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A Renewed Focus on Forestry

  • Out of Cobb Hill Co-housing's 270 acres, 180 are forested, and as a member of the cooperative's forestry committee, Bill Stack helps manage the woods with the goal of improving its health and diversity. Part of that management includes preserving and encouraging the growth of larger trees that hold more carbon. Stack measures the height of a bigtooth aspen with a rangefinder in Hartland, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Stack, right, measures a bigtooth aspen tree to see if it beat the size record for the Vermont Big Tree List with fellow Cobb Hill resident Jesse Hills, left, in Hartland, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. Though the tree is considered low value in the logging industry, Stack said it has great value for containing carbon because of its size. The tree fell just short of the state's record. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Forester Bill Stack returns home after measuring a tree for the Vermont Big Tree List in Hartland, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hartland — Every landowner with a timber stand knows how to raise money by cutting trees down.

But what if they could raise money by leaving their trees standing?

“A lot of foresters are thinking about it more and more,” said A.J. Follensbee, a Windsor County forester with the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation. “They’re writing it into their appraisal plans, thinking about carbon sequestration. It’s on a lot of landowners’ radar, because they care about climate change.”

Follensbee is talking about “carbon farming,” an emerging theory of forest management touted by area foresters and environmental groups who say it has the potential to transform Vermont — 78 percent of which is covered by forest — into a giant carbon trap that could offset a significant chunk of the emissions from Vermont that contribute to global warming.

They envision a day when Vermonters can enroll their forestland into a carbon emissions cap and trade program — part of a global carbon transaction industry that topped $142 billion in 2011, according to a recent University of Vermont study — that would allow them to sell the value created by a tree’s innate ability to reduce greenhouse gases.

Bill Stack is a member of Cobb Hill Co-housing, a 65-member community based in Hartland that is founded on ideas of farming and sustainability.

Cobb Hill’s 180 acres of forest currently “is like a lot of land here” in Vermont, said Stack, a forester who works on carbon offset projects across the country.

“It’s old pastureland that has come back in various stand types and various qualities,” Stack said.

Like many Vermont woodlands, the haphazard forest has sprung up largely on its own, without active management. It’s got crooked pine trees with multiple stems that render them unsuitable for quality timber, fair-to-middling soil richness, and a much less robust and diverse ecosystem than would be possible under long-term management.

Over the past half-century, many landowners have worked to develop forest management plans that meet the needs of various stakeholders — conservationists, loggers and recreational forest users such as hikers, hunters and snowmobilers.

Stack said he’s managing the Cobb Hill land for carbon farming among other conservation purposes.

He and a nucleus of forestry experts, academics and non-profits, including Sustainable Woodstock, are laying the groundwork to have the state shift its forest management strategy to accommodate a new need — carbon sequestration.

The process is simple. Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and pump oxygen back out into the air. The lion’s share of that absorbed carbon winds up stored in a tree’s trunk, roots and branches, locked up in the wood. Because the carbon sits in the wood indefinitely, the tree doesn’t contribute to climate change until it is burned or rots.

And that stored carbon can add up, according to a Vermont Forest Carbon Assessment report produced by the Forest, Parks and Recreation department last year.

It takes 121 trees to offset the emissions of one vehicle. That may sound like a bad ratio, but the state has far more trees than vehicles. On average, each acre of forest takes up 393 metric tons of carbon, the equivalent of taking 83 vehicles off the road.

The numbers are even more impressive in aggregate — the assessment found that the state’s forestland soaked up a majority — 4.4 million metric tons — of the 8.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gases that Vermonters spewed out in 2012.

In all, there are 480 million metric tons of carbon sequestered in the current landscape, according to the report, and carbon farming advocates say that number can be improved through management.

Researchers are still learning about all the ways that forests can best lock up carbon — Dartmouth College mycologist Ashley Lang is focused on how mushrooms and other fungi play into the larger picture — but some of the most important identified factors are tree size, how much wood is allowed to return to the soil, and what the final destination of harvested wood is, with durable wood products like lumber carrying the potential to keep carbon out of the air for a very long time.

Those seeking a local example of an advanced carbon farm could look to the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock, where Stephanie Kyriazias, the park’s top educator, said a century of sustainable management has created a woodland that has many features — towering old-growth trees, and carbon-rich soils — that sequestration advocates are pushing for.

“It’s the only national park to have a sustainable forestry program,” she said. “It’s a really cool thing that we are considering how climate change might impact our forest.”

Vikke Jas, an environmental scientist and volunteer interpreter at Marsh-Billings, said the region is only just beginning to understand how the principles of carbon farming can be measured and integrated into the regulatory landscape.

“Carbon is interesting because we’re trying to make it into a commodity,” she said. “It fits into an economic scheme most people understand, but most of the work is about buying the right to emit from industry, not the ability to save carbon by sequestering it.”

Potential Policy Changes

If the state were to throw its full weight behind carbon farming, it could have far-reaching impacts on the Current Use program, which gives a tax break for woodlots of at least 25 acres that are under a forest management plan. (Agricultural land is also eligible for the Current Use program.)

When Current Use was first adopted in Vermont 38 years ago, carbon farming was never considered for inclusion.

“The Current Use program was started in the ’80s, and this wasn’t on the radar then,” said Follensbee.

But times are changing, with a growing awareness of the role that forests play in combating climate change.

Nationwide, forests offset 865 million tons of carbon dioxide, or nearly 17 percent of the nation’s emissions in 2012, according to a study by the EPA.

Stack said many of his clients around the country are working to register their forests under the California Compliance Market, a cap-and-trade program which took effect in 2014 and under which emissions can be offset by increased carbon uptake by large tracts of forest.

What action would look like in Vermont remains to be seen, but Stack suggested modifying Current Use regulations to consider stored carbon a qualifying “product,” and to allow for slower harvesting cycles.

He also suggested the state develop a list of best management practices, do assessments to identify tracts of forest that would particularly benefit from that type of management, and explore programs that would allow smaller landowners to capitalize on cap and trade programs, which Stack says can require at least 5,000 acres to make the finances work.

A few years ago, the Vermont Legislature considered a bill that would have allowed the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation to sell carbon offsets from state lands, but the effort died in committee.

Now, there are signs that carbon sequestration could be the next big thing at the state level. There are nine carbon-related bills that have been introduced in the current legislative session, and carbon farming could dovetail nicely with a recent effort by Progressive and Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, to introduce a carbon tax proposal.

In addition, Gov. Phil Scott’s Vermont Climate Advisory Panel chose carbon sequestration as one of six topics it would like to delve into as members develop recommendations. The body heard a presentation on the topic during its monthly meeting on Feb. 8.

Industry Weighs In

Logging industry representatives and foresters agree that there is the potential for logging and carbon farming to coexist, but it’s not clear whether they’re on the same page as to how an ideal forest management plan might be changed to accommodate both views.

Zach Ralph, program coordinator for Sustainable Woodstock, said that to him, the best way to accommodate loggers is to ensure that as much of the harvested wood as possible is turned into durable goods, rather than burned.

“It would be foolish and unrealistic to ask people to stop burning wood, right now,” Ralph said. “However, there is a need to balance our economic and practical needs with the need to maintain our conservation efforts.”

Ralph said the group has been spreading the word among nature conservancies, conservation districts and groups like Trout Unlimited, which suggested old growth trees could be harvested and placed into waterways, where they would serve as freshwater snags.

Robbo Holleran, a Chester, Vt.-based forester who has served for 20 years on the board of directors of the Vermont Forest Products Association, said VFPA has no official stance on the idea, but he referred to an opinion he’d recently written for an industry magazine.

In the article, Holleran described himself as skeptical of climate science, and proponents of managing forest for carbon as “tree huggers.”

Holleran argued that old growth forests are prone to overcrowding and stagnation, which can lead to increased risk of forest fires and a slowing of the carbon uptake rate of young, quick-growing trees.

However, Holleran in his piece also pointed to common ground between the two camps, such as the shared desire to have larger trees that have more value as good candidates for durable products, and the practice of leaving cull logs — those with little value — on the forest floor to build soil carbon.

“Carbon management principles are easily integrated with other forestry goals, and forests are much more than merely carbon,” he wrote.

The Value of Wood

Bill Keeton, a University of Vermont professor, has been studying forest carbon for decades in meticulously managed plots that have provided the fodder for research papers that seek to answer the questions that would be more relevant should Vermont dip its toe into the carbon sequestration pool.

For example, he said, his recent research has focused on how much money a landowner could expect to make by entering land into a voluntary American Carbon Registry market.

“It’s not going to work for everybody. It’s going to work for medium-sized and larger properties, especially properties that can pool their carbon resources through something called aggregation,” Keeton said. “It’s going to work best on the forests that are already in pretty good shape. … These are the kinds of forest that the markets reward.”

In Vermont, that description applies to 423,000 acres of privately owned land in chunks of 500 or more acres, including many in Windsor and Orange counties, according to Keeton.

Keeton used a sample group of about 6,000 acres to calculate the amount of money they would generate if they were in an aggregated enrollment into the program.

After all costs have been paid, he said, landowners could expect to be paid $16 per year, per acre, which would allow a 500-acre landowner to take in $8,000 annually.

Carbon farming is the subject of a workshop series organized by Sustainable Woodstock, held the third Saturday of every month at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park’s Forest Center from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

The next discussion will take place on Feb 24, and will feature Follensbee, landowner Lynn Peterson and logger John Adler.

 Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.

Correction

A recent University of Vermont  study explored how much money a landowner could make by enrolling woodland into the voluntary American Carbon Registry market.  An earlier version of this story misidentified the market discussed in the UVM study.