To Put Technology to Use for Trees

Discoveries at the U of M will help forests absorb carbon that’s warming our climate

The forest products industry contributes 60,000 jobs and more than $9 billion in value to Minnesota’s economy. But we need forests for something else: absorbing the carbon that is warming the earth’s climate.

Carbon is emitted through industrial manufacturing, transportation, and other activities. But 16 percent of it gets “grabbed” by forests and wood, which can use it for new growth. That drives the work of Matt Russell, a U of M Extension forest resources specialist and assistant professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resources Sciences who is dedicated to maintaining resilient and productive forests.

Matt Russell Matt Russell, Forest Resources Specialist and Assistant Professor

Forest Resources

“Forests are our best tool to reduce carbon dioxide emissions,” says Russell. “As long as we keep our forests healthy, they will continue to provide the ecosystem services we rely on.”

Russell partnered with the USDA Forest Service to create a Forest Carbon Xplorer app. The app uses forest inventory data to show landowners and managers how much carbon they have on their land and how it’s distributed. Even a lifelong forest owner might not know the meaning of, say, 10,000 pounds of carbon, so the app provides equivalencies to gallons of gas, home energy use, and other comparisons. They can use the information to help make decisions on planting new trees and investing in making the forests they have healthier.

“What drives me are the rich interactions I have with landowners, natural resource professionals, and others who tell me about their biggest problems. That provides the best perspective for what I need to be researching and teaching.”

Forest health is a major issue in Minnesota. Climate change and invasive species threaten our 17 million acres of forestland, nearly half of which is privately owned. Mill closures and other economic changes can drive owners to sell land for development. Russell helps family forest landowners maintain a profit while adapting to these new realities.

“Forests contribute to clean water, clean air, and quality of life,” says Russell. “With one-third of the state covered in forest land, Minnesota can teach the world how to make sustainable decisions for everyone.”