WHITEFIELD — Dappled sunlight illuminated the forest floor where Tony Marple had thinned a thick stand of aspen, oak, birch and maple two winters ago. The land had been clearcut by a former owner and was emerging after 20 years into a thick tangle.

Marple wanted to open up the woods to the sun and encourage select maple, oak and birch to mature. He wasn’t especially interested in the saw logs the trees could become in 30-plus years, but in something even more valuable to him: carbon storage.

“I don’t claim to be an expert at this,” Marple said during a recent tour to explain his efforts to blunt climate change by storing more carbon on his farm’s 132 acres of woodland.

Marple may not be an expert in carbon sequestration, the term for capturing and storing carbon dioxide in plants, soils and the ocean. But in many respects, he’s already in sync with draft recommendations from a state task force charged with developing incentives to encourage small to midsize forest owners to manage their land in ways that increase carbon storage.

Trees cover nearly 90 percent of Maine. They act as a giant carbon sponge, sucking up an estimated 60 percent of the state’s CO2 emissions from cars, buildings and factories. Once harvested, the wood stores another 15 percent in forest products such as lumber.But as extreme weather makes the impact of a warming planet more apparent and immediate, policymakers say that’s not good enough.

They wonder: What changes in management practices could sequester more carbon on Maine’s 17.6 million acres of forestland? What technical assistance or financial incentives would be needed to make it happen as soon as possible?

These questions are being studied now on two fronts.

One is through a state-mandated task force focused on woodland owners of between 10 and 10,000 acres. The group has issued a draft report and is finalizing a version for Gov. Janet Mills, who established the Task Force on Creation of a Forest Carbon Program last year via executive order. This action was called for in the state’s Climate Action Plan, which seeks to cut climate-changing emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

The second effort is a research project aimed at large timberland owners, mostly in the working forests of northern and eastern Maine. It’s being overseen by John Hagan, chairman of the Maine Climate Table, a group of organizations and individuals working on climate change initiatives.

The project is called Forest Carbon for Commercial Landowners and revolves around two lines of inquiry: Can large commercial forest landowners in Maine store more carbon in the forest and in forest products while maintaining harvest rates? And if so, how might changes in landowner behavior be incentivized?

Those parallel undertakings are still evolving, but it’s already clear from discussions with study participants and a look at Maine’s forest demographics that aspirations to actively increase forest carbon storage will face steep challenges.

For one thing, Maine’s forests and natural landscapes are under pressure in the current real estate boom. State officials estimate that 10,000 or so acres of forest and farmland are lost each year to development. At a minimum, strategies are needed to maintain the existing resource, especially in southern Maine, where the pressure is greatest.

One measure identified by the task force is to review Maine’s open space tax law. The law reduces the fair market value of property if certain attributes are maintained, such as providing public access. While the law does offer a 10 percent land value reduction for forest management, it hasn’t been updated since the 1970s and doesn’t address carbon storage.

Tony Marple stands on Sept. 8 in a field on his Whitefield farm, where he thinned forestland, seen at left in this photo, two years ago to encourage maple, oak and birch trees to mature. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

BIG LIFT FOR SMALL LANDOWNERS

Complicating any strategy are the diverse and scattered priorities of the under-10,000-acre owners.

The task force cited survey data showing that 86,000 or so Mainers – mostly families – own roughly 4 million acres. Six out of 10 of those owners are at least 65 years old. Only a quarter of the total have any forest management plan. Nearly half own their land primarily for its natural or recreational value.

Here’s an ownership group that’s older and not highly engaged in forest management. And yet, this group accounts for at least 24 percent of the state’s annual wood harvest, the task force estimated.

To ramp up carbon sequestration, those landowners would need to manage land more intensely to make trees grow faster. They’d need to delay harvests so trees can mature. Bigger trees store more carbon and eventually can be turned into products that store carbon over the long term, such as building materials.

To put a rough number on the challenge, the task force plugged in U.S. Forest Service data with estimates that include the size of trees and the stocking levels, a relative way to measure growth potential on an acre. An overstocked stand, for instance, is too crowded to encourage mature tree growth and maximize carbon storage. The task force estimated that better management on 1.5 million acres could increase storage by 20 percent over current levels, although the transition could take 30 years.

Reaching out to this group will require “dedicated, boots-on-the-ground landowner education,” the task force concluded. It suggested hiring a forest carbon specialist to help coordinate technical assistance within the Maine Forest Service.

“There’s a lot of interest,” said Tom Doak, executive director of Maine Woodland Owners, a statewide member group. “The vast majority of landowners know the climate is changing. They see it on their properties, whether it’s ticks or trees leafing out earlier.”

Doak, who serves on the state task force and is a former Maine Forest Service director, said the advanced age of many owners and pending turnover present new possibilities.

“There’s a next generation of landowners that’s coming on rapidly,” he said. “There’s an opportunity to talk to these folks about carbon.”

But whether and how to manage forestland often comes down to money.

On Sept. 8, Tony Marple steps off the porch of his house, which has 22 solar panels on it, on the farm he and his wife, Marianne, run in Whitefield. They also have solar panels on their barn and a third building on the farm. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

Money is not a big motivator for Marple, a retired hospital executive, to better manage his land. He and his wife, Marianne, aren’t dependent on income from their woodlot.

