Maine's North Woods are a carbon storage machine. They could do even more for climate mitigation
For more than 200 years, Maine's North Woods, in excess of 10 million acres, have supported a timber-based economy along with wildlife and outdoor recreation.
This is the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi River and it's almost entirely privately owned, which makes it vulnerable to fragmentation and development.
But there's something else these woods could provide for the future: climate mitigation along with a robust rural economy.
This story is part of our series "Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine's response, one county at a time."
At a state-of-the-art sawmill in Portage, the Maine Woods Company, a division of Seven Islands, employs about 50 people and is the largest producer of hardwood maple lumber in the northeast. Every log is graded for its value, inventoried and stripped of its bark. And every part of the wood is used.
"The grade lumber will be made into strip flooring," said general manager Scott Ferland. "And on the higher end of things will be quality kitchen cabinets, crown moldings and high end furniture."
Across the street, Seven Islands also operates a wood chip mill that processes about 350,000 tons of wood chips a year. The chips are a byproduct of the lower-quality trees that are removed from the forest. Most of it goes to the pulp and paper industry. Some is also used for heating.
"As you remove the wood, you're actually improving growing conditions," said Dan Lamontagne, president and CEO of Seven Islands. "So having markets for low-quality wood is really critical."
With more than 800,000 acres, Seven Islands is one of the largest landowners in Maine. And for decades, the family-owned company has been independently certified in "sustainable forestry," a management strategy that considers biodiversity, water, soil and other factors before deciding which trees should be cut and which should be left to grow.
And that's where the practice of pre-commercial thinning comes in. It's similar in concept to weeding a garden.
"What we really do is come in and try to help nature out, and we thin that stand out. And by managing that density, we're able to concentrate the growth onto the residual trees," Lamontagne said. "So, you grow trees larger, faster and in essence you're also storing more carbon in those trees as a result."
Through photosynthesis, trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks at different rates depending on the average age and number of trees in a stand. But they also release it when they're cut down, decay or are burned.
Allowing them to get bigger and older before they're harvested is considered "climate smart."
According to the Maine governor's Forest Carbon Task Force, the North Woods already remove at least 60% of the state's annual carbon emissions through photosynthesis. But the figure gets larger when the storage of carbon in forest products such as building and shipping materials and furniture are added to the mix. Then it's 75%.
Research from the New England Forestry Foundation suggests there is the potential to sequester and store even more with improved forest management, conservation and expanded markets for wood. But Alec Giffen, a forest scientist with NEFF, said the challenge for landowners is that it takes up-front investments to do timber stand improvements and that investment isn't recovered until trees are harvested several decades later.
"Landowners need to have incentives that are going to enable them to do these practices more broadly than what is currently possible," Giffen said. "And this is where carbon can be a game changer because in the past all landowners get paid for is wood."
Giffen, who serves on Maine's Climate Council and is a former director of the Maine Forest Service, said the time has come to start paying landowners for the public benefits they provide: wildlife habitat, outdoor recreational opportunities and storage of carbon.
"And we've done an analysis," he said. "If we increase the stocking to what our standards suggest would be optimum, which is about 25 cords per acre, the amount of additional carbon that would be stored...is over 500 million metric tons of CO2."
Giffen says that's the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road for over a century, and he thinks the potential for the New England region is huge — about 30% of the carbon savings needed in the next 30 years.
The research is currently being peer-reviewed. But Dr. William Moomaw, a climate scientist and professor at Tufts University, is skeptical that significant carbon savings can be achieved so quickly in a forest that is continually harvested.
"I don't see how this beats the climate goals that have been set, for example, by the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report," Moomaw said.
That report called for setting aside 30-50% of lands, waters and oceans in order to have a functioning climate system around the world. It also warned that reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy won't be enough to head off the worst effects of climate change. Carbon removal will also be needed.
"So I just think we need to make some decisions, you know? Which are the forests that are going to be our production forests, and which are the forests that are going to be our other service forests, that are going to provide us with carbon removal, water quality and quantity and then all of the other recreational benefits?" Moomaw said.
Andrea Colnes, deputy director of the New England Forestry Foundation, said the question is not whether or not we can lock up our forests and put them away.
"Because that's not how society works and that's not how people live," she said. "We live in houses. We use paper. We need to find ways, much as Seven Islands is demonstrating... in how we manage our forests so we can deliver on ecological values as well as climate values."
When it comes to climate, there is also concern from within the forest products industry about promising too much. Patrick Strauch, executive director of the Maine Forest Products Council and a member of the Maine Climate Council, said mills and loggers need to be supplied with enough fiber to maintain their livelihoods. He says the Maine woods are already doing a good job sequestering and storing carbon.
"I want to make sure we don't have unrealistic expectations about how much more we contribute to that effort," Strauch said.
The New England Forestry Foundation will have the chance to demonstrate how both can be done.
Recently, NEFF and more than 20 partners, were awarded a $30 million grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a climate commodities pilot project on 100,000 acres. Andrea Colnes said that funding, combined with money in the Inflation Reduction Act, should help accelerate climate smart forest management.