Effects of Harvesting Forest Biomass on Water and Climate Regulation Services: A Synthesis of Long-Term Ecosystem Experiments in Eastern North America

Abstract

Demand for woody biomass fuels is increasing amidst concerns about global energy security and climate change, but there may be negative implications of increased harvesting for forest ecosystem functions and their benefits to society (ecosystem services). Using new methods for assessing ecosystem services based on long-term experimental research, post-harvest changes in ten potential benefits were assessed for ten first-order northern hardwood forest watersheds at three long-term experimental research sites in northeastern North America. As expected, we observed near-term tradeoffs between biomass provision and greenhouse gas regulation, as well as tradeoffs between intensive harvest and the capacity of the forest to remediate nutrient pollution. In both cases, service provision began to recover along with the regeneration of forest vegetation; in the case of pollution remediation, the service recovered to pre-harvest levels within 10 years. By contrast to these two services, biomass harvesting had relatively nominal and transient impacts on other ecosystem services. Our results are sensitive to empirical definitions of societal demand, including methods for scaling societal demand to ecosystem units, which are often poorly resolved. Reducing uncertainty around these parameters can improve confidence in our results and increase their relevance for decision-making. Our synthesis of long-term experimental studies provides insights on the social-ecological resilience of managed forest ecosystems to multiple drivers of change.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by funding from the U.S. Forest Service Northeastern States Research Cooperative (www.nsrc.org). We extend thanks to our collaborators for their expertise and logistical support, including the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, Natural Resources Canada, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, and the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Jesse Caputo.

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Caputo, J., Beier, C.M., Groffman, P.M. et al. Effects of Harvesting Forest Biomass on Water and Climate Regulation Services: A Synthesis of Long-Term Ecosystem Experiments in Eastern North America. Ecosystems 19, 271–283 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-015-9928-z

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Keywords

  • forest biomass
  • ecosystem services
  • water regulation
  • climate regulation
  • tradeoff analysis
  • forest recovery