The couple cultivates 30 acres of blueberries on their High Meadow Farm, an award-winning family agriculture operation set amid rolling hills east of Gardiner. The small hardwood trees that Marple thins to improve his stands become firewood to help heat the farmhouse. Fir and spruce boughs he culls get piled up in the woods for wildlife habitat.

But as the task force noted, roughly a third of Maine family woodland owners do see their trees as an important economic asset. Roughly 14 percent of them harvest as a supplemental source of income.

The task force also highlighted the need to identify markets that can use low-grade wood, the small trees thinned to make way for more-robust growth. Those markets can provide owners with a financial incentive not to sell their land for other uses.

The draft report didn’t get into it, but Maine’s markets for lower-grade wood have been battered in recent years.

Six mills that produced pulp or paper in Maine closed over the past two decades. The 2020 explosion involving a key piece of equipment at a mill in Jay erased another market for low-grade pulpwood. At the same time, biomass plants that burn low-grade wood to make electricity have closed or cut back production in the face of natural gas prices and stricter regulations.

One encouraging trend may offer financial rewards for woodland owners who up their storage game: carbon offsets. Markets are evolving in which landowners earn credits for the carbon they store, which are then purchased by corporations and other greenhouse gas emitters to offset their own emissions.

Maine has 15 or so carbon market projects underway. But the rules around those markets are complicated and cost-prohibitive, especially for most small, private landowners. Doak’s organization is exploring the potential of grouping together small parcels to participate in carbon offsets. The task force notes that its co-chairs have been in contact with colleagues in other Northeast states about the potential for a regional forest carbon market.

The Golden Road cuts through forestland in Maine’s North Woods. Trees cover about 90 percent of Maine and act as a giant sponge, absorbing an estimated 60 percent of Maine’s carbon emissions. A research project is looking into whether large commercial landowners in Maine can increase carbon storage in the forest and forest products while maintaining tree harvest rates. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

FOREST INDUSTRY BUY-IN REQUIRED

The task force also recommends exploring partnerships with large owners, such as those involved with the Forest Carbon for Commercial Landowners. That group’s buy-in is pivotal to any hope of moving the needle on carbon storage. The reason is obvious – they own and actively manage 10 million acres.

“Our group is intentionally focused on large commercial forests because of the economics of scale,” according to Hagan, the study group’s chairman, “and because, to date, the existing carbon markets have only enrolled about 3.5 percent of this commercial forestland base.”

Hagan’s group includes representatives from Irving Woodlands, Baskahegan Co., Wagner Forest Management, The Nature Conservancy and the University of Maine. It’s exploring what large owners could do differently to store more carbon while maintaining economic harvest rates. The exercise involves complex computer modeling. Results aren’t expected until later this fall.

“If we figure out that we can accelerate carbon storage in the forest and in forest products, such as dimensional lumber, then we hope to create incentives for forest landowners to change their management strategies,” Hagan said.

Those incentives could range from tax policy to carbon-offset markets, but they are sure to revolve around money and returns on investment.

“As a society, we want all sorts of things from our forests,” said Alec Giffin, senior forest science and policy fellow at the New England Forestry Foundation. “But the only thing we pay for is timber. The question is, do we as a society want to compensate landowners for practicing climate-friendly management?”

It’s a big question, according to Giffin, a former Maine Forest Service director who’s participating in both the large landowner and state task force efforts. Maine has too many trees per acre, he said. Millions of acres need so-called improvement cuts to cull the small, low-value trees and encourage optimum stocking levels. The biggest opportunities lie in the vast northern commercial forests, Giffin said, which have low stocking levels but active, engaged management.

Commercial landowners could grow more wood and store more carbon, agreed Tom Colgan, chairman and chief executive at Wagner Forest Management. The company manages 900,000 acres in Maine, and Colgan is working on the research project with Hagan.

But supply already exceeds demand, Colgan noted, primarily due to the recent market declines. So outside of offsets, there’s no financial reason to grow more wood. And even if demand picks up, pre-commercial thinning – the practice of culling small trees to increase spacing – involves time and money.

“It costs money for a return that won’t come back until 30 to 40 years later,” he said.

Aerial view of a forest area in the North Woods on July 20. Commercial forestland covers 10 million acres of Maine, much of it managed for clients who expect a return on investment. Those landowners would need financial incentives to delay harvests or grow more wood to store more carbon. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

As the forest carbon efforts proceed, one dilemma is clear: Climate change is an urgent threat, but growing trees takes time.

Marple has contemplated this quandary on his land. He knows the giant red oak standing at the edge of his farm field sequesters a lot of carbon over time. But he wonders about which trees can store it more quickly. That calculus informs the trees he thins and the 40 or so new trees he planted this year on his property, including bur oak, which may be more drought-resistant in a warming world.

Marple takes a holistic approach to cutting carbon, for today and tomorrow. He’s reducing the farm’s footprint with solar-electric panels and a plug-in hybrid car.

At 74, Marple also takes the long view. Next to the farmhouse is a large sugar maple he planted in the 1980s. Along the road, he recently added four sugar maple saplings for the next generation.

“I have three granddaughters,” he said. “I’m worried about them.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.