This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

CUMBERLAND — The big, old pine isn’t good for much, at least not financially. A legacy tree from 75 years ago when the rolling woodlands in this Portland suburb were hayfields, it’s a landmark on Denny Gallaudet’s 25-acre woodlot, its spindly, branch-studded trunk reaching like fingers toward the sky.

A logging contractor might suggest felling it for softwood chips. But to Gallaudet, the misshapen pine has a higher value. By his calculations, it’s storing roughly 6 metric tons of carbon as it grows, keeping heat-trapping carbon dioxide out of Earth’s warming atmosphere.

Fires in the Amazon this summer have increased awareness of the role of rain forests in blunting climate change. Less appreciated is the carbon storage capacity of northern temperate forests, like the one covering most of Maine.

Now Gallaudet, who’s leading a team at Sierra Club Maine, is trying to figure out how the state’s small woodlot owners can be encouraged to manage their land not only for income, wildlife and recreation, but to maximize carbon sequestration. Together, these local forests have the potential to become a world-class carbon sink, Gallaudet and other activists say.

America’s northern forest covers roughly 176 million acres and its growth has been increasing, according to the most recent USDA survey, in part  because of reduced timber harvesting for the region’s contracted paper industry. By some measures, today’s forest is soaking up 1 to 2 tons of carbon per acre every year.

As the state with the highest percentage of forest land in the nation, Maine is a critical vault in this carbon bank, removing and storing 1.4 pounds of carbon for every pound emitted by burning fossil fuels. Put another way, 5.5 acres of forest can capture the annual emissions from one passenger car, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

But Gallaudet believes the small landowners who control 40 percent of Maine’s 17.6 million acres are in a unique position to do more. Collectively, they could substantially offset the CO2 emitted each year in Maine from cars, factories and energy production.

TRANSFORMATIONAL TACTICS

To get there, many small owners would need to change the way they manage their land and embrace the practices of low-impact forestry.

They’ll have to leave more big, carbon-banking trees standing, like Gallaudet’s old pine, as well as more dead trees. After a harvest, they’ll need to leave more limbs and branches on the forest floor. Both will emit carbon, of course, but slowly, as they decay over time.

Landowners also will need to employ logging methods that have less impact on the soil, where a surprising 50 percent carbon is stored. And in some instances, for some trees, they just shouldn’t do any cutting.

In the long run, this transformation will require changes in government policies and perhaps modifications to the nascent markets that offer financial rewards for storing carbon, so small owners can see value from carbon storage, just as they do from pulp, chips or saw logs.

Right now, those financial incentives are largely absent for small woodlots, which in Maine tend to be less than 500 acres.

“We’ve struggled to find a way for small owners to participate in the carbon market,” said Tom Doak, executive director of Maine Woodland Owners, whose members own a total of 500,000 acres. “We’ve looked at this for years and so far can’t make the numbers work.”

But simply increasing awareness of how forests store carbon, Doak said, can lead owners to make changes.

“There is an educational role,” he said.

EARNING CREDIT FOR CARBON

One example is an upcoming presentation on carbon-capture forestry techniques, Sept., 21 at the Common Ground Fair. It will be led by Peter Hagerty, who serves on a low-impact forestry committee with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and logs 100 acres of woodland with draft horses. Hagerty said one challenge in making the transition will be for landowners and policy makers to agree on the science behind carbon-friendly harvesting techniques and not see it as a threat to jobs and traditional logging.

“I’m hopeful that the forest industry in Maine can adapt,” he said.

Managing woodlands for carbon capture isn’t an entirely new idea. Some leading environmental groups with a presence in Maine, as well as the Passamaquoddy Tribe, have been pioneers in what’s known as the carbon offsets markets.

Based largely in California, these markets require a landowner to maintain a certified level of carbon storage, typically for 100 years. In exchange, they get a given price-per-ton, which recently stood around $15. That’s comparable to what they might get paid for stumpage, or timber sales. The credits are sold under what’s called a cap-and-trade arrangement with utilities or petroleum companies, which buy them to offset their emissions and meet state mandates.

