California is pilfering its forest-carbon treasure chest and compounding wildfire risk

Evan Mills, Ph.D. & John P. O’Brien, Ph.D.

Forests are carbon storehouses … until they’re not.

While on the one hand California is a leader in climate change solutions, state policymakers are also undermining their own bold commitments by logging publicly-owned forests and thus pilfering a massive carbon treasure chest.

Contrary to popular perception, these practices also amplify wildfire risk. Sadly, Cal Fire’s rhetoric and management of state forests — and their rubber-stamp approvals of virtually every private logging plan — runs directly counter to the latest science and the state’s own efforts to reach its emissions-reduction targets, including initiatives such as Governor Newsom’s “30x30” plan.

We highlight the situation in the state’s own 75-square-mile Jackson State Demonstration Forest (“Jackson”) — a glorious population of redwoods now slated for massive logging — as an example of these counterproductive practices. We advocate for preservation of the remaining public forest lands and reform of logging practices on private lands.

We have penned a commentary for the San Francisco Examiner, making the latest scientific insights accessible to general audiences. You’ll find our piece online here and in their Sunday, September 19th print edition. Below, we provide further references and visuals about the underattended logging-carbon-wildfire nexus.


Evan Mills is a California-based energy and climate policy analyst who participated as lead author in the work of the Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is an Affiliate and retired Senior Scientist at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Research Affiliate at UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.

John P. O’Brien is a postdoctoral climate science research fellow at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Climate and Global Dynamics Division and a research affiliate at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division.


The 160,000-acre Caldor fire (as of August 28, 2021) burned rapidly through many square miles of recently logged and “treated” forests. This is just the latest evidence that logging’s fire-safety benefits are poor at best.
Proactive controlled burns and light fuel reduction under the Caples Ecological Restoration Project (yellow) resisted the Caldor Fire in 2021. Source: Jung and Friedrich, Yoohyun Jung and Paula Friedrich, San Francisco Chronicle, 2021.

KMUD: Do firefighters have to be strategic fighting, you know, incidents on logging lands as there’s a lot of slash files and stuff of that nature?

CAL FIRE: It it requires a change in tactics. The fire is usually hotter, has a little bit greater intensity just because of all the fuel that’s on the ground, so it takes usually heavy equipment like our our dozers to get in There. Iit requires much more water, so additional water tenders were ordered, additional aircraft were ordered. In order for retardant and helicopter bucket drops to get through the canopy and down into the heavier fuels that were on the ground as well.

Fuel breaks nearly surrounded the doomed town of Paradise, CA prior to the Camp Fire of 2018. Like many other mega fires, those breaks did not save the town. Source: Los Angeles Times
Buildings are the key fuel of concern. Homes and businesses completely incinerated in the Dixie Fire (2021), while thick adjacent forests remained untouched.

Even more damning to the theory that we must cut trees to protect homes, the photo below shows a neighborhood of Paradise after the Camp Fire. Clearly, the homes were the fuel, and, indeed, some trees were singed by the burning homes (not visa-versa).

If one needs more examples, observe the late-2021 Marshall Fire, south of Boulder, Colorado. The blaze, which appears to be nowhere near forests, consumed nearly 600 homes (and a Target shopping complex and a 421-room, 4-storey hotel) in just the first 9 hours (and is still burning strongly at the time of writing).

In a July 2021 paper by Coffield et al., scientists at UC Irvine, Stanford, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab find that forced contraction of redwood forests under future climate change scenarios results in the loss of up to ~100 tonnes of CO2/hectare in parts of northern California. They also find severe northward “migration” pressure on redwoods, as the southern areas become warmer and dryer. Whether these forests can in reality move, how many centuries it would take, and what kinds of constraints they would run into are left for future analysis. The analysis only looks at above-ground carbon, and does not incorporate the effects of reduced fog in coastal areas. Even with these caveats, their results clearly show a grim outlook for redwoods in the vicinity of Jackson Demonstration State Forest. The study also includes an overlay of forests where carbon offsets have been sold or otherwise taken credit for are directly in the line of fire, once again drawing into question the veracity and reliability of these forest-offset schemes.

Coffield et al. (2021),
Caldor Fire: August 2021. Example of how smaller, flammable trees are left behind as logging targets the largest,least flammable ones.
Type and vintage of logging operations in Jackson Demonstration State Forest: 1997-present. Source: Mendocino River Alliance. Interactive version —
There are approximately 500 miles of active and abandoned logging roads in the 75-square-mile Jackson State Demonstration Forest, contributing to loss of carbon due to soil erosion, and impeding forest regeneration.
CalFire abandons massive quantities of “slash” in the wake of their logging operations, which in the near term magnifies wildfire risk and in the longer term results in premature return of forest carbon to the atmosphere as the material decays. Source: William Lemos, Ph.D. 2021. “The How Many Salmon Eggs per Board Foot Problem: Roads, Trails, and Resource Protection in Jackson Demonstration State Forest — A Case for Protection.”
Overly dense, dry, and flammable regrowth around the large stump of a well-spaced large tree in Jackson. Photo taken from a road enabling the issue to be easily addressed post-logging, yet years after logging the landscape languishes within the range of a flicked cigarette butt.
Flammable leavings after state-funded logging operations in Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Photos Courtesy of Mendocino Trail Stewards —
Flammable leavings after state-funded logging operations in Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Photos Courtesy of Mendocino Trail Stewards —
Flammable leavings after state-funded logging operations in Jackson Demonstration State Forest. Photos Courtesy of Mendocino Trail Stewards —
Only about a third of the carbon present in a live tree ends up being stored in the final lumber, and half of that is offset by transport and processing.
From Harris et al. (2016).



Energy & environment scientist, with 40 years experience developing and advancing climate change solutions.

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Evan Mills, Ph.D.

Energy & environment scientist, with 40 years experience developing and advancing climate change solutions.