Applying climate-smart forestry techniques to privately owned timberland across New England’s Acadian Forest could significantly grow the region’s carbon storage, according to a new study published in Forests, an international journal of forestry and forest ecology. Improved Forest Management could increase carbon storage by an estimated 488 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent — equal to about 23% of the emissions reductions needed for New England to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“New England’s working forests offer large unrealized potential to address climate change through storing additional carbon, and incentivizing private landowners to implement climate-smart forestry is a key way to realize that potential,” said Alec Giffen, Senior Forest Science and Policy Fellow with the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF) and a coauthor of the study.
The study was also coauthored by NEFF Forest Scientist Colleen Ryan; Natural Climate Solutions Forester Ethan Belair of The Nature Conservancy; Mike Pounch, now Chief of Silviculture for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands; and Seth Brown from Quantified Ventures.
The capacity of forests to store carbon, combined with time-tested approaches to managing forests, make forests a useful tool for atmospheric carbon mitigation. Unlike in the western U.S., where the federal government manages extensive landholdings, most of New England’s timberland is privately owned, with 92% of Maine and 78% of the Acadian Forest region in private hands. The average standing volume per hectare of private forest land varies widely across New England, with stocking lowest in portions of Maine, suggesting that if forest stocking was increased, both annual forest carbon storage and timber harvests could grow.
“That’s the most interesting thing about climate-smart forestry — that we’re focusing on both carbon and timber outcomes,” said Ethan Belair, Natural Climate Solutions Forester with The Nature Conservancy and a study coauthor. “When managed sustainably, we think New England forests can simultaneously provide substantial climate mitigation and a reliable timber supply, which is good news for an evolving forest industry in New England.”
Researchers used a forest growth and yield model to simulate forest management across a large area of northwestern Maine based on NEFF’s Exemplary Forestry standards, which prioritize providing habitat for native wildlife while producing timber, storing carbon, and maintaining other forest values. They found climate-smart forestry could increase carbon stored in the forest substantially. The estimated 488 million metric tons CO2e of potential added carbon storage represents more than three times New England’s annual carbon emissions (145 million metric tons CO2e in 2019).
As with any modeling effort, the numbers produced here are estimates, and while the actual in-forest results of implementing Exemplary Forestry are expected to be similar, they may be more or less than 488 million metric tons.
The estimated increase in carbon storage only accounted for the carbon stored in the forest, but climate-smart forestry would also produce long-lived wood products that store carbon. Those products can further reduce greenhouse gas emissions by substituting for products like concrete and steel.
Researchers from Quantified Ventures also conducted financial modeling demonstrating that Exemplary Forestry can be profitable for private landowners in the short term (within 15 years) by combining income from timber management, sales of carbon credits, and philanthropic funding of conservation easements.
The study’s conclusions are supported by the recent report from Highstead, which also found substantial potential to address climate change through improved forest management in New England. It also provides more evidence to support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ongoing $1 billion Climate-Smart Commodities program, piloting climate-smart forestry, climate-smart wood production, and greenhouse gas reduction. The program recently awarded $30 million to NEFF and partners—including coauthor Quantified Ventures—to help forest landowners implement these climate-smart forest practices that also protect ecosystem health and biodiversity.
NEFF Senior Forest Science and Policy Fellow Alec Giffen (lead author) conceived and directed this research, and the forest modeling work was conducted by coauthor Mike Pounch, now Chief of Silviculture for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. The financial modeling was conducted by coauthor Seth Brown and colleagues at Quantified Ventures. Coauthors Ethan Belair, Natural Climate Solutions Forester with The Nature Conservancy, and Colleen Ryan, NEFF Forest Scientist, helped develop the methodology, analyze and validate the results, and review and edit the paper.
Top photo: A NEFF-lead Exemplary Forestry field trip focused on restoring globally important wildlife habitat using climate-smart forestry, photo by Twolined Studio.