Boston Globe

Can trees save the climate? Experts say ‘smart’ forestry is one place to start.

Nov. 09, 2023

By sustainably cutting trees, the New England Forestry Foundation believes it can make more productive forests

By Amanda Gokee

CENTER HARBOR, N.H. — Red oak, pine, and yellow birch trees grow densely throughout the Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest, towering over the walking paths that cut through 150 pristine acres abutting Squam Lake.

They range in age from young growth emerging in recently logged areas, to a stand of old growth trees that have been there for as long as 300 years, according to forester Peter Farrell, who is tasked with tending to these trees and overseeing harvests.

Like trees everywhere, they are reliably sucking carbon dioxide out of the air and storing it away in their trunks and roots.

But, in the eyes of its human stewards, this forest is special — an example of what the New England Forestry Foundation calls exemplary forestry, a practice the organization believes can play a major role in combating climate change.

By carefully selecting which trees to cut and which to leave on the landscape, Farrell has been able to grow more wood per acre, creating a healthy forest with trees of different ages and sizes that are well-suited to the site.

By sustainably cutting trees, the foundation believes it can make more productive forests that will absorb 646 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050 — a third of what the region must reduce to meet net-zero goals.

Achieving that goal is a balancing act because forests aren’t merely a carbon sink. Trees also provide habitat that is critical to biodiversity, and cutting them yields a building material with the potential to displace steel and concrete as a more climate-friendly alternative.

Andrea Colnes, the deputy director and climate fellow at NEFF, said all of these factors are included when calculating how to best use forests to mitigate climate change. She said people need to move beyond the idea that cutting trees is always environmentally harmful. Harvested sustainably, she said, they can displace fossil-fuel based products in high demand.

“We’re building the equivalent of New York City’s infrastructure literally every 30 days somewhere on the planet,” she said. Massachusetts uses 359 million cubic feet of wood per year, and 98 percent is imported, Colnes said, suggesting more could instead come from New Hampshire.

Those calculations have been the New England Forestry Foundation’s focus for the past decade, and the findings have been convincing enough to land them a $30 million grant from the USDA, which the organization will use to pay private landowners for what they call climate smart forestry. Others in the industry are watching with curiosity and some skepticism to see if they succeed.

Climate smart forestry can involve letting healthy and vigorous trees grow, while cutting those that aren’t growing as well. In the Acadian forest of northern New England, this includes growing trees that are best suited to the location, keeping forests fully stocked with trees of diverse sizes and ages, and growing and harvesting more wood.

This comes as New Hampshire’s forest economy has constricted, with less crews and less logging capacity, as many now brace for the possible closure of the state’s largest biomass plant, Burgess BioPower in Berlin, which burns wood to create electricity. A bill to continue subsidizing Burgess failed in the Legislature.

“We continue to see some significant contraction in timber harvesting,” said Jasen Stock, executive director of New Hampshire Timberland’s Association. “That’s in direct response to loss of markets, whether they’re biomass, paper mill.”

That, in turn, impacts the sawmill industry, where logs are cut into lumber, according to Stock. “Sawmills are struggling to procure enough logs to keep running,” he said.

He said the two main concerns are logging capacity and workforce.

But Bob Perschel, executive director of NEFF, said these problems — loss of markets, not enough workers — have existed since he got into forestry 45 years ago, and he believes considering climate can make the economics more favorable.

“If you now begin to look at the forest in the context of climate change, they become more valuable than they’ve ever been,” he said.

In NEFF’s ideal scenario, the region’s production of wood products would stay the same. They project increased sequestration and biodiversity benefits could be achieved by growing more wood per acre, similar to levels at the Chamberlain Reynolds Memorial Forest.

As Perschel sees it, there are two different scenarios NEFF needs to address as it tries to accomplish its ambitious climate goal: small landowners and industrial landowners.

In parts of southern New England, like Connecticut and Massachusetts, Perschel said forests are actually storing a lot of carbon, but they’re not being harvested. He said that’s not a good climate or conservation outcome because those states are still consuming imported wood products without taking responsibility for doing it sustainably and locally.

Meanwhile, in northern New Hampshire and Maine, industrial landowners are routinely harvesting huge pieces of land. But these forests aren’t as productive as they could be, according to Perschel.

NEFF believes a technique called pre-commercial thinning could change that. Perschel compared this technique to weeding a garden: removing trees that aren’t growing well or won’t grow well in the future to allow strong, healthy trees to flourish, which also means they will sequester more carbon.

It’s not a new idea, but it will require time and money. Through its $30 million USDA program, NEFF can pay landowners who agree to do this.

“I learned this in forestry school 45 years ago, and I’ve worked with thousands of landowners,” Perschel said. “If they apply these practices, we know we can get the results.”

Others in the industry are watching and waiting to see those results.

Jack Savage, president of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, is among them. He views NEFF’s efforts as a positive experiment, the outcome of which is still unclear.

“They’re trying to do something good,” he said. “They’ve got a big idea that is experimental in nature and they want to see whether it works.” If pre-commercial thinning is shown to take up more carbon, he said it could have significant climate impacts since NEFF is working with large landowners.

Charles Levesque, a forester who runs a consulting firm called Innovative Natural Resource Solutions and is working on a small NEFF contract, was skeptical.

“They know on paper, this can be done,” he said. “I’m really skeptical on whether they can actually make these forests much more productive.”

With $30 million, NEFF expects to work with 80,000 acres in the region, which he called a “tiny scale.”

For Colnes and Perschel, the Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest is the kind of “productive” forest they hope to recreate elsewhere. It’s a beautiful forest, enjoyed by tens of thousands of people per year, according to Farrell, but it’s not untouched.

There, climate smart forestry looks like leaving dead trees on the landscape as habitat where woodpeckers can find insects, leaving five to 10 percent of the land open as a permanent field or early stage forest, and planning for diverse trees of different ages and species.

Farrell hopes to log it again, as soon as the crews are available and the markets are right.