May 21, 2018
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The Cool Maine Forest

The world’s carbon crisis — also known as global warming or climate change — is reaching a frightening tipping point. Maine’s trees may be a big part of the solution.

Jonathan Carter, a Green Party candidate for governor and Congress best known for his campaign in the mid-1990s to ban clear-cutting, asserts that by cutting more low-quality trees and letting trees grow older before harvesting them, Maine’s forests can absorb twice the amount of carbon they are now capturing. He is spreading this message through the Forest Ecology Network.

Uncountable tons of carbon dioxide — the byproduct of burning organic fuels such as wood, coal, oil and gas — have been pumped into the atmosphere over the last 200 years. There now are 390 parts of carbon per million in the atmosphere, and some climatologists project that number will reach 550 parts per million in the next century. That level, Mr. Carter says, “is a disaster.” Low-lying countries would be wiped out by rising seas, causing mass refugee migrations, potentially causing global political instability.

Climate change is a reality. “You can take a boat around the North Pole,” Mr. Carter said, a journey that would have been impossible any other time in human history. “Some scientists are saying it’s too late. We’re not going to stop it,” he said. But ever the optimist, Mr. Carter believes the effects can be mitigated.

This where the Maine forest and logging practices come into play.

The world’s forests, through photosynthesis, now absorb about 20 percent of excess carbon. Maine’s forests represent “the largest carbon sink on the Eastern Seaboard,” he said. Its 17.7 million acres of forests can absorb the equivalent amount of carbon produced by 35 million cars in one year. But if logging practices are changed, that carbon capture capacity could double to 70 million cars.

His plan is to persuade landowners — possibly through tax credits or other financial incentives — to commit to cutting dying or damaged trees and to leaving more stands of maple, beech and birch, because they absorb more carbon. And instead of cutting trees at an average age of 58 years, under Mr. Carter’s plan the trees would be cut at older ages. He suggested state-owned land be used to demonstrate how his system would work; he has designated his own small woodlot as a carbon storage forest.

Despite the perception that Maine’s paper mills are in decline, more paper is being produced than ever, and some 7 million cords of wood are harvested annually in Maine, up from the 6.2 million cords cut annually in the early 1990s, he said.

It’s a tough sell, Mr. Carter admits, especially in a bad economy. But if more careful and selective cutting are instituted, a better-quality harvest could mean bigger profits later on. Companies would have to take the long view — just as policymakers must take the long view in addressing the climate change threat.

This is far from a cure-all, but it is a forward-looking idea worth a closer look.

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