Climate-Smart Commodities

An In-depth Look at NEFF’s $30 Million USDA Award

Mar. 17, 2023
New England Forestry Foundation

Break out your party hats! This USDA Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program marks a historic moment for NEFF and partners’ efforts to spread climate-smart forestry across New England. Learn about the program and hear the behind-the-scenes story of how NEFF received the award.

Writing by NEFF Deputy Director and Climate Fellow Andrea Colnes and NEFF Communications Manager Tinsley Hunsdorfer

New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) has experienced a few sea changes in its 78-year history, where the organization accomplished something so momentous it changed not only how the wider world saw NEFF, but also how NEFF’s immediate community, Board of Directors and staff saw themselves.

Once, NEFF wasn’t considered the sort of organization that could conserve 760,000 acres of forestland in one fell swoop. Once, NEFF didn’t seem the sort of place to produce groundbreaking forestry standards capable of mitigating nearly a third of the region’s necessary CO2 emissions-reductions. Once, NEFF winning a $30 million grant to implement climate-smart forestry wasn’t even on the horizon. And yet—here we are, having accomplished all this, and still looking for more ways to make a strategic difference in the fight against climate change.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program awarded NEFF and partners $30 million in September, and this latest sea change has created a moment where the world feels new as we look toward taking solid, measurable steps to mitigate the climate crisis, alongside a strong group of talented, diverse and dedicated project partners.

Making the Case for Climate-Smart Forestry

In February 2022, NEFF’s climate and forestry staff members had a game-changing combination of new and existing information before them. What they already understood was NEFF’s 30 Percent Solution, an analysis that shows a holistic approach to forest management, forest protection, and climate mitigation in New England could keep more than 646 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the next 30 years, or nearly one-third of the total energy-related CO2 emissions reductions needed across New England by 2050.

The new information was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s identification of improved forest management as essential to achieving the planet’s climate targets, and the scope of the United States’ privately owned forestlands powerful climate resilience and carbon-capture mitigation opportunities. Specifically, the U.S. EPA 2022 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2020 showed that 84 percent of current U.S. carbon storage is happening on private forestlands.

But, how to realize this potential? How could NEFF work with forest landowners—large and small—across New England to actually implement climate-smart forestry?

Enter the USDA’s Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities program:

“USDA is committed to supporting a diverse range of farmers, ranchers, and private forest landowners through Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities. This effort will expand markets for America’s climate-smart commodities, leverage the greenhouse gas benefits of climate-smart commodity production, and provide direct, meaningful benefits to production agriculture, including for small and underserved producers.”

This initiative seemed tailor-made to capitalize on NEFF’s work over the past decade to define Exemplary Forestry, model the impact and economics of climate-smart forestry with commercial forestland owners, and build understanding of and networks around mass timber to store carbon and substitute for steel and concrete in the region’s buildings. While it was daunting to apply for a federal grant of this scale, when has NEFF been one to back down from a challenge? Instead, staff members gave up sleep and weekends for a few months, broke out the spreadsheets and got to work.

Over the next several months, NEFF proceeded to convene, plan and anchor the New England Climate-Smart Commodities Partnership, involving more than 20 companies, organizations, and institutions from across New England that represent forest-related industries and have climate interests at the forefront of their concerns. The creativity, vision and excellence of partners across the spectrum of programs included in this effort have been outstanding. Alongside NEFF, each worked to define clear and effective ways of getting the right work done. NEFF and partners also secured the strong support of New England’s congressional delegation, and in May 2022, NEFF submitted its proposal.

When the USDA chose to award $30 million to the NEFF project in September 2022, you could hear cheers from Mansfield to Katahdin from NEFF staff and project partners alike. It was happening—the region had received a transformative investment, an investment that will enable forest landowners to implement climate-smart forest practices that also protect ecosystem health and biodiversity as part of a nationally relevant pilot program. Once again, New England has an opportunity to lead the nation.

A NEFF-lead Exemplary Forestry field trip focused on restoring globally important wildlife habitat using climate-smart forestry. Photo by Twolined Studio

How The Program Works

The project is a five-year pilot initiative that will be organized around three broad goals and areas of work. A diverse group of partners will work together across the region, including commercial forestland owners, small family woodlot owners, foresters, loggers, research and modeling partners, and First Nations. NEFF is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Family Forest Carbon Program of American Forest Foundation, another USDA Climate-Smart Commodities awardee, on outreach to small family landowners. For a full list of partners, see the bottom of the page.


A pilot group of forest landowners, foresters and loggers will receive climate-smart forestry incentives for practices that store more carbon in working forests across all six New England states, including on large commercial forests, smaller family woodlots and First Nation woodlands.

This facet of the program stems from NEFF’s long experience in engaging with family and commercial landowners, which has revealed they are ready to enhance their forest practices if the right incentives are in place to make the economics work. NEFF’s calculations also indicate offering financial incentives for improved forestry is a very efficient and cost-effective way to mitigate climate change compared to technology-based carbon-capture approaches.

Market-building for Mass Timber

The project will encourage the expansion of mass timber construction with a focus on affordable housing. Project partners will work on outreach to affordable housing agencies across the region, engage with mass timber developers and architects, develop mass timber design specifications for a multi-family affordable housing unit, and more. NEFF will focus on ensuring the material going into new affordable housing comes from well-managed, climate-smart forests. To accomplish this, NEFF will develop climate-smart wood sourcing criteria, protocol, and supply chain tracking that can be inserted into existing green building programs.

