The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report cited a paper co-authored by Highstead Senior Ecologist Ed Faison along with Tufts University Professor Emeritus Bill Moomaw and Trinity College Professor Susan Masino. In the 2019 paper, Moomaw, Masino, and Faison argued that protecting existing forests to grow intact without management was an important and underutilized strategy in the United States for mitigating climate change and helping to combat the biodiversity crisis. The authors coined the term “proforestation” to describe this process of continuous forest growth without management.
The IPCC, which consists of 195 member nations and is the international authority on assessing the science related to climate change, said the following in its report: “It is also the case that protection of existing natural forest ecosystems is the highest priority for reducing GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions (Moomaw et al. 2019).” The report also mentions the complementarity of proforestation with other ‘nature-based solutions’(NbS) when it states: “Protection of existing natural forests and sustainable management of semi-natural forests that continue to provide goods and services are highly effective NbS.”
Moomaw et al. (2019) drew on decades of peer-reviewed science on the carbon and structural benefits that occur in forests protected from management. For instance, a 1990 study from the Pacific Northwest and a 2010 paper from the Northeastern U.S. revealed that unmanaged forests store substantially more carbon than actively managed forests; this was true even when the carbon extracted from these forests and stored in harvested wood products was included in the calculation.
In addition to preserving large amounts of carbon, forests left to grow without management develop greater structural complexity over time and when compared to forests that are periodically managed. Complexity is reflected in attributes such as taller and larger diameter trees, large dead trees and downed logs, and a greater variation in tree height and diameter size classes. Structural complexity has been linked to several important ecological functions, including the ability of forests to sequester more carbon dioxide, provide more habitat for biodiversity, and adapt to increased disturbances from climate change.
Besides the IPCC report, a 2021 article in Global Change Biology that noted the importance of protecting existing forests to optimize carbon sequestration and biodiversity preservation cited the Moomaw et al. (2019) paper and included “proforestation” in a glossary of terms. Additionally, a 2022 article in the journal Science suggested, “Guidelines could more effectively promote biodiversity by recommending the use of the natural climate solutions hierarchy that prioritizes protection of intact ecosystems, and approaches that allow ecosystems to reach their full potential with minimal intervention (i.e. through ‘pro-forestation,’ (Moomaw et al. 2019).”
In short, the international scientific community recognizes that protecting more forests to grow naturally is an essential piece of the solution to mitigating climate change and promoting biodiversity, while complementing other natural or nature-based solutions.