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Improved Loblolly Pines Better for the Environment, Study Finds

More than 50 years of genetics work to increase loblolly pine production in the Southeast has improved the trees’ ability to act as carbon sinks that mitigate climate change, according to a new study by North Carolina State University researchers.

“We’ve been working to create trees that grow faster and produce more wood, and what this research shows is that at the same time we’re enhancing environmental quality by scrubbing as much carbon out of the atmosphere as we possibly can,” says Dr. John King, an NC State forest ecologist and co-author of a paper published this month in the journal Forest Science.

loblolly pine branch with pineconeThe study estimated a 17 percent increase in stem-wood production and a 13 percent increase in carbon uptake in improved loblolly pines planted throughout the Southeast between 1968 and 2007. Three generations of enhanced seedlings were released over that 40-year period.

Pine plantations cover about 15 percent of forested land in the South. Each year, almost a billion loblolly pine seedlings are planted, typically taking 25 years to reach maturity.

“We’re reaping the benefits today of work our predecessors did, and our work will affect our children and grandchildren,” says co-author Dr. Steve McKeand, NC State forestry professor and director of the Cooperative Tree Improvement Program, a public/private partnership founded in 1956.

The study marks one of the first attempts to quantify the effects of improved tree genetics on carbon sequestration across a large landscape, McKeand and King say.

The lead author of the study, Dr. Mike Aspinwall of the University of Texas at Austin, worked with McKeand and King while completing his doctorate at NC State.

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Note to editors: An abstract of the paper follows.

“Carbon Sequestration from 40 Years of Planting Genetically Improved Loblolly Pine Across the Southeast United States”

Authors: Michael J. Aspinwall, University of Texas at Austin; Steven E. McKeand and John S. King, North Carolina State University

Abstract: Highly productive, widely deployed genetically improved loblolly pine (Pinus taeda L.) may play an important role in mitigating rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) via carbon (C) sequestration. To understand the role of loblolly pine genetic improvement in future C sequestration strategies, we examined the historical (1968 – 2007) impact of operationally deploying improved families of loblolly pine on productivity and C sequestration across the southeast U.S. Since 1977, nearly 100% of loblolly pine plantations in the southeast U.S. have been established with genetically improved loblolly pine. In recent years, over 400,000 ha of genetically improved loblolly pine are planted annually. Between 1968 and 2007, we estimate that genetically improved loblolly pine plantations have produced a total of 25.6 billion m3 of stem-wood volume, and have sequestered 9,865 Tg C in live and dead biomass. Our estimates also indicate that genetic improvement has resulted in an additional 3.7 billion m3 (17% increase) and 1,100 Tg C (13%) of volume production and C sequestration, respectively, relative to volume production and C sequestration with no genetic improvement. We expect that loblolly pine plantation C sequestration will increase as more productive families and clones are deployed, and as currently deployed genetic material continues to mature. Together, genetic improvement, intensive silviculture, and longer rotations aimed at producing long-lived wood products will be important tools for maximizing C sequestration in loblolly pine plantations.