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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

You are here: ARS Home / Research / National Programs / National Program 204 : Global Change / Component I: Carbon Cycle and Carbon Storage
National Program 204: Global Change
Component I: Carbon Cycle and Carbon Storage
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1 - Introduction
2 - Cropping System and Tilage
3 - Grazinglands, CRP and Buffers
4 - Irrigation and Water Managment
5 - Plantation Tree Farming
6 - Organic Carbon Transformations
7 - Inorganic Carbon
8 - Interactions of Carbon and Nitrogen Cycles
9 - Measurement, Validation and Modeling
Plantation Tree Farming

Problem Statement

Rationale. Agronomically managed tree farms are important U.S. economic and environmental ecosystem components, representing a potentially large dynamic and manageable repository for atmospheric carbon.

What is known. Land management for plantation-style production of pulp and lumber has intensified in the past two decades, particularly in the U.S. Southeast and Pacific Northwest, on industrial and nonindustrial private woodlands. Increasingly, plantation-style woodlot management blurs the conceptual boundaries between agricultural and forestry practices and objectives. Tree farming also is being adapted as an integrated farming technique with intensive animal feeding operations to manage waste nutrients. Woodlot plantation practices routinely involve intensive fertilization, tillage, chemical weed and disease control, and irrigation, with practices tailored to specific soil, site, and system needs. Intensive management of forest and other tree species has increased yields of lumber, pulp, and other wood products. In irrigated Pacific Northwest poplar plantations, the planting-harvest cycle is as short as five years. In Southeastern Loblolly pine, rotation age wood fiber yields are typically doubled. Maintaining tree farm productivity through cycles of planting genetically superior seedlings and managing for enhanced growth with tillage, fertilization, irrigation, herbicide use, clear-cutting, and replanting, gives sustainable high yields over many cycles. Importantly, tree farming also increases short- and long-term carbon storage. Irrigated Pacific Northwest poplar plantations produce 49 tons of trunk and branch wood and 2 tons of leaves per acre by the 4th year of production. Maintaining tree farm productivity increases the total amount of carbon that can be captured--in the short-term as paper and wood products and long-term as soil carbon from roots, exudates, and decomposed litter. Intensively managed tree farms have a high potential for storing carbon.

Gaps. Sound estimates of the total amount of carbon stored in intensively managed tree plantations are lacking, particularly the quantity and long-term fate or transformation of carbon in litter, below-ground tissues or exudates, and soil. Time scales associated with the fate of carbon in wood products need to be developed. This documentation will be critical for policymakers considering establishment of carbon credits for tree plantations.

Research to increase the productivity of highly managed tree farms is crucial, both to the economics of tree-producing enterprises and to the issue of long-term carbon storage. Land forms and soils that require tillage need to be identified, to include determining proper tillage practices and conditions (especially soil water) and developing specifically suited tillage equipment. Agronomic research is needed to identify management practice interactions to achieve optimal growth, including refining of site-specific management; potential use of animal, municipal, and industrial wastes; soil property requirements and impacts; and overall system productivity and ecosystem response. Virtually no reliable information exists on tree plantation evapotranspiration responses or irrigation requirements for scheduling to optimize selected system outcomes. One of the most critical gaps in tree farm management is in the areas of root response and below-ground carbon storage.


  • Assess the impacts of intensive tree farm management on the amount and longevity of soil carbon storage by measuring the total amount of carbon stored in intensively managed tree plantations, including soil carbon changes and storage in below-ground tissues or removed as products.;
  • Quantify evapotranspiration from rainfed and irrigated intensive tree farm plantations for key species and management systems to optimize water management for desired system outcomes;
  • Quantify the carbon cycle time scales for all tree-derived products;
  • Provide policymakers with accurate current data to establish carbon credits for tree farm plantations; and
  • Address land owner/producer needs for broad reliable agronomic research to increase productivity, waste utilization, and below-ground responses, including carbon storage.


Existing data will be compiled and studied to synthesize an understanding of the impacts of intensive tree farm management on carbon allocation and to identify knowledge gaps. Simulations and field experiments, conducted in cooperation with industrial and other land owners/producers who are already practicing intensive tree farming, can be used to prioritize research and fill knowledge gaps. These field studies should quantify water, fertilizer, and other resource needs and should consider water quality issues as well as carbon storage. The data and new knowledge from these efforts can be provided to policymakers to quantify and explain the benefits of intensive tree farming as a basis for policy decisions to exploit the potential positive impacts of carbon storage.


  • Reliable estimates will be made of the amount of carbon sequestered by intensive plantation forestry.
  • Technology will be developed to quantify carbon cycle time scales for all tree-derived products and to determine the fate of carbon in tree-based ecosystem.
  • A national carbon credit policy will reward landowners for maintaining sustainable, productive tree plantations that contribute to a healthy environment and public welfare.
  • The Nation s tree farms will be more productive, meeting increasing demands for wood and fiber; increasing carbon storage to mitigate rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration; and allowing sensitive lands to be removed from traditional forest production.

Linkages to Other ARS National Programs

  • Integrated Agricultural Systems
  • Water Quality and Management
  • Manure and Byproduct Utilization
  • Soil Resource Management
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Last Modified: 10/28/2008
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