April 23, 2018
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Switch now to carbon-friendly forestry

By Jonathan Carter, Special to the BDN

The Forest Ecology Network recently launched the Climate Change and Forest Restoration Campaign. FEN is calling for the Maine Woods to be designated a National Carbon Storage Forest.

The climate disaster is an unfolding catastrophe, which, unless we act now, will cause hardship, poverty, and misery for our children, grandchildren and those yet unborn.

The most recent scientific modeling, reports and analyses make past prediction seem mild. Jim Hansen, senior climate scientist for NASA, has stated that the level of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere is above what is necessary “to preserve a planet similar to that which civilization developed and to which life is adapted.” Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist in the United Kingdom, has stated that “most of the climate targets debated by campaigners and politicians are fanciful at best, and dangerously misguided at worst.”

Scientists all across the country are gathering localized data that demonstrate the pervasive ecological disruptions already under way. Birds are moving north, the moose are dying in Minnesota, tree mortality has doubled in western forests, polar ice caps and continental glaciers are melting at unprecedented rates, and hurricanes, flooding, ice storms, etc., are all on the rise.

In Maine there is very little hard data on direct impact. However, I think we are all aware that the climate is changing. Why are we seeing turkey vultures or turtledoves farther north? Why is the gray squirrel replacing the red squirrel? Have the dying larch trees been weakened, like the western trees, so that they are less resistant to the sawfly? Why are the sugar maple and paper birch under so much stress? What has happened to all the moose that once roamed my land?

Forests already are responsible for absorbing about 20 percent of the excess carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels. This percentage could be doubled easily if we stopped destroying forests and implemented restorative forest practices.

Maine, as the most forested state in the nation, has the potential to make a significant contribution. Maine forests represent the largest carbon sink on the Eastern Seaboard. To put this into perspective, Maine forests now store the equivalent of 86 years of Maine’s total annual carbon output or 216 years of our transportation sector output. Our 17.7 million acres of forests already have the capacity to store the annual carbon output of 35.5 million cars — about 17 percent of the nation’s total.

Implementing forest practices that increase storage could more than double the capacity. Clear-cutting and shelterwood harvests (as practiced in Maine — a 5- to 10-year clear-cut) would have to be replaced with selective harvests.

For 150 years, the Maine forests have been high graded (take the best, leave the worst), but to maximize carbon storage we need to do just the opposite — low grade. Transitioning toward more carbon-friendly forest practices will put more loggers and foresters back to work — a positive stimulus for the sagging Maine economy. It will result in a higher volume of saw log quality wood, which has a much longer carbon storage life span as construction materials.

The demand for our wood will increase as we shift away from steel, which requires 10 times the amount of energy to produce. There is a bright future ahead, but making the transition will not be easy and will require state and federal investments. However, when you look at the long-term impacts of climate change, the investment now is small in comparison. It is estimated that using forests for carbon storage actually is cheaper — $30 to $90 per ton — than constructing alternative energy technologies. But of course, we need to do both as well as conserve and reduce consumption, if we want to have a prayer of dealing with the climate crisis.

Designating the Maine Woods as a Carbon Storage Forest would be a model for the nation and a symbol to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about taking action. While some may be skeptics or think it is just too late, I remain an optimist. At the very least we owe it to future generations to try to mitigate the impacts of our ecologically unsustainable carbon lifestyle.

Jonathan Carter is director of the Forest Ecology Network.

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