Curbing forest fires versus storing carbon

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WESTFIR, Ore. - Should we thin forests to curb wildfires -- or keep the trees to suck carbon out of the air?

That's the dilemma laid out in two new studies from Oregon State University.

Scientists say Northwest forests have a huge potential to store more carbon to combat global warming but not if they are heavily thinned to prevent wildfires.

"Our main intent is to protect the residents and their homes from the risks associated with wildfire," says Judy McHugh, spokeswoman for the Willamette National Forest.

Forest Service officials say the thinning projects like one going on near Westfir are essential to protect forests, nearby homes and control the $1 billion a year spent on firefighting.

Two new studies from OSU add fuel to the debate.

The studies conclude forest thinning is better suited for eastside Cascade locations, and that the forests of the Coast Range and westside Cascades are better for carbon storage.

Healthy Forests Advocate Chandra LeGue of the group Oregon Wild agrees with the key points in the study.

"We can't expect to do heavy thinning to prevent fires and get all these other benefits out of the forests as well," says LeGue.

McHugh says she can't comment directly on the OSU studies but adds that thinning projects like these do a lot more than cut the brush and debris.

She explains other thinning projects are done to mimic old growth forest conditions.    

"What I do know is that forestry science continues to evolve," McHugh says, "and that's a good thing.  We need to keep learning and appreciate the work of many different folks."

The two studies from Oregon State appear in the journal "Ecological Applications."