Monitoring and Verification

NEFF’s forestry and climate experts are confident the organization’s forestry approaches will store more carbon in the forest and produce more renewable climate-smart products, but everyone involved in the USDA program has to prove these practices work over time. To do so, NEFF and the partner organizations who have signed on to help with this part of the program will define how to verify that carbon is captured and stored from both improved forest management and mass timber construction. A project team is prepared to conduct detailed tracking and modeling work to verify that practices are conducted as planned and predict how much carbon will be there in future decades. NEFF will bring all its forestry expertise to bear, and take advantage of new research that describes the benefits of building with wood and substituting wood for other more carbon intensive materials.

Next Stop: The 30 Percent Solution

For NEFF to accomplish its 30 Percent Solution, it must significantly expand the use of its own approach to climate-smart forestry—Exemplary Forestry—across the managed portion of the 32 million acres of forestland that spans New England, which makes this five-year, 80,000-acre pilot project an important first step.

In balance with wildlands, NEFF will work to leverage the USDA’s generous investment to bring its climate-smart Exemplary Forestry to all of New England’s working forestland using public and private funding sources, and apply lessons learned from the pilot to this wider landscape.

The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes billions of dollars to support sustainable forestry across numerous programs, and it also includes a major new financing mechanism for climate investments, including carbon reduction: the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. NEFF will work with national partners to develop programs that provide low-cost financing to forestland owners to implement carbon-aligned forest management.

NEFF has spent more than a decade researching and promoting New England working forests’ potential to mitigate the climate crisis, and at last, the pieces that will turn that potential into reality are finally falling into place.

Forestry for the Future

It can be difficult to listen to climate change news these days, but we hope NEFF’s Climate-Smart Commodities work now serves not only as a reminder that dedicated people all over the world are making genuine progress on addressing the climate crisis, but also as an emotional bulwark of sorts.

If you find yourself feeling hopeless or frustrated, remember this: every weekday, the members of NEFF’s climate-change mitigation teams are giving their all to a game-changing project that will have a real, measurable impact on atmospheric CO2. We know it’s going to work. The next step, then, is to scale it up: climate-smart forestry for more acres and more years than the pilot project covers, and climate-smart forestry for the future of New England and the world.

The Dream Team

Executive Director Bob Perschel attends a NEFF-lead Exemplary Forestry field trip focused on restoring globally important wildlife habitat using climate-smart forestry. Photo by Twolined Studio

These key staff members worked tirelessly on NEFF’s proposal to the USDA. Cheers to them!

  • Andrea Colnes, NEFF Deputy Director and Climate Fellow
  • Penny Flynn, NEFF Development Manager
  • Alec Giffen, NEFF Senior Forest Science and Policy Fellow
  • Robert Perschel, NEFF Executive Director
  • Connor Rockett, previously NEFF Forest Policy Fellow, now graduate student at Yale School of the Environment
  • Jennifer Shakun, NEFF Bioeconomy Initiative Director

Connor Rockett and NEFF Bioeconomy Initiative Director Jennifer Shakun on Connor’s last day at NEFF, photo by Tinsley Hunsdorfer

NEFF staff and Board members gathered in October 2022 to celebrate NEFF’s $30 million USDA Climate-Smart Commodities award. Pictured left to right: NEFF Deputy Director and Climate Fellow Andi Colnes, NEFF Board President Rick Weyerhaeuser, and NEFF Senior Forest Science and Policy Fellow Alec Giffen. Photo by Tinsley Hunsdorfer.

NEFF staff and Board members gathered in October 2022 to celebrate NEFF’s $30 million USDA Climate-Smart Commodities award. Pictured left to right: NEFF Development Manager Penny Flynn, NEFF Board member Bob Ackerman, and NEFF Bioeconomy Initiative Director Jennifer Shakun. Photo by Tinsley Hunsdorfer.

Project Partners

This USDA program called for project proposals from partnerships, and finding and connecting with the right New England Climate-Smart Commodities Forest Partnership participants has been one of the most impactful parts of this process for NEFF staff members. Every partner to join in—from all over the region, from a range of specialties, from different cultures, from urban and rural areas, from the forest and architectural and academic and housing sectors—has only made the project stronger and NEFF’s understanding of the pilot’s potential richer.

Landowners, Foresters, Loggers: Participating Producers

  • Seven Islands
  • Weyerhaeuser
  • Wagner Forest Management, Ltd.
  • Baskahegan Land Company
  • Robbins Lumber
  • Passamaquoddy Forestry Department
  • Mi’kmaq Nation
  • The Nature Conservancy (Maine lands)
  • Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership
  • Massachusetts Tree Farm Program
  • Hull Forestlands, L.P.
  • Heyes Family Forests LLC
  • Appalachian Mountain Club

Landowners, Foresters, Loggers: Participating Loggers & Foresters

  • Professional Logging Contractors Maine
  • Trust to Conserve Northeast Forestlands
  • Professional foresters & loggers

Commodity Markets

  • Spiritos Properties, LLC (Mass Timber Developer)
  • Leers Weinzapfel Associates (Architects)
  • Quantified Ventures (Finance)
  • WoodWorks (Mass Timber)

University of Maine Assistance With Program Design and Implementation

  • University of Maine: Dr. John Daigle, Liaison to Maine’s Penobscot Nation, Passamaquoddy Tribe and Mi’kmaq Nation
  • University of Maine Advanced Structures & Composites Center
  • Forest Policy & Economics – School of Forest Resources
  • School of Forest Resources and Climate Change Institute
  • Office of Innovation and Economic Development

Monitoring, Verification & Reporting

  • American Forest Foundation – Family Forest Carbon Program
  • Spatial Informatics Group
  • Thomas Walker, Resource Economist
  • Innovative Natural Resource Solutions, LLC

Supporting Organizations

  • Forest Stewards Guild
  • Mass Audubon
  • Our Climate Common
  • Highstead Foundation
  • Massachusetts Forest Alliance
  • Connecticut Forest & Park Association