Current IssuesTrees in a dense forest

By David Gibson, Managing Partner, Adirondack Wild

Proforestation in the Adirondacks and Statewide

Two recent public forestry panel discussions at Paul Smith’s College and the Adirondack Research Consortium have led me to consider both private and public forests in the Adirondacks in an economically innovative, pro-climate way. Both forestry panel discussions that I attended focused on climate change, and both gave action items for how forests must be a major factor in achieving New York State’s climate goals. 

I hold a Masters in Forest Ecology, but I am by no means an expert on this topic, and so what I share below is my understanding of what the panelists spoke about, and I may have missed their exact intent. I hope, though, that what I write about helps inform how we can go about supporting ourselves and our neighbors in the Park, and the natural resources that support us in our six-million acre neighborhood.

The first panel took place at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center on May 11, 2023, and was introduced by Dr. Anthony D’Amato, Director of the Forestry Program at the University of Vermont, and moderated by John Davis, Rewilding Advocate for the Adirondack Council. The panelists were Dr. Lee Frelich, Director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota; Dr. William Moomaw, Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist and Professor Emeritus at Tufts University; and Bob Leverett, Cofounder of the Native Tree Society and Senior Advisor to the American Forests Champion Tree Program, chair of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Research Forest Reserves Science Advisory Committee.

Dr. Frelich talked about forests at the ecosystem scale in Minnesota, which are similar to the temperate-boreal ecotone of the Adirondacks and Northeast, and he discussed the short- and long-term climate-tempering effects of large forested areas. Dr. Moomaw shared that the forested ecosystem of the northeastern states of Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont all have globally significant carbon sequestration and storage because of the large areas of intact forest with large trees. Bob Leverett explained the math of how big trees in the Northeast uptake and store more carbon than smaller, younger trees.

The panelists provided the same conclusion though they came from different disciplines: big trees in the Northern Forest sequester and store more carbon above and below ground than little trees. Therefore, the value to the climate in protecting existing forests and forest soils is more immediately necessary than reforestation (re-planting trees in recently forested areas) and afforestation (planting trees in areas that have not recently been or never were forested), though those matter, too, because today’s young forests will one day harbor big trees and dense organic matter soils. 

Protecting existing forests and managing them for optimal carbon uptake and structural diversity (robust overstory with a readily recruitable understory) is called “proforestation.” The panelists noted that working forests can be managed to be more carbon-sequestering/storing (see this great explanation of carbon sequestration and carbon storage) while still supporting repeat harvests. Therefore, proforestation and the timber and forest products industry can be complementary, yielding higher quality products with better carbon storage, so long as there is a focus on best practices including carbon-efficient machine operations and potentially (because it is different for each forest type and geography) increasing the time between harvests. 

There was discussion of how private forest owners provide ecosystem services, including capture and storage of greenhouse gases, which benefits us all, so it seems like a natural transition to work with this group to monetize the ecosystem services their forests are providing. Similar to the way an agricultural subsidy pays a grower to not plant a certain crop, there could be a forestry program to incentivize managing forested landscapes for carbon sequestration and storage, rather than incentives solely based on extraction.

Dr. Moomaw shared an example from Tasmania where timber harvesting was reduced by half due to a change in ownership of large forested landscapes. Whereas the timber industry had been the highest carbon emitting industry compared to all others (mining, manufacturing, etc), after only seven years of a fifty percent decrease in harvesting, the timber industry was now sequestering as much carbon as they used to produce, plus the equivalent of all other carbon emitted by all other industries combined, simply by allowing existing trees to grow. Dr. E.O. Wilson coined the term “Nature Needs Half,” and it appears that if you follow that quite literally, you get Tasmania’s results.

The panelists never said that forested areas must be wilderness in order to have value in reducing carbon in the atmosphere. For instance, the globally significant forests of the Northeast are certainly not intact wilderness (though we do have pockets of that in the Adirondacks), but they still have high significant global ecological value in terms of carbon storage. The maintenance of and support for existing forests was of greater importance to the panelists than whether these forests were public or private or wilderness or managed (though some management regimes are more carbon-sequestering/storing than others).

The second forestry panel discussion I attended was at the Adirondack Research Consortium’s 27th Conference on the Adirondacks in Lake Placid, May 18-19, 2023, whose theme this year was “Climate Change in the Adirondack/North Country Region – Mitigation, Adaptation, and Implications.” Mark Lowery and Molly Hassett of NYSDEC and Sameer Ranade of NYSERDA presented a panel on “The Climate Action Council Scoping Plan – Implementation, Climate Justice, and Forestry,” New York State’s ambitious carbon reduction plan that takes into account economic, environmental, and social concerns.

This panel and the report they were discussing recognized the importance of New York’s forests in reducing the state’s carbon footprint. They discussed carbon storage encapsulated in forest products, and they focused on the importance of afforestation and reforestation statewide. 

Based on the panel at Paul Smith’s College the previous week, I suggested to the panelists that NYS’s forestry goals should also include proforestation, since we have so many existing forests throughout the state, and especially since this panel discussion was taking place in the Adirondacks where we have a unique and robust patchwork of existing public and private forestlands. I noted that the Climate Action Council Scoping Plan doesn’t include anything about prioritizing protection of the ecosystem services already at work within the Blue Line that can be leveraged to help NY meet its carbon reduction goals.

The panel response was that proforestation was a term that could “lead you down a dark path,” and stated that studies of the higher level of carbon storage in large trees relate only to trees out west and are not applicable to trees in the Northeast. They noted the high level of carbon sequestration in young, actively growing forests.

Obviously, based on the data shared by the panel concerning the Northeast and the Northern Forest at Paul Smith’s College the week before, including the higher level of sequestration and storage both in larger trees and in the soils of existing forests, this was a poorly informed comment, but it was a comment made with good intentions. 

NYS demonstrates a strong desire to uphold existing economies, while simultaneously moving toward a future with decreased carbon emissions. I agree, and I believe NYS can uphold – and elevate – existing economies, by putting more emphasis on the application of modern climate science, and even create new forest-based economic opportunities afforded by the state’s focus on reducing greenhouse gases. The effort the state has made on the Scoping Plan, particularly in the area of climate justice, is a major step forward, but because we are the state that passed Article XIV nearly 130 years ago, we have a proforestation legacy that must be included, and that legacy gives us a wealth of economic opportunity. 

The economic opportunities afforded by upholding the proforestation legacy of the State of New York, particularly in the Adirondacks, are:

  1. Provide ecosystem services subsidies, such as tax credits, for private forest owners, including small lots.
  2. Hire more Forest Rangers and Assistant Forest Rangers.
  3. Develop workforce training programs to create jobs in proforestation work – like managing stands for optimal carbon uptake, reducing stressors like insects and disease, decreasing competition from invasive species.
  4. Develop workforce training programs to create jobs in forest ecotourism, including promoting tourism while managing recreational overuse through permits, education/outreach, trail maintenance, and ecological restoration.
  5. Prioritize job creation in sustainable, carbon-efficient harvest practices and production of native species forest products.
  6. Prioritize jobs in forest-dominated counties of the state for BIPOC and the rural disadvantaged poor.
  7. Create a Adirondack Climate Exchange hub for the Adirondacks, similar to the New York Climate Exchange which has recently been created on Governors Island, headquartered at Paul Smith’s College and in partnership with The Wild Center and other organizations to provide outreach and education in science and the arts, workforce training, and a base for conducting climate science research focused on Adirondack ecosystems.

The suggestions above have a lower cost of implementation than many of the proposals in the Scoping Plan because they rely on working with existing natural and cultural resources.

Over the 30 years that I have been following our evolving human understanding of climate change, I feel that the more dire our climate situation becomes – the higher the CO2 concentrations go on the Mauna Loa graph, the more intense the storms and wildfires get, the more wide-swinging the jetstream goes, and the more we burden the up-and-coming generations – the more straightforward it becomes as to what our mitigative steps must be. Developing “Clean Economy” jobs, such as those that can grow out of a policy of proforestation in the Adirondacks and statewide, feels more obviously implementable now, and that gives me hope.

Here in 2023, we are facing some of the same kinds of issues that NYS citizens did in 1894 when they had to decide whether or not to incorporate Article XIV into the New York State Constitution. In 1894, voters realized Article XIV could assist with the economic need for a reliable water supply for transportation, and the public health and safety need for a clean drinking water for major population centers. Today we have a desperate need in the North Country for a stronger economy based on our existing natural and cultural resources, and climate change poses a grim threat to both the economy as well as public health and safety. We can leverage the existing patchwork of public and private forestland in the Adirondack Park as a major factor in the portfolio to achieve our climate, economic, and public health and safety goals. 

Sunita Halasz with forest trees in the background behind herSunita Halasz is a member of Adirondack Wild’s advisory council. She and her family live in Saranac Lake. Sunita holds a Masters’ degree in Forest Ecology from Cornell University. She was a staff member at the Adirondack Park Agency in the Resource Analysis and Scientific Services division and helped with EPA-funded wetland mapping projects, local government outreach, review of large lot subdivisions in Resource Management areas, and review of State Land Unit Management Plans.