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Carbon Balance of Forest Thinning and Bioenergy Production

Katharine C.  Kelsey
Department of Biology
University of Alaska Anchorage


This interrupted case study introduces students to the concept of carbon storage and how land management decisions can affect this vital ecosystem service.  Forests play an important role in the carbon cycle because of their ability to uptake and store large amounts of carbon and their potential to release carbon to the atmosphere following forest disturbance or management. Students are asked to evaluate the carbon balance of a forest treatment in which harvested biomass is used for bioenergy electricity generation. Through readings and in-class discussions, students consider the effects of past and current management practices on western forests, predict future forest carbon storage under varying management scenarios, and finally evaluate the economic and ecological consequences of bioenergy electricity production in order to make a recommendation for future forest management in this region. Designed for an upper division undergraduate ecosystem management course, the case would also be appropriate for any upper division ecology course in which biosphere-atmosphere interactions, ecosystem management, or forest carbon storage is discussed.


  • Recognize the effects of fire exclusion on ponderosa pine forest structure in the American southwest and explain the justification for silvicultural treatments in these forests.
  • Predict future forest carbon storage under varying scenarios of forest treatment and wildfire.
  • Combine different types of information to determine the carbon balance of forest treatments and subsequent bioenergy electricity production.
  • Evaluate the ecological and economic consequences of forest treatment and energy production to make a recommendation to the Forest Service.


Ecosystem management; forest carbon; bioenergy; carbon emissions; carbon storage; carbon balance; forest management; forest treatment; Western US; climate change mitigation

Educational Level

Undergraduate upper division


PDF, PowerPoint

Type Methods




Subject Headings

Ecology Environmental Science Forestry Natural Resource Management

Date Posted


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Val Brenneis
Portland Community College
Portland, OR
Thanks for providing an interesting case study about forest management and the carbon cycle. I used this case study with my non-majors forest biology course this week. We had a great discussion of the Hurteau paper and parts I and II of the case study. However, today, as we were working through Part III, my students came up with some questions that I was unable to answer based on the materials. We were especially confused by question 3. Does the Forest Vegetation Simulation model assume that all of the carbon in the thinned trees go into the atmosphere immediately? If so , I can see why the 9.7 Mg C/ha would be subtracted from the cumulative carbon exchange. My students, however, pointed out that we have no reason to think that all that carbon from the thinned trees would be contributed to the atmosphere immediately, unless it was used in bioenergy production. If the carbon in the thinned trees is stored in lumber, rather than emitted, you could imagine that using bioenergy would add ~9.7 Mg C/ha to the cumulative carbon exchange. Could you please help us out by clarifying the assumptions of the model? Thanks!