Learning to be good stewards of our forestland

By Ted Watt For the Gazette
January 4, 2020

My partner, Dave, and I are fortunate: We own just under 200 contiguous acres of forest in the hilltowns of western Franklin County. As we explore the land, we’re coming to love it — large white pines on the west slope, stunted black oaks on the ridge, bobcat tracks on top of the higher outcrops, and a couple of small, ecologically rich pockets of wildflowers.

We have a lot of deer — two years ago, we found extensive pawing through the first snows in December as they foraged for buried acorns. We’ve visited some seriously roughed-up red pines that the black bears regularly use for signal trees. As we come to know this land better, we also wrestle with what it means to be stewards of forested land these days. We want to do the right thing.

From some who would create a solar farm to others who want to hunt, from paintball warriors to snowmobilers to hikers and skiers, we’ve come to understand more deeply that people can view forests in divergent ways. But what’s right for us?

We filed for and were accepted under the Massachusetts Forest Tax Program, Chapter 61 designation. In return for working with local foresters and wood producers to inventory, mark and eventually cut trees, we receive a significant reduction in our town real estate taxes. The tax reduction is very helpful. And earning some income from the timber products would be good for our budget.

anslatadams/via Flickr anslatadams/via Flickr

But cutting the trees is difficult for me to imagine. I know we all use wood, but this land has other important values for me. It is part of my support system; I touch Earth here in a different way. There is an innate integrity here, a peace, a deep relaxation, surrounded by beauties. The forest would grow new trees, yes. But what lasting changes would cutting create? I tend toward preservation and doing nothing. Is there another way we can retain those values while meeting our financial needs?

In our quest to find the right path, we recently attended the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association’s Common Ground Fair. It’s truly a celebration of all things rural. While there we discovered Low Impact Forestry, a small group of foresters, landowners, loggers and scientists teaching about forest carbon — the carbon captured through photosynthesis and stored in the trees and soil — and how it can be economically valued. They discussed the concept of producing forest products while simultaneously storing carbon.

Could this be true? Have our thinking and our economics progressed to this point?

This approach incorporates what I have intuitively felt for years but couldn’t articulate very well: Forests provide a wide range of essential ecosystem services supporting life on this planet. And these services can be economically valued.

One way of valuing them is through carbon offset sales. A carbon offset is an amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is reduced, avoided or sequestered to compensate for CO2 emissions happening somewhere else. These offsets are bought and sold under a regulatory system known as cap-and-trade.

Dave and I spoke with Mark Berry, from The Nature Conservancy’s Maine office. He helped put together Maine’s first carbon offset sale — nearly 20,000 acres of the Downeast Lakes Land Trust’s holdings in far eastern Maine — back in 2012. Since then there have been a handful of others: the Appalachian Mountain Club has a 10,000-acre project in the Katahdin Iron Works region and Maine’s Passamaquoddy Tribe has registered a 98,000-acre project.

Who would have thought — getting paid for conserving land and channeling these funds into more land protection work! Mark explained that a forest carbon project needs to be of a certain magnitude in order to be listed on the California Air Resources Board’s cap-and-trade carbon offsets market. Ours is too small, but Mark said people are looking into ways of aggregating smaller parcels into something salable.

Through our own research, we discovered organizations seeking to promote viewing forests as carbon reservoirs. The Forest-Climate Working Group represents government agencies, landowners, forest products, conservation and wildlife groups, academics and carbon finance experts. They promote the role of the forest as a climate solution. Also, a start-up enterprise, Forest Carbon Works, is seeking to do just what we had learned about in Maine: Aggregate smaller, preserved, forested parcels into a project large enough to make it onto California’s carbon market.

As we understand it, landowners have to agree to legally preserve their forests for 100 years. And all forest lands in the project, contiguous or not, need to be inventoried for stored carbon. And then projections are made about how much carbon will be sequestered in each forest going forward.

This is a work in progress. We’re continuing to learn about responsible forest stewardship and carbon sequestration. We’re wrestling with what it would mean for our forest if we moved toward producing forest products that are truly sustainable. And we’re exploring how our forest can promote deeper connections with nature into the future. We’d love to hear from readers who have any experience or questions related to our efforts.

Ted Watt is an educator/naturalist at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. He can be reached at ted@hitchcockcenter.org. He especially wishes to thank Dave Gott for his help and support in preparing this column. For more information about the Low Impact Forestry Program, go to mofga.org/programs/low-impact-forestry. To learn more about the Forest-Climate Working Group, visit americanforests.org/our-work/fcwg. Forest Carbon Works’ website is forestcarbonworks.org.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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