Hartford Courant

Robert Perschel: How we manage forests could be crucial to climate change

Oct. 19, 2022

I’ve spent more than four decades studying forests, dedicating the home stretch of my career as a forester and advocate for conservation to working on how we can use forests to help solve climate change. Changes in how we manage forests and use wood — some of the least-discussed climate solutions — could deliver huge benefits. It’s especially important in Connecticut, where forests support over 16,000 jobs and $4 billion in economic activity.

For as much attention as the Inflation Reduction Act has gotten for its investment in things like electric vehicles, I believe it has just as much potential to help our climate by unlocking the enormous opportunity to increase carbon storage through improved forest management and in long-lived wood products.

Too often in America, we’ve managed forests through extremes — letting them be clear-cut or totally ignoring them until a crisis strikes. Part of the disconnect is because many folks look at forests and think they’re seeing an untouched landscape; however, New England’s forests bear human fingerprints everywhere. These human interactions can either be responsible for forests’ decline or for their restoration, as both natural ecosystems and carbon-storage powerhouses.

Practicing sustainable forestry not only guides the periodic harvesting of timber for human needs, but can also maintain long-term forest health and protect wildlife habitat by shaping how we influence forests over time in the context of a rapidly changing climate.

Analysis from the New England Forestry Foundation, one of America’s largest land trusts, shows that a holistic approach to forest management and climate mitigation in New England forests could keep more than 646 million metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere over the next 30 years. This represents nearly one-third of the total energy-related CO2 emissions reductions needed across New England by 2050.

Managing forests can give trees room to grow so they can store more carbon while improving forest health and wildlife habitat for many species. In addition, the climate-smart wood produced by this harvesting can be turned into long-lived products, including renewable building materials that can substitute for carbon-intensive steel and concrete and yield substantial climate gains. Called mass timber, this new generation of wood products has a smaller up-front carbon footprint and can store carbon for decades, making it a powerful part of the climate solution. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report cited wood building products’ “substantial potential to reduce net emissions.”

The Inflation Reduction Act encourages climate-smart forestry through several mechanisms:

The $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund provides low-cost financing to forestland owners to implement carbon-aligned forest management.

The $300 million infusion to the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act provides direct payments to large and small forestland owners to sequester and store more carbon in their forests.

$700 million in funding for the Forest Legacy Program will protect millions of acres of forests from loss and development.

All of this complements the new $2.7 billion USDA Climate-Smart Commodities program, piloting climate-smart forestry to produce climate-smart wood and drive greenhouse gas reductions. The program has just awarded $30 million to the New England Forestry Foundation and our partners to help forest landowners implement climate-smart forest practices that also protect ecosystem health and biodiversity. The partnership includes more than 20 companies, organizations and institutions from across New England that represent forest-related industries and have climate interests at the forefront of their concerns. The proposal is also strongly supported by New England’s congressional delegation.

U.S. forests are climate-change mitigation powerhouses that already capture more than 10% of our nation’s carbon emissions each year, and they have the potential to do more. As our Western forests on public lands face catastrophic wildfires, America’s privately owned forestlands offer powerful climate resilience and carbon-capture mitigation opportunities. The US EPA 2022 Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks 1990-2020 shows that 84% of our current carbon storage is happening on private forestlands.

Forest management that is climate smart also would underpin much-needed economic opportunity. In New England, forests contribute more than $13 billion annually to local and regional economies and sustain over 50,000 jobs in the woods, mills and supporting services. Professional foresters are learning how to plan for the impacts of climate change on our forests, and developing practices to keep our woods healthy and productive.

Technologists talk about creating machines that suck carbon out of the air. We already have them. There are currently 31.7 billion carbon-sucking trees in New England. We just need to care for them to maximize this natural function. As we do so, we can help ensure the growth of the next generation of these trees — and the future of our forests.

Robert Perschel is executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation.