June 19, 2024 8:25 am
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Forests Are Much More Than Carbon Banks | Opinion

Credit: iStock

by Paul Doscher, New Hampshire Bulletin

New Hampshire is blessed with forests. More than 80 percent of our landscape is covered with forest – some young, some middle aged, and a small amount very old. All but the very old forests have not always been forests but rather farm fields and pasture created by our European ancestors who claimed the land after the colonization of North America. Native Americans who lived here for thousands of years managed some of the forest and created some open fields, but mostly the forests grew old and the soils they created grew deep.

Today, in the era of climate change and carbon accounting, we view forests through a new lens. Much research has been done to quantify how much carbon (a basic component of organic matter that makes up all living things) is stored in forests and how much is absorbed by forests. We know that older New England forests (older than a human lifetime) store a lot of carbon in wood above ground and even more below ground in roots, fungi, bacteria, and decaying leaves. The older a forest gets, the more carbon each acre stores. 

That’s not to say that old forests don’t also absorb carbon. While younger forests – 30 to 70 years old – have been found to absorb more carbon on an annual basis, older forests continue to absorb a lot of carbon as well. (For an excellent review of forest carbon, see the article by UNH Extension Forester Matt Kelly at Takingactionforwildlife.org.)

Recently, a proposed timber harvest in the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont has attracted considerable controversy, and carbon storage is part of the story. Some scientists recently quoted in a story by National Geographic have advocated for no harvesting of the forest in part to keep the carbon stored there intact. Others have argued that carbon storage isn’t the only factor, and managing the forest to create habitat diversity is important to our native wildlife. Adding to the complexity is the fact that wood as a building material is considerably less carbon intensive than the alternatives of concrete and steel, and we should be using more wood in building construction.

So, we want wood products from the forest, and we also want the forest to store carbon. Are these two mutually exclusive? 

Experts think not. We can have both important benefits if we manage forests both to increase carbon storage in the forest and wood products that store carbon through harvesting. This has resulted in a market where forestland owners agree to keep their land in forest and manage their forests in ways that increase carbon storage. There’s good money to be made doing this.

Clouding the picture, however, is a recent investigation of the market for forest carbon credits by a research group in Europe. In simple terms, forest carbon credits are created by contracts where the forest owner agrees to manage the forest to both continue to store its current carbon and not remove through harvesting more carbon than it absorbs over time. In essence, the forest is a carbon bank in which the principle is retained and only a portion of the interest is withdrawn as forest products. The European study, however claimed that when it looked at how these were applied in Europe, more than 90 percent of the credits were worthless in terms of the actual carbon benefits, in part because they found that most of the forests in the plan would have stayed forests anyway, and the management didn’t really change much.

To be fair, many experts disagree with this study. But the arguments are very complex, the science is challenging and difficult, and the debate is not likely to be settled any time soon.

One can read dozens if not hundreds of articles about this, and there are a few conclusions I’ve reached from all the reading.

  1. Forest carbon markets are very complicated and varied. One needs to devote nearly full time to understand the process of carbon accounting, the science of carbon measuring, the mechanics of the carbon market, and how to engage in the market. For those of us who need help, there are experts who facilitate participation in the market, but even they can be difficult to understand. All this is expensive, and as a result only large landowners or groups of landowners are equipped to participate because of the inherent economies of scale. Small woodlot owners like me are never likely to be able to participate.
  2. Keeping truly old forests as wild, unharvested forest is a good thing. Not primarily because of carbon storage, but because they harbor great biological diversity, including species of soil fungi and other organisms, the importance of which we are only now beginning to understand.   
  3. Managing our “second growth” forests (those that grew back in the last 150 years or so from farmland) is a good thing if we do it right. Single tree selection, group selection, and patch cuts essentially mimic the way forests thin themselves and respond to fire and storms. If we manage well, we can have both high-quality wood products that store carbon for generations and healthy, diverse forests that continue to absorb plenty of carbon. Any time we can replace concrete and steel with wood we eliminate one heck of a lot of carbon emissions.
  4. We need to have markets for wood that encourage better forest management. If we look at a typical forest in New Hampshire, more than half the wood growing in it is “low quality,” meaning it cannot be used for lumber. If those trees stay in the forest, they store carbon only as long as they live and slowly decay. If we remove them and make manufactured wood products like engineered lumber or even just burn them for fuel, we make room for higher-quality trees that will ultimately be more valuable and can be turned into products that store even more carbon for decades if not centuries.
  5. Forests are much more than carbon banks. They are complex living communities that most of us barely know or understand. For generations little was understood about what goes on under the soil in our forests, but recent research has revealed incredible new information about how trees, fungi, and bacteria work together to share resources and build more healthy and resilient forests.

There are many reasons to keep forests as forests, from protecting our drinking water supplies, preventing erosion, and providing wildlife habitat to producing long-lasting wood products and income to sustain landownership – and now to help address climate change.

Keeping forests as forests should be a national priority and a New Hampshire imperative.

This story was written by Paul Doscher, a former retired conservation professional and contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

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