thinning on the carbon budgets of five ponderosa pine stands in northern Arizona, including the fossil fuels consumed during logging operations. We used the pre- and post-treatment data on carbon stocks and the Fire and Fuels Extension to the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FEE-FVS) to simulate the long-term effects of intense wildfire, thinning, and repeated prescribed burning on stand carbon storage. The mean total pre-treatment carbon stock, including above-ground live and dead trees, below-ground live and dead trees, and surface fuels across five sites was 74.58Mg C ha-1 and the post-treatment mean was 50.65Mg C ha-1 in the first post-treatment year. The mean total carbon release from slash burning, fossil fuels, and logs removed was 21.92Mg C ha-1. FEE-FVS simulations showed that thinning increased the mean canopy base height, decreased the mean crown bulk density, and increased the mean crowning index, and thus reduced the risk of high-intensity wildfire at all sites. Untreated stands that incurred wildfire once within the next 100 years or once within the next 50 years had greater mean net carbon storage after 100 years compared to treated stands that experienced prescribed fire every 10 years or every 20 years. Treated stands released greater amounts of carbon overall due to repeated prescribed fires, slash burning, and 100% of harvested logs being counted as carbon emissions because they were used for short-lived products. However, after 100 years treated stands stored more carbon in live trees and less carbon in dead trees and surface fuels than untreated stands burned by intense wildfire. The long-term net carbon storage of treated stands was similar or greater than untreated wildfire-burned stands only when a distinction was made between carbon stored in live and dead trees, carbon in logs was stored in long-lived products, and energy in logging slash substituted for fossil fuels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)460-472
Number of pages13
JournalForest Ecology and Management
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2011


  • Carbon
  • Fire risk reduction
  • Forest Vegetation Simulator
  • Prescribed fire
  • Silviculture
  • Wildfire

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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