PORTLAND – With the U.S. Senate ready to tackle energy and climate legislation, some Mainers may question whether we can afford to address this complex issue in the face of high unemployment and a difficult economy.

The good news is that Maine can help respond to climate change and help our economy by tapping the carbon capture and storage capacity in Maine’s vast forests.

The climate bill contains a new program that will create financial incentives for Maine’s forest industry and private forest owners to protect stored carbon and increase carbon uptake on their lands.

Maine’s thousands of private forest owners can play a significant role in addressing the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates America’s forests and other rural lands currently absorb 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions each year, with potential to increase this to 25 percent with the right incentives.

According to a paper by Duke University researchers, that extra 10 percentage-point reduction would have the same carbon-reducing impact as changing every car in the United States to a hybrid!

Paying landowners to adopt enhanced forest practices will be good for Maine’s economy and climate change.

According to a 2009 study by Forest2Market, Maine’s private forests support 51,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs. Carbon incentive payments will enable forest owners to invest in timber stand improvement, low-impact harvest practices, and other strategies that enhance forest health and productivity while also increasing carbon storage.

For instance, with improved thinning practices and equipment landowners can generate more biomass material and manage for higher value trees. This means less climate-warming carbon in the atmosphere and more forest products. The net result will be more jobs in the woods for Mainers and more sustainable revenue streams for forest owners.

Maine’s forests are also attractive to developers — but every time we develop our forests, stored forest carbon is released and potential for future carbon absorption from that forest is lost. Developing our forests also hurts Maine’s economy through lost timber production and reduced opportunities for recreation, including hunting and fishing, which support our state’s tourism industry.

Conserving Maine’s private forests from development with conservation easements for working lands is another “win-win” for responding to climate change and helping Maine’s economic recovery.

Maine’s U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have proposed a new program as part of energy and climate legislation that would capture this unique overlap of environmental and economic interests.

The Carbon Conservation Program pays landowners on a per acre basis for taking steps to protect stored carbon and to increase carbon storage beyond usual levels.

Payments reward forest practices like timber stand improvement that increase the overall size and vitality of the trees, and thereby store more carbon. Landowners can also apply for funding to place their lands under a conservation easement to protect their forests from development, thereby protecting stored carbon and future carbon absorption.

The Carbon Conservation Program would particularly help small landowners likely to be kept out of carbon offset markets due to the high entry costs for those markets.

The Maine Forest Service and private sector sustainable management programs such as the American Tree Farm System could quickly and efficiently enroll family woodland owners in the Carbon Conservation Program, helping landowners identify the right forest carbon practices for their property and develop a management plan that also maintains other important outputs, including timber and other forest products.

Because of the influence of Sens. Snowe and Collins, the Carbon Conservation Program has become a central fixture of proposed energy and climate legislation. Now the real struggle will be for a share of the resources that will be generated by the government’s sale of carbon emissions permits.

The earlier version of the Senate climate bill that cleared out of committee last fall allocated $600 million annually for forest and agriculture carbon incentives, but the newest version of the climate bill does not provide this dedicated funding.

As fellow advocates for Maine’s forests, we understand the economic challenges that all private forest owners face each day and the real impacts on our forests and our way of life if we don’t respond to climate change.

It’s time to embrace a new way of thinking about our forests and climate change by advancing innovative solutions like the Carbon Conservation Program that will help keep Maine’s people and forests thriving.