Monday, November 26, 2018

Gibson: Adirondack Land Use, Climate Change Linked

Satellite view of the Adirondacks with blue line superimposed courtesy Adirondack WildCongresswoman Elise Stefanik’s district has one of the great carbon banks in North America, its public and private forests. Governor Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation have, on our behalf, custody of over an even larger carbon bank in the Catskills, Adirondacks, State Forests and Parks and Conservation Easements all across the State.

Yet, despite their vocal and demonstrable commitments to combat climate change, I’ve not heard either official tout the great importance of New York’s forest policies and stewardship to store and offset our carbon pollution. Goals and policies on use of solar, wind, hydro, transportation, batteries, and efficiency are routinely and passionately enunciated and in some cases enacted. Rarely is forest policy in that mix. It’s curious.

Although he was probably not thinking of climate mitigation, in his book Land Use in America the late (and first) DEC Commissioner Henry Diamond wrote: “land use is the stepchild of the environmental movement,” meaning, I think, that since the first Earth Day in 1970 the vast majority of our attention and talents have focused on environmental regulation of air and water resources, not land use policy. The constitutional right to do whatever we wish with land, perceived and real, even if that means developing it in ways that forever forgo its future benefits and values in a relatively undisturbed state are that powerful.

If the 1890s had not turned out as they did for our Forest Preserve, would today’s elected officials and electorate choose to wrap the “protective aegis” (Samuel Hammond, c. 1857) of our state’s constitution around Adirondack and Catskill forests as one known, effective effort to mitigate climate change? Despite the enormous present threat and irrevocable impact of our society’s current practices on extreme weather, I’m not certain we would. No other state has had the political will to follow our lead in all this time.

So, take a deep breath of additional gratitude for the originators of “forever wild,” the committee on forest preservation at the 1894 constitutional convention. At the same time, resolve that it’s urgent our elected officials and land planning and management agencies, both state and local, overtly and intelligently link state and local land use decisions with climate change. Climate needs to be in today’s land use conversations at all levels of government.

Nobody has done more to bring this matter to Adirondack public attention than botanist and author Jerry Jenkins. As Jerry wrote in Climate Change in the Adirondacks (2010, Wildlife Conservation Society), “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.”

To bring the issue home for me, our small solar photovoltaic system has, over its 10 years of use, prevented about 15 tons of avoided carbon dioxide – emissions we would have created without the solar system. But the 25 acres of temperate deciduous forest we have invested in has stored about 100 tons of CO2 during the same decade. Our local zoning board granted us a variance for the solar array, a relatively painless process. Our local planning board would have a great deal more to say if we applied to cut down, subdivide and develop our forest. Traffic increases, storm water, lighting and curb cuts would be among the concerns and issues they would raise. Climate change offsets and carbon storage would probably never be mentioned.

Will the new Brazilian president make decisions that accelerate conversion of tropical forests and the people who depend upon them to cattle, soy and other uses humans greedily consume? If so, he would constitute one of the greatest immediate threats to the planet.  If so, he would mimic what we in the United States ravaged in the 19th and 20th centuries- our original rainwood forests in the northwest, hardwood swamps in the south, and midwestern and eastern pine and spruce forests.

Jerry Jenkins went on in his book to caution that forests are not carbon neutral, and that in regards to forest harvesting, making paper and other forest products there is a lot of energy used and carbon emitted. “If we are going to claim the (carbon) benefits, we need to be honest about accounting for the costs,” he writes.

Still, it’s time for our officials to point to our 3 million acre, constitutionally protected Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve (and other State Forests) and to our nearly 1 million acres of privately owned conservation easements. What are they accomplishing each year to offset our carbon emissions and to store carbon as these forests mature?  Each DEC Unit Management Plan, from the High Peaks to the low peaks, should address the question.