In 2012, the Downeast Lakes Land Trust completed the nation’s first carbon credit sale. It finished a second project in 2016, earning millions of dollars to buy additional land for its conservation objectives around Grand Lake Stream. Similar sales have been done by the Appalachian Mountain Club and The Nature Conservancy. These projects total more than 200,000 acres.

Maine’s large, commercial timberland owners so far haven’t embraced this model. In 2017, the Keeping Maine’s Forest collaborative group surveyed several land managers and found that while they had explored the California market, they are holding off for now.

The group’s report found: “While the up‐front payout from carbon credits can be substantial and a good way to diversify income from forest land, the land managers found the costs, risks, and the 100‐year commitment required by carbon projects not worthwhile at current credit prices.”

These cost and time commitments present major hurdles for small owners. Gallaudet, a former bank president, estimated it would cost him $15,000 to have his woodlot’s carbon storage certified to meet California standards, or even the less-valuable Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative standards in the Northeast.

“To my knowledge,” Gallaudet said, “there are no lead certifiers in Maine either for California or RGGI. If small Maine landowners chose to forgo timber sales in favor of banking carbon, they currently have no way of monetizing the value they are creating in the form of sequestered metric tons of CO2.”

CAREFUL STEWARDSHIP 

Denny Gallaudet uses low-impact forestry techniques to preserve as much of his woodlot’s carbon storage as he can. He estimates his 25-acre lot has 39 tons of carbon per acre stored in its trees. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Gallaudet changed his management practices voluntarily; he thinks it’s the right thing to do. He worked with a forestry consultant, who helped with the details. On a recent tour of his woodlot, Gallaudet highlighted some of the techniques he’s using.

Gallaudet’s old farm includes a mixed stand of softwoods such as pine and hemlock, and hardwoods including, oak, maple and birch. The land is hilly and bisected by a small brook.

Protecting the soil is a top priority. Gallaudet cuts four cords of firewood each year to help heat his home, and occasional saw logs, if a stand gets crowded. He uses a small Massey Ferguson tractor with rubber tires that don’t chew up the forest floor. He works when it’s dry in the fall. Shallow ruts are barely visible below the leaf litter, along an opening where he pulled out logs using a skidding winch mounted on the rear.

Entering the woodlot, dappled sunlight lit the forest. Overhead, Gallaudet pointed to the tree canopy. He’s careful not to cut too many trees in one place, which would let the soil dry out.

During a conventional logging operation on a family woodlot, it’s not unusual to clean up the branches and limbs left over from a harvest, to open the forest floor. Maybe they’re sold to be burned in a biomass energy plant. Gallaudet keeps the slash, taking the time to create brush piles here and there across his land. They’ll decompose slowly, providing homes for wildlife today and, in time, nutrients for the forest.

FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

On a knoll, orange flagging tape is tied around trees in a sample plot, noting trunks more than 4 inches in diameter. That’s a first step in estimating the volume or weight of a tree and how much carbon a forest can store, based on its species and other factors. Carbon calculators, such as one linked on the website of the Francis Small Heritage Trust in Limerick, make the task easier.

Big hardwoods are denser and store the most carbon. Older stands capture more than new growth. Gallaudet’s calculations show that his woodlot holds roughly 39 tons of carbon per acre, nearly eight times the carbon footprint of his home and small farm.

Maine small landowners could join forces to maximize carbon storage and combine their acreage to take advantage of the offset markets, at least in theory. But the existing markets don’t recognize so-called aggregation, so Sierra Club Maine and other advocates will be looking at other options in the months ahead.

One idea could be to expand Maine’s Tree Growth Tax, the 47-year-old law that reduces property taxes for owners who keep at least 10 acres in commercial timberland. But there are high financial penalties for removing land from the program, and Doak said the rules are constantly under assault by interest groups trying to modify them. He wonders if the Farm and Open Space Tax law, which values land at less than fair market value if certain requirements are met, might be a better vehicle.

Another model could be the credits that some major corporations use to offset their power consumption, by getting a percentage of their energy from wind power, for instance. Hagerty foresees the possibility of Maine companies partnering with small woodlot owners, buying local credits to offset their carbon footprint.

“In a state where people know each other well, that could be possible,” he said.

Tomorrow: Island dangers

 

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