Take a moment to imagine a New England in the not-too-distant future where vast and wondrous wildlands and exemplary managed woodlands together support thriving wildlife populations, sustain rural jobs, provide the raw materials to meet our housing needs, and store immense amounts of carbon.
Such a future is well within reach, but only if we put aside differences and collaborate on behalf of the forest that sustains us.
New England is the most forested region in the country and is a key part of one of the most intact temperate forests on Earth. New England forests are mostly privately owned and form a backdrop to the region’s identity and way of life.
What many don’t recognize is the huge potential for these forests to help us avoid the worst of climate change and support rich biodiversity. To reach such potential, partnerships are emerging between organizations long dedicated to forest conservation, but not always on the same page.
The work between New England Forestry Foundation and Northeast Wilderness Trust is a good example. The Wilderness Trust focuses on rewilding land through forever-wild conservation — places free from logging and allowed to grow old. The Forestry Foundation protects managed forests, and brings exemplary forestry practices to them and selectively harvests trees that provide renewable forest products.
Many assume these conservation goals clash. They do not. We know there is a better way forward by putting aside our differences and working together toward a resilient future.
Our two organizations are not alone. We are now part of a larger partnership of forest scientists, practitioners and advocates who ask the question: How can we position forests to best respond to the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity loss? The answer lies in a combined conservation approach that leaves portions of the land free from logging to maximize biological richness and carbon storage, while simultaneously introducing improved management practices everywhere else.
When we put together the carbon-storing impact of at least tripling the amount of protected wildlands combined with improved forestry practices and other similar strategies, and then model the results, the numbers are astounding. Calculations indicate we can offset 30 percent of the necessary carbon reductions for the entire New England region through this multipronged strategy. Recently, we coauthored a study with Highstead and Harvard Forest scientists that confirmed these figures.
Combined, the wildlands and managed-woodlands approaches maximize the amount of atmospheric carbon forests can store while providing the best path forward to protect the habitat wildlife requires, the places people love to recreate, and the renewable products New Englanders need. With this systems approach, we can also take our vision one step farther and use wood as a substitute for carbon-intensive building materials like concrete and steel to build tall buildings out of renewable, climate-friendly, and regionally supplied wood.
How do we get there? It won’t happen by accident. The New England Forestry Foundation recently took a huge leap forward when the USDA awarded it and its partners $30 million to pilot climate-smart forestry that produces climate-smart forest products. This funding will allow the Forestry Foundation to prove its forestry concept with the region’s 215,000 forest landowners.
At the same time, conservation organizations, policymakers and other stakeholders must rapidly identify and set aside more wildlands. Less than 4 percent of New England is currently protected as wild. We must move that number to at least 10 percent and greater if possible.
Northeast Wilderness Trust, too, recently leaped toward such a future with the establishment of the $20 million Sweet Water Fund, which will support the creation of large wildlands and the expansion of its Wildlands Partnership initiative, which provides financial support to conservation organizations that choose to adopt wildland conservation measures.
It is time to get to work, and it’s time to work together. Our two organizations are committed to doing so, working across the forest floor, tree by tree.
This commentary is by Jon Leibowitz, executive director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust, and Robert Perschel, executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.