Noah Shaw, former general counsel for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), contributed to the drafting of New York State’s groundbreaking 2019 climate legislation. This September, he wrote an op-ed in the Adirondack Explorer, “What New York’s Bold Climate Law Means for the Adirondacks.”
The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019 “outlines a so-called ‘carbon offset’ program as a counter-weight to the 15 percent of emissions that may remain after all our other emissions-reducing actions are taken,” he wrote. “These will likely come from hard-to-clean-up activities like aviation, agriculture, shipping and heavy industry. New York’s most valuable carbon offset resource, also known as a ‘sink,’ is its forestland. This is good news for the Adirondack Forest Preserve.”
The Good News: Our Carbon Sink
What is this “good news” Shaw mentions? It’s our 3 million-acre, constitutionally protected Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserve (and other State forests) offsetting our annual carbon emissions and storing carbon in trees and forest soils as the forests continue to mature. As regional botanist Jerry Jenkins wrote in Climate Change in the Adirondacks (2010), 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.”
The New York Times recently reported that global forests sequester or remove more than 25% of the carbon emissions humans create every year. Intact forests are especially important in storing carbon, it was reported, but when disturbed by selective logging and road building their capacity to sequester and store carbon is significantly diminished.
Jerry Jenkins’ book estimates that carbon bank in all Adirondack forests, public and private, is about 85 tons per acre, or over 430 million tons in all. 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.
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.
State Use Plans Ignore Climate Changes
All this carbon storage and offsetting in our Parks and in the Forest Preserve receives surprisingly little mention from Governor Andrew Cuomo or the Department of Environmental Conservation. When New York State acquires Forest Preserve, conservation easements on private land or State Forests or parks outside of the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, the carbon benefits seem to be rarely cited or measured as one of the many benefits of acquiring these lands or conservation rights. That seems odd given that DEC is poised to accelerate its work on climate change mitigation.
One is also hard pressed to find anything about the “good news” for the Adirondack Forest Preserve in DEC’s unit management plans (UMPs) – the very documents meant to translate Forest Preserve policy into activities on the ground. In fact, none of the many UMPs I’ve reviewed, even the most recent ones approved by DEC (and APA in Ray Brook) even mention climate change, or, if they do at all, the mention is cursory.
For example, the Hammond Pond Wild Forest UMP, approved in 2018, states: “Due to human influences, invasive species, and climate change, every effort will be made to create, maintain, or rehabilitate habitat suitable for native strains of fish that are historic to the Adirondacks.” That’s it. The document goes on at length about birds, mammals, fish, forest ecosystems, wetlands, ponds, streams, human recreational history and trail development and access recommendations. All good and important to include, but nothing further about the influence of climate and whether the change in climate being experienced today has any bearing or will have any bearing in the future on management of Hammond Pond Wild Forest.
At least Hammond Pond UMP includes this single reference to “climate change.” The Saranac Lakes Wild Forest UMP, approved in 2018, does not. Unlike Hammond Pond, Saranac Lakes UMP has a paragraph about climate, citing mean annual temperature in the greater Adirondack region, average cooling rate with elevational change, number of frost-