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 those forests, still maturing, lies within the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness. In the area we were in we noticed many forest stands still recovering from the intense clear-cutting for charcoal production in the late 19th century. There is a lot of carbon offsetting and storage happening in this and other Forest Preserve and conservation easement units in both Parks. Jenkins argues that even older, mature or old growth forests in the Adirondacks are storing carbon “at a surprisingly high rate.” Even when annual carbon storage in the tree bole and branches themselves may decline with great age, 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 is our 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. And yes, 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 public 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 small forest holdings like mine.

In all the State Land Unit Management Plans, which set the management direction of 3 million Forest Preserve acres, there is rarely any mention of the role these forests play in carbon offsets and storage, nor of the potential carbon and economic benefits which are accruing each day and which could increase in the future by reaffirming Article XIV.

On the private land side, New York and local planning agencies should be encouraging, if not mandating sound practices of good spatial design of new residential development that leaves plenty of undeveloped space for private forest management and accretion of carbon storage. This would be one of the most important benefits of mandating conservation subdivision design at the Adirondack Park Agency.

We need nature, desperately. Given what we know about carbon storage going on in older forests like the Forest Preserve as well as carbon sequestration in young, vigorously growing, undeveloped private forest stands it would be well for our congressional delegation, state legislature and Governor Cuomo to document and safeguard what we already have done with forest policy, and to create new incentives to expand forest conservation and stewardship as a climate tool.

One of those new incentives could be the DEC’s Empire Forests for the Future program, proposed in last year’s executive budget but not yet adopted by the state legislature. DEC touts it as a comprehensive forestry initiative aimed at assisting private forest owners to manage their forests for climate mitigation, wildlife habitat and forest products. Let’s resolve the hurdles and enact this program.

Photos, from above: Satellite view of the Adirondacks, with the Blue Line (the Park’s boundary) superimposed and recovering forest in the Pharaoh Lake Wilderness.


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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.

7 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Research into how CO2 in the atmosphere is impacted by the Adirondacks specifically is interesting to think about. As biomass decomposes it puts the carbon stored back into the atmosphere. With all the bogs, wetlands, and other great areas for forest decomposition I am curious what sort of CO2 is being released into the atmosphere as compared to what is being stored as the living plants are growing. Might not be an ideal carbon sink. Might be a lot better if it were a drier type of low decomposition environment?

    • Boreas says:


      As you suggest, CO2 released from decay or decomposition into the atmosphere does vary due to forest type, soil type, and climate conditions. But keep in mind, decomposition also puts a great deal of carbon compounds (organics) into the soil to be used by soil microorganisms (creating more biomass) and building new plant life, resulting in even more sequestration. This is why organic soils are typically ideal for growing new plants as opposed to more mineral soils with few organic nutrients. It is the ‘net’ movement from atmosphere to biomass that is important.

      The “ideal” carbon sink you mention was the carboniferous forest. The fungi and microorganisms of the period were inefficient at breaking down the high levels of lignin in the bark of those early tropical trees. So they just piled up and eventually created the coal for our industrial revolution. So much carbon was scrubbed from the atmosphere back then that the atmospheric oxygen level reached nearly double the concentration of what it is today (35% vs today’s 21%)! That’s a LOT of photosynthesis!

  2. Bob Worth says:

    This is a very interesting and very much needed article. We all take this aspect of our forests too much for granted. I hope it might appear in the print edition of the Explorer.

  3. Boreasfisher says:

    Very interesting observations. Hard not to see that the net effect of forestation is positive for the planet.

    Still it is remarkable to realize that ecologists are only really beginning to understand and account for the climactic contributions of forests….as in this recent Quanta Magazine article..Forests Emerge as a Major Overlooked Climate Factor.

    The biggest surprise for me was the need to account for the simple fact that forests tend to warm their locales through transpiration.

    • Boreas says:


      The systems within our planet are more complex than most people could imagine. Many people aren’t aware of things that happened in the past like “snowball earth”, numerous planet-wide extinction events, tectonic plate movements, ozone layer formation, volcanism events, etc., etc.. Many of these changes were gradual over many millions of years, but some were relatively abrupt like glaciations.

      Another interesting issue is the “butterfly effect” in chaos theory. Just a theory, but it makes you think. At least some people anyway…