Portland Press Herald

Commentary: Maine’s forests can protect our global climate, grow our local economy

Dec. 17, 2022

Forest management as a climate-mitigation tool was on top of the discussion list as the world gathered in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27 climate talks. Maine’s vast acres of working forest present significant real-world opportunity, where changes in forestry practices could store a great deal of carbon. Some people think the only way for forests and trees to help mitigate climate is to leave them alone. While old-growth forests and wilderness areas are critical to the planet’s biodiversity, forests offer other critically important ways of mitigating climate change.

Our forest-based climate solutions need to incorporate at least three objectives: protecting our planet’s biological heritage, providing for our human populations and mitigating and adapting to the worst effects of a changing climate. Can we protect and manage our forests differently to accomplish all three objectives?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” That is why Andrea Colnes, one of New England Forestry Foundation’s conservation-finance and climate-mitigation experts, was at COP27 working with other New England representatives to explain our path forward and learn from others around the world. Andrea has been part of a team that analyzed the potential to improve forestry in Maine and other parts of northern New England to both store more carbon in the forest and produce more wood for use in products to build tall wood buildings. The results show our forests have an astounding potential to provide 30% of the region’s necessary carbon reductions over the next 30 years. New England Forestry Foundation calls this our 30 Percent Solution, and it has a lot of support.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that forests are key to limiting warming to even 2 degrees Celsius, and that shifting to climate-aligned forest management practices is an important nature-based climate mitigation strategy. A Yale University paper reveals how building tall structures out of engineered wood products called mass timber could dramatically reduce climate change. A 2022 Harvard University and Highstead Foundation study details how five separate forest pathways, including improving forest management and protecting wildlands, could have a benefit in the same range of New England Forestry Foundation’s 30 Percent Solution. Modeling from University of Maine forest scientists indicates improved forestry could provide benefits in the range of the 30 Percent Solution.

A key report will be released in the next few months with finer detail about which practices are useful and at what cost. Maine’s forest products and improved forest management are critical to climate mitigation. Consider what life would be like without wood products.

Imagine replacing everything made from forest products with other materials, and the only option is to end up using more climate-polluting materials. But here is perhaps the most vivid example of why we need to use more climate-friendly products: While there are currently about 8 billion people on the planet, the population trends indicate there will be almost 2 billion more in the next several decades. This growth, along with general economic growth and urbanization trends, means the world will need materials sufficient to build the equivalent of one New York City every month for the next 40 years. If we do so with carbon-intensive products like concrete, steel and plastic, we don’t have a chance of mitigating climate change. The only viable, readily and widely available alternative building material is wood.

We’ve uncovered clear pathways for Maine’s forests to participate in mitigating global climate change. That is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave New England Forestry Foundation and our Maine and New England partners a $30 million award this September to pilot and prove the validity of climate-smart forestry approaches on 80,000 acres and to build the market for climate-smart forest products.

We’ll use that money to help the region’s forest landowners – family, commercial and Indigenous owners – step up to the climate challenge and lead the country and world on implementing forest-based climate solutions.


Robert Perschel is executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation, and Alec Giffen is a senior forest science and policy fellow at the foundation.