Portland Press Herald

Owners of Maine’s carbon-sponge forests asked to do more to blunt climate change

Sep. 26, 2021
Tony Marple stands on Sept. 8, 2021, in an area of forest on his Whitefield farm that he thinned in 2019 to encourage maple, oak and birch trees to mature, not for use as saw logs but for their carbon storage potential.

Tony Marple stands on Sept. 8, 2021, in an area of forest on his Whitefield farm that he thinned in 2019 to encourage maple, oak and birch trees to mature, not for use as saw logs but for their carbon storage potential. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

WHITEFIELD — Dappled sunlight illuminated the forest floor where Tony Marple had thinned a thick stand of aspen, oak, birch and maple two winters ago. The land had been clearcut by a former owner and was emerging after 20 years into a thick tangle.

Marple wanted to open up the woods to the sun and encourage select maple, oak and birch to mature. He wasn’t especially interested in the saw logs the trees could become in 30-plus years, but in something even more valuable to him: carbon storage.

“I don’t claim to be an expert at this,” Marple said during a recent tour to explain his efforts to blunt climate change by storing more carbon on his farm’s 132 acres of woodland.

Marple may not be an expert in carbon sequestration, the term for capturing and storing carbon dioxide in plants, soils and the ocean. But in many respects, he’s already in sync with draft recommendations from a state task force charged with developing incentives to encourage small to midsize forest owners to manage their land in ways that increase carbon storage.

Trees cover nearly 90 percent of Maine. They act as a giant carbon sponge, sucking up an estimated 60 percent of the state’s CO2 emissions from cars, buildings and factories. Once harvested, the wood stores another 15 percent in forest products such as lumber.

But as extreme weather makes the impact of a warming planet more apparent and immediate, policymakers say that’s not good enough.

They wonder: What changes in management practices could sequester more carbon on Maine’s 17.6 million acres of forestland? What technical assistance or financial incentives would be needed to make it happen as soon as possible?

These questions are being studied now on two fronts.

One is through a state-mandated task force focused on woodland owners of between 10 and 10,000 acres. The group has issued a draft report and is finalizing a version for Gov. Janet Mills, who established the Task Force on Creation of a Forest Carbon Program last year via executive order. This action was called for in the state’s Climate Action Plan, which seeks to cut climate-changing emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

The second effort is a research project aimed at large timberland owners, mostly in the working forests of northern and eastern Maine. It’s being overseen by John Hagan, chairman of the Maine Climate Table, a group of organizations and individuals working on climate change initiatives.

The project is called Forest Carbon for Commercial Landowners and revolves around two lines of inquiry: Can large commercial forest landowners in Maine store more carbon in the forest and in forest products while maintaining harvest rates? And if so, how might changes in landowner behavior be incentivized?

Those parallel undertakings are still evolving, but it’s already clear from discussions with study participants and a look at Maine’s forest demographics that aspirations to actively increase forest carbon storage will face steep challenges.

For one thing, Maine’s forests and natural landscapes are under pressure in the current real estate boom. State officials estimate that 10,000 or so acres of forest and farmland are lost each year to development. At a minimum, strategies are needed to maintain the existing resource, especially in southern Maine, where the pressure is greatest.

One measure identified by the task force is to review Maine’s open space tax law. The law reduces the fair market value of property if certain attributes are maintained, such as providing public access. While the law does offer a 10 percent land value reduction for forest management, it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s and doesn’t address carbon storage.

Tony Marple stands on Sept. 8 in a field on his Whitefield farm, where he thinned forestland, seen at left in this photo, two years ago to encourage maple, oak and birch trees to mature. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer


Complicating any strategy are the diverse and scattered priorities of the under-10,000-acre owners.

The task force cited survey data showing that 86,000 or so Mainers – mostly families – own roughly 4 million acres. Six out of 10 of those owners are at least 65 years old. Only a quarter of the total have any forest management plan. Nearly half own their land primarily for its natural or recreational value.

Here’s an ownership group that’s older and not highly engaged in forest management. And yet, this group accounts for at least 24 percent of the state’s annual wood harvest, the task force estimated.

To ramp up carbon sequestration, those landowners would need to manage land more intensely to make trees grow faster. They’d need to delay harvests so trees can mature. Bigger trees store more carbon and eventually can be turned into products that store carbon over the long term, such as building materials.

By Tux Turkel, Staff Writer