Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Cited by 5
  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: February 2013

18 - Opportunities and Challenges for Carbon Management on U.S. Public Lands



Public lands are important constituents of the U.S. carbon (C) balance because they encompass large areas of forests and rangelands, although whether and how C might be actively managed on public lands is not yet clear. A decision to manage public lands for their C benefits would involve a complex set of interacting drivers and multiple jurisdictions, and would, as they are now, be governed by laws mandating multiple uses of land in the public domain.

As with any lands subject to management, some public lands have significant potential to sequester additional C beyond current levels in vegetation and soils as well as in wood products extracted from the land. However, there is currently no comprehensive assessment of the potential for C sequestration to be enhanced in public lands in particular. An assessment of the potential for increasing the stocks of C in vegetation and soils on public lands above current levels should take into consideration the biological potential to sequester and store additional C (including analysis of risks of reversal from natural disturbances); the economic potential, which reflects the influence of C price on activities; and the social/political potential, such as laws, regulations, and institutional capacity (Failey and Dilling 2010). In this chapter, we review these challenges and the potential for sequestering C on public lands. We first review the institutional context of public land management in the United States, including the federal, state, and local governmental levels. We then evaluate the opportunities for C management given the large acreage of land and vegetation types in the public domain, how decision-making operates, and what has already occurred in terms of agency leadership in the area of C management. We follow with a brief analysis of some of the challenges of deliberately managing C on public lands. We conclude by describing several C-related pilot projects under way and suggest implications for the future of C management on public lands.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Benton, N., Ripley, J.D., and Powledge, F., eds. 2008. Conserving biodiversity on military lands: A guide for natural resources managers. Arlington, VA: NatureServe. .
Birdsey, R.A., and Heath, L.S. 1995. Carbon changes in U.S. forests. In Productivity of America's forests and climate change, ed. Joyce, L.A.. Gen. tech. rep. RM-271. Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, pp. 56–70.
Birdsey, R., Pregitzer, K., and Lucier, A. 2006. Forest carbon management in the United States, 1600–2100. Journal of Environmental Quality, 35:1461–1469.
Bliss, , , N.B. 2003. Soil organic carbon on lands of the Department of Interior. Open-file rep. 03–304. Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey.
BLM. 2009. Report to Congress: Framework for geological carbon sequestration on public land. Submitted to the Committee on Natural Resources of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources of the Senate.
Cash, D., and Moser, S.C. 2000. Linking global and local scales: Designing dynamic assessment and management processes. Global Environmental Change, 10:109–120.
Clark, S. 2009. Taking a hard look at agency science: Can the courts ever succeed?Ecology Law Quarterly, 36:317–355.
Davis, , , S. 2008. Preservation, resource extraction, and recreation on public lands: A view from the states. Natural Resources Journal, 48:303–352.
Depro, B.M., Murray, B.C., Alig, R.J., and Shanks, A. 2007. Public lands, timber harvests, and climate mitigation: Quantifying carbon sequestration potential on U.S. public forest lands. Forest Ecology and Management, 255:1122–1134.
Dilling, L. 2007. Toward carbon governance: Challenges across scales in the United States. Global Environmental Politics, 7:28–44.
Dilling, L., and Failey, E. In review. Managing carbon in a multiple use world: Implications of land-use decision making for carbon sequestration. Global Environmental Change.
Dombeck, , , M.P., Williams, J.E., and Wood, C.A. 2004. Wildfire policy and public lands: Integrating scientific understanding with social concerns across landscapes. Conservation Biology, 18:883–889.
Dore, S., Kolb, T.E., Montes-Helu, M., Eckert, S.E., Sullivan, B.W., Hungate, B.A.,…Finkral, A. 2010. Carbon and water fluxes from ponderosa pine forests disturbed by wildfire and thinning. Ecological Applications, 20:663–683.
Ellenwood, M.S., Dilling, L., and Milford, J.B. 2012. Managing United States public lands in response to climate change: A view from the ground up. Environmental Management, 49(5):954–957, .
Endangered Species Act of 1973, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq.
Executive Order no. 13514, 3 C.F.R. 75, 2010 comp. .
Failey, E., and Dilling, L. 2010. Carbon stewardship: Land management decisions and the potential for carbon sequestration in Colorado, USA. Environmental Research Letters, 5:024005, .
Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, 43 U.S.C. §§ 1701–1782.
Fedkiw, J. 1989. The evolving use and management of the nation's forests, grasslands, croplands, and related resources. Gen. tech. rep. RM-175. Fort Collins, CO: USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.
Galik, C., Grinnell, J.L., and Cooley, D.M. 2010. The role of public lands in a low-carbon economy. Working Paper, Climate Change Policy Partnership, Duke University.
Goines, B., and Nechodom, M. 2009. National forest carbon inventory scenarios for the Pacific Southwest Region (California). Region 5 Climate Change Interdisciplinary Team, U.S. Forest Service, Albany, California.
Harmon, M., and Marks, E. 2002. Effects of silvicultural practices on carbon stores in Douglas-fir – western hemlock forests in the Pacific Northwest, U.S.A.: Results from a simulation model. Canadian Journal of Forest Resources, 32:863–877.
Heath, L.S., Smith, J.E., Woodall, C.W., Azuma, D.L., and Waddell, K.L. 2011. Carbon stocks on forestland of the United States, with emphasis on USDA Forest Service ownership. Ecosphere, 2:1–21.
Hurteau, M.D., and North, M. 2010. Carbon recovery rates following different wildfire risk mitigation treatments. Forest Ecology and Management, 260:930–937.
Kasperson, R.E. 2006. Rerouting the stakeholder express. Global Environmental Change, 16:320–322.
Kirkland, J. 2010. Sale of Chicago Climate Exchange reinforces weak carbon market. Climate Wire, May 3, 2010.
Koontz, T. 2007. Federal and State Public Forest Administration in the new millennium: Revisiting Herbert Kaufman's The Forest Ranger. Public Administration Review, 67(1):152–164.
Loomis, J.B. 1993. Integrated public lands management: Principles and applications to national forests, parks, wildlife refuges and BLM lands. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lubowski, R.N., Vesterby, M., Bucholtz, S., Baez, A., and Roberts, M.J. 2006. Major uses of land in the United States. Economic Information Bulletin no. 14. Washington, DC: USDA Economic Research Service.
Martin, I.M., and Steelman, T.A. 2004. Using multiple methods to understand agency values and objectives: Lessons for public lands management. Policy Sciences, 37:37–69.
National Park Service Organic Act of 1916, 16 U.S.C. § 1.
National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act of 1966, 16 U.S.C. § 668dd–668ee.
North, M., Hurteau, M., and Innes, J. 2009. Fire suppression and fuels treatment effects on mixed-conifer carbon stocks and emissions. Ecological Applications, 19(6):1385–1396.
Pacala, S., Birdsey, R.A., Bridgham, S.D., Conant, R.T., Davis, K., Hales, B.,…Paustian, K. 2007. The North American carbon budget past and present. In The first State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American carbon budget and implications for the global carbon cycle, ed. A.W. King, L. Dilling, G.P. Zimmerman, D.M. Fiarman, R.A. Houghton, G.H. Marland,…T.J. Wilbanks. Asheville, NC: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center, pp. 29–36.
Pan, Y., Chen, J.M., Birdsey, R., McCullough, K., He, L., and Deng, F. 2011. Age structure and disturbance legacy of North American forests. Biogeosciences, 8:715–732.
Reinhardt, E., and Holsinger, L. 2010. Effects of fuel treatments on carbon-disturbance relationships in forests of the northern Rocky Mountains. Forest Ecology and Management, 259:1427–1435.
Ryan, M.G., Harmon, M.E., Birdsey, R.A., Giardina, C.P., Heath, L.S., Houghton, R.A.,…Morrison, J.F. 2010. A synthesis of the science on forests and carbon for U.S. forests. Ecological Society of America: Issues in Ecology, 13:1–16.
Secretarial Order 3289, U.S. Department of the Interior. 2009. .
Smith, J.E., and Heath, L.S. 2004. Carbon stocks and projections on public forestlands in the United States, 1952–2040. Environmental Management, 33:433–442.
Smith, W.B., Miles, P.D., Perry, C.H., and Pugh, S.A. 2009. Forest resources of the United States, 2007. Gen. tech. rep. WO-78. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.
Sundquist, E.T., Ackerman, K.V., Bliss, N.B., Kellndorfer, J.M., Reeves, M.C., and Rollins, M.G. 2009. Rapid assessment of U.S. forest and soil organic carbon storage and forest biomass carbon sequestration capacity. Open-file rep. 2009-1283. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.
Sutley, N. 2010. Memorandum for heads of federal departments and agencies. .
USDA. 1989. An analysis of the land base situation in the United States:1989–2040. Gen. tech. rep. RM-181. Ft. Collins, CO: USDA, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station.
USDA. 2002. The process predicament: How statutory, regulatory, and administrative factors affect national forest management. .
USDA. 2007. USDA Forest Service strategic plan: 2007–2012. Rep. no. FS-880. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA. 2008a. U.S. agriculture and forestry greenhouse gas inventory: 1990–2005. Tech. bulletin no. 1921. Washington, DC: Global Change Program Office, Office of the Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Agriculture. .
USDA. 2008b. Forest Service strategic framework for responding to climate change, version 1.0. .
USDA. 2010a. Draft all-lands approach for the proposed Forest Service planning rule. .
USDA. 2010b. National roadmap for responding to climate change. .
USDA. 2010c. The Forest Service climate change performance scorecard, version 1.2. .
USFWS. 2010. Landscape conservation cooperatives: Adapting to climate change. .
Wilkinson, C.F. 1992. Crossing the next meridian: Land, water, and the future of the West. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Zheng, D., Heath, L.S., Ducey, M.J., and Butler, B. 2010. Relationships between major ownerships, forest aboveground biomass distributions, and landscape dynamics in the New England Region of USA. Environmental Management, 45:377–386.
Zhu, Z., ed. 2010. Public review draft: A method for assessing carbon stocks, carbon sequestration, and greenhouse-gas fluxes in ecosystems of the United States under present conditions and future scenarios. U.S. Geological Survey open-file rep. 2010–1144. .