A Tale of Two Forest Carbon Assessments in the Eastern United States: Forest Use Versus Cover as a Metric of Change
The dynamics of land-use practices (for example, forest versus settlements) is often a major driver of changes in terrestrial carbon (C). As the management and conservation of forest land uses are considered a means of reducing future atmospheric CO2 concentrations, the monitoring of forest C stocks and stock change by categories of land-use change (for example, croplands converted to forest) is often a requirement of C monitoring protocols such as those espoused by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (that is, Good Practice Guidance and Guidelines). The identification of land use is often along a spectrum ranging from direct observation (for example, interpretation of owner intent via field visits) to interpretation of remotely sensed imagery (for example, land cover mapping) or some combination thereof. Given the potential for substantial differences across this spectrum of monitoring techniques, a region-wide, repeated forest inventory across the eastern U.S. was used to evaluate relationships between forest land-use change (derived from a forest inventory) and forest cover change (derived from Landsat modeling) in the context of forest C monitoring strategies. It was found that the correlation between forest land-use change and cover change was minimal (<0.08), with an increase in forest land use but a net decrease in forest cover being the most frequent observation. Cover assessments may be more sensitive to active forest management and/or conversion activities that can lead to confounded conclusions regarding the forest C sink (for example, decreasing forest cover but increasing C stocks in industrial timberlands). In contrast, the categorical nature of direct land-use field observations reduces their sensitivity to forest management activities (for example, clearcutting versus thinning) and recent disturbance events (for example, floods or wildfire) that may obscure interpretation of C dynamics over short time steps. While using direct land-use observations or cover mapping in forest C assessments, they should not be considered interchangeable as both approaches possess idiosyncratic qualities that should be considered when developing conclusions regarding forest C attributes and dynamics across large scales.