Thursday, December 10, 2015

Climate: Our Important Adirondack Carbon Bank

IMG_3904Our small solar photovoltaic system has, over its seven years of use, prevented about 12 tons of carbon dioxide emissions.  The 25 acres of northern hardwood forest in our fee ownership however, has stored over 87 tons of CO2 over the same seven years.

In Paris this week, with the stakes for our planet so very high, I would like to see as much media focus on offsetting and storing carbon emissions through forest preservation and stewardship as we see about reducing fossil fuel emissions. In fact, Paris talks are moving on while great swaths of tropical forests continue to go up in smoke to be converted to small farms and large palm plantations for the palm oil humans greedily consume. These nations are only ravaging in the same way we in the United States have already greedily ravaged our original rainwood forests in the northwest, hardwood swamps in the south, and midwestern and eastern pine and spruce forests.

As Jerry Jenkins wrote in Climate Change in the Adirondacks, “world forests absorb 3 billion tons of carbon a year. The clearing of forests releases 1.6 billion tons. The balance is 1.4 billion tons of carbon absorbed enough to offset 22% of the world’s fossil fuel emissions. This is good, but not as good as it could be. If we were not clearing tropical forests and turning them into farms, the net storage could be the full 3 billion tons, enough to offset 47% of all fossil fuel emissions. That would be an ecosystem service that really meant something.”

Jenkins went on to caution that forests are not carbon neutral. Harvesting forests, paper making, and producing other forest products, use a lot of energy and emit a lot of carbon. “If we are going to claim the (carbon) benefits, we need to be honest about accounting for the costs,” he writes.

Still, one would think that this week Governor Andrew Cuomo would tout our 3 million acre, constitutionally protected Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve (and other State Forests), and what they are accomplishing to offset our carbon emissions and store carbon as these forests mature. I have heard nothing this week from his office, or from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, how a constitutionally protected forest, the only one in America, is a model for the rest of the globe.

Jenkins stressed that the temperate deciduous forests of the eastern United States and Canada are “one of the great carbon banks on the planet… current growth is offsetting past losses. Most eastern forests are young and many are expanding. If they are allowed to mature, they will remove much of the carbon from the atmosphere that was released when the forests were originally cleared or cut.”

One of the still maturing forests is in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness, which a friend and I explored recently. We noticed many forest stands still recovering from the intense clear-cutting for charcoal production in the late 1800s. There is a lot of carbon offsetting and storage happening in this and other Forest Preserve units in both Parks.  Jenkins argues that even older, mature or old growth forests in the Adirondacks are storing carbon “at s surprisingly high rate.” Even when the rate of annual carbon storage in the tree bole and branches themselves may decline with great age,  the rate of carbon storage in the dead wood around these older giant trees and in the soil beneath them is steadily accreting. This storage in trees, living and dead and in the forest soil represents New York’s constitutionally protected carbon bank for which we should be justly proud, and watchful.

As for carbon storage, Jenkins estimates that carbon bank in all Adirondack forests, public and private, is about 85 tons per acre, or over 430 million tons in all.  There is even more stored in the Catskill Park. As he writes, if all of that stored forest carbon were to be released at once, it would be equal to all the carbon emissions from within the Adirondack Park over the past 750 years. (America has released all this and much more as a result of our national deforestation since 1865.)

As for carbon offsets, Jenkins’ guess is that the Adirondack Forest Preserve, all 2.7 million acres of it, is realizing a total accumulation rate of 0.4 tons of carbon per acre per year, or over a million tons of carbon per year on state lands. Another 1.3 million tons is being stored annually on the park’s private forests, or 2.3 million total tons of carbon offsets per year thanks to Adirondack forests, with a lot more from the Catskills and other forest holdings like mine.

All this carbon storage and offsetting receives very little mention from our state officials during the current Paris climate talks, or at other times. In all of the State Land Unit Management Plans (UMPs), which outline management of 3 million Forest Preserve acres, there is rarely any mention of the role of carbon offsets and storage, nor of the potential carbon and economic benefits which are accruing each day and which could increase in the future. On the private land side, New York agencies should be offering information, advice and incentives to practice carbon forestry – forest practices which could increase the amount of carbon being stored.

Given what we now know about the tremendous carbon storage going on in older forests like our Forest Preserve as well as in young, vigorously growing forest stands, it is time for New York to champion forest preservation and stewardship as a vitally significant climate tool for the world.

What we have – a constitutionally protected forest, a long history of public and private land ethics, and practice of careful stewardship –  other states and other nations and our planet badly need.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest PreserveDuring Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history. Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

2 Responses

  1. boreasfisher says:

    I agree that the state could and should do more to recognize the carbon sequestration benefits of Adirondack and Catskill forests, along with all the other ecosystem services delivered by forest preserve and private lands within the blue line.

    I am also wondering if there are adequate tree planting guidelines for towns and public thoroughfares within the blue line, in addition to the conservation subdivision guidelines being promoted by Adirondack Wild.

  2. Marco says:

    David, the production of carbon in the atmosphere, mainly through fossil fuels, and deforestation, is no where close to being balanced. It took thousands of years to create the proper atmosphere for people to survive and flourish. It will take only a few centuries to ruin it. As such it is a long term problem that is difficult to get people excited about. I agree something needs to be done about it on a global scale. But, deforestation of lands only accounts for about about half of the total carbon storage possible. While this remains an important part of CO2 removal, CO2 continues to increase. The oceans account for the vast majority of the carbon removal from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. Clearly, every avenue needs to be explored. I agree that we must do something and global agencies are being taxed…there is not a lot they can do to prevent farmers from clearing more land for food. Thanks for reminding us all that the ADK’s is an important piece of the puzzle that is our environment. Generally, it is a small piece, but needs global oversight in its final form. We need every small piece we can get. Too many people using too many resources…the basic problem needs more work.

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