USDA grants $30 million for increased carbon storage in New England forests

At the Howland Research Forest, carbon and other greenhouse gas measurements are continuously recorded from the top of several meteorological towers that soar above a lush canopy of spruce, hemlock and white pine. (Kris Bridges/ Maine Public)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Wednesday funding for what’s being called a potentially transformational pilot program to help forest landowners in Maine and the rest of New England mitigate climate change. The goal of the program is to remove more carbon from the atmosphere by growing more and better quality wood, verifying the results and building markets for climate-friendly wood products.

The New England Climate Smart Forest Partnership Project is one of 70 projects announced by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to sequester and store carbon and reduce other greenhouse gas emissions.

“During the life of these projects, we’re hopeful of recording more than 50-million metric tons of CO2-equivalent reductions and greenhouse gas reductions and carbon sequestration benefits. That’s equal to about ten million cars being taken off the road,” Vilsack said.

Combined, Vilsack said the projects will receive $2.5 billion in funding. The New England project, worth $30-million, is backed by the New England Forestry Foundation and more than 20 large landowners, institutions, forest products manufacturers and other partners. Its focus is on climate-smart forestry. For decades, the industry’s gold standard has been “sustainable forestry.” That means not cutting down too many trees but also managing for ecological values such as clean water, wildlife, diversity of species and healthy soil.

Alec Giffen, a forest scientist with the New England Forestry Foundation, said climate-smart forestry kicks all those values up a notch.

“What we’re talking about is expanding that list of practices that you perform…all of which can be climate beneficial,” Giffen said.

The list includes what’s known as “pre-commercial thinning,” a practice similar to weeding a garden in which trees are thinned out to improve productivity. Using this strategy, trees can grow larger, faster and they can store more carbon. The pilot program will need to demonstrate those savings. Maine has more than ten-million acres of commercial forestlands and Giffen said with climate-smart forestry, there’s the potential to sequester and store a significant amount for all of New England.

“Our analysis…shows that the amount of carbon that the forest could remove within the next 25 or 30 years amounts to about 30% of the total emissions reductions that we need in New England,” Giffen said.

The challenge, project advocates say, will be convincing large landowners that it makes sense not only for the climate but for their bottom lines. And that’s where the pilot project comes in. Andi Colnes of the New England Forestry Foundation said large landowners in Maine and small woodlot owners across New England will receive technical and financial assistance to implement climate-smart practices on 100,000 acres. She said they need incentives to do two things: First, pay for forestry practices that deliver on climate benefits.

“And the second is carry the rotations out long enough so we can then have the forest reach its full and marketable potential,” Colnes said.

In other words, allow some trees to grow bigger and pack on more carbon before they’re harvested and allow other less desirable species to be cut. The important thing to remember, she said, is that carbon isn’t only stored in trees and the soil, but also in wood products such as furniture, flooring and mass timber for buildings. Improving those wood products markets is also part of the project’s focus.

Several large commercial landowners in Maine, including Seven Islands, Weyerhaeuser, Wagner Woodlands and Baskahegan Land Company have signed on. And so have the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine.

“This program is really going to allow all players in the supply chain to play a significant role for benefits not only for climate but also for the economy which I think is fantastic,” said Dana Doran, the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine’s executive director.

Other supporters include the Mi’kmaq Nation and the Passamaquoddy Forestry Department, the Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club. Work on the pilot program is expected to begin immediately.

This story was originally published by Maine Public, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.