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Carbon in the North Maine Woods could help New England reach a climate benchmark


For more than 300 years, Maine's North Woods have supported the logging industry. Today, the forest could help New England meet its climate objectives. But how should it be managed? Susan Sharon of Maine Public Radio reports.

SUSAN SHARON, BYLINE: Spanning more than 10 million acres, the North Woods are almost entirely privately owned. Historically, they supported paper mills and towns that sprung up around them. More recently, Maine's paper industry has been in decline. Instead, large landowners like the Seven Islands Land Company have tried to diversify, turning higher quality logs into lumber at this sawmill in Ashland and using the lower quality wood for pulp and paper and to burn for heat. President and CEO Dan LaMontagne says sustainable management depends on markets for both.

DAN LAMONTAGNE: So as you thin the forest, as you remove the lower quality material, you're actually improving the growing conditions for the material that you leave that will grow into the higher value product.

SHARON: And those higher quality products, building materials and furniture also store carbon. According to the Maine governor's task force on carbon, they help the North Woods capture and store 75% of the state's annual carbon emissions. Research suggests that by improving forest management, increasing conservation and expanding the use of wood in building materials, the percentage could rise.

ALEC GIFFEN: The potential is huge, and we have the opportunity here in Maine specifically to be a leader on this whole front.

SHARON: Alec Giffen is a forest scientist with the New England Forestry Foundation, who also serves on the state's carbon task force. He says the foundation's research, currently under peer review, shows that if timber stands were managed to grow older and bigger trees, all of New England could benefit.

GIFFEN: Our analysis shows that the amount of carbon that the forest could remove within the next 25 or 30 years amounts to about 30% of the total emissions reductions that we need in New England.

SHARON: The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded the Forestry Foundation and its partners $30 million to apply the research on 100,000 acres across Maine and New England. Dr. William Moomaw, a climate scientist and professor at Tufts University, is skeptical that significant carbon savings can be achieved on timberlands that are harvested every few decades.

WILLIAM MOOMAW: For every tree that's cut, more than half of it ends up as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. A lot of research just simply says that there is no way you can harvest a forest and store more carbon than by letting it grow.

SHARON: Instead, Moomaw points to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that calls for setting aside at least 30% of land, inland waters and oceans by 2030 to reduce the risks of climate change and to protect biodiversity. But Mark Berry, the forest program director for The Nature Conservancy in Maine, says when it comes to carbon storage, there's room for many forms of conservation.

MARK BERRY: From establishing large ecological reserves, where essentially nature gets to take its course, to maintaining a commercial working forest that helps to keep the larger landscape intact and connects those reserves with each other.

SHARON: The one point on which everyone agrees is that keeping the landscape forested is the most important climate goal, and that means compensating landowners not only for wood products but for the other ecological and carbon storage benefits they provide. For NPR News, I'm Susan Sharon in Ashland, Maine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deputy News Director Susan Sharon is a reporter and editor whose on-air career in public radio began as a student at the University of Montana. Early on, she also worked in commercial television doing a variety of jobs. Susan first came to Maine Public Radio as a State House reporter whose reporting focused on politics, labor and the environment. More recently she's been covering corrections, social justice and human interest stories. Her work, which has been recognized by SPJ, SEJ, PRNDI and the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, has taken her all around the state — deep into the woods, to remote lakes and ponds, to farms and factories and to the Maine State Prison. Over the past two decades, she's contributed more than 100 stories to NPR.