Portland Press Herald

Pilot program will pay Maine’s big forest owners to increase carbon storage

Jul. 11, 2024

Penelope Overton

The foundation estimates the 12,000 enrolled acres have the potential to store an additional 250,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide through the adoption of climate-smart practices.

The New England Forestry Foundation is about to conduct a carbon experiment in the Maine woods.

The Massachusetts-based nonprofit is dipping into a $30 million U.S. Department of Agriculture climate grant to develop an incentive program to pay commercial forest owners to adopt planting and harvesting methods that increase carbon storage and climate resiliency.

The six first-round enrollees, all from Maine, will test out so-called “climate-smart” forestry practices on about 12,000 of their combined 2.4 million acres. If they earn less because of it, the foundation will cover 75% of that lost profit if it is the result of a change in management practice.

If managed properly, NEFF estimates that 12,000 acres could store 250,000 metric tons of extra carbon.

“We now understand how important Maine forestlands are to a climate solution,” said Robert Perschel, the foundation’s executive director. “We believe, no, we know they represent a vast opportunity to store more carbon and represent the key to meeting New England’s climate goals.”

After a dozen years of research and modeling, NEFF believes sustainable practices could turn the woods of New England into an even greener carbon sink, capable of absorbing up to 646 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2050. That’s a third of what the region must cut to meet its net-zero goals.

“It’s a big number, but it’s a big opportunity,” Perschel said. “On paper, this should work. We’re one year into testing our model with smaller family-owned woodlots. This program is all about achieving proof of concept for the large commercial forest owners.”

Maine has vowed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. Last month, the Department of Environmental Protection announced it was 91% of the way toward meeting that goal, largely because state forests are absorbing 22.2 million tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Eking more carbon storage from Maine forests, which cover 89% of the state, will help it reach net zero.

The first-round recipients are:

  • Baskahegan Company of Brookton manages 100,000 acres in the Downeast region.
  • Clayton Lake Woodlands manages 323,000 acres in northern and eastern Maine.
  • Fallen Timber LLC manages 481,000 acres in the northern part of the state.
  • Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands manages 630,000 acres across the state.
  • Robbins Lumber Company of Searsmont manages 30,000 acres in Midcoast and Downeast Maine.
  • Seven Islands Land Company manages 819,000 acres in northern and western Maine.

The sustainable practices the participants have agreed to try range from planting more climate-resilient species of trees, to thinning out unusable saplings to favor a tree species more likely to be turned into the carbon-storing beam of a house than to toilet paper, to protecting legacy trees.

By carefully choosing which trees to cut, commercial forest owners can increase wood production while creating a healthier forest with a diverse range of ages and sizes. These remaining trees will provide key wildlife habitat and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, storing it in their trunks and roots.

And when it is eventually cut, as the foundation accepts most actively managed stands will be? Better to be the beam in a house, which will lock that carbon away for a century or two, or even used as fuel, since wood offers a renewable option to steel, concrete and coal in construction and energy.

This approach requires a balancing act, but the foundation agrees with foresters that cutting trees is not inherently harmful. When done right, Pershel argues, sustainable forestry can replace products made by burning fossil fuels and create healthier forests that can store more carbon.

There’s still a lot for the foundation and commercial forest companies to work out, especially how much the different “climate-smart” practices decrease profit margins compared to existing practices. The cost differential could vary from site to site and change as the forest product market fluctuates.

And then there’s the biggest unknown of all: How much does each climate-smart method really increase carbon storage above what the commercial forester was already doing, and are the extra steps worth what they get paid for it? The USDA wants to achieve as much carbon storage for its buck as possible.

Carbon payments can probably help defend Maine’s forests from development, maintain their existing capacity for absorbing carbon and encourage big and small forest owners to improve stewardship, said Andy Whitman, a climate and carbon specialist with the Maine Forest Service.

“It’s a grand experiment, and we’re all waiting to see the results,” Whitman said. “It has the potential to keep forests as forests and make the forests healthier, both good, especially given the changing climate. But it’s about if the atmosphere will see something better and how much? That’s the big question.”

However, carbon payments are not without controversy, Whitman said. Skeptics question the value of using public money to pay some private landowners and companies for something they were already doing and rewarding others who weren’t doing what they should have been doing, Whitman said.

But those are values-laden doubts about the concept, not scientific ones, Whitman said.

The program will be successful if even some of the incentive payments result in small increases in per-acre carbon storage because those small increases add up when multiplied across millions of acres of forestlands, said Oregon State University silviculture professor John Bailey.

Bailey, whose research focuses on using traditional and experimental silviculture practices to achieve commodity production, habitat creation, and ecosystem restoration, said most environmentalists and industry advocates would condone the foundation’s list of climate-smart practices, at least in theory.

“It’s not greenwashing,” Bailey said. “These are pretty progressive and thoughtful things in here. When my colleagues and I get together, and we ride around looking at research sites, these practices are what we talk about. This is the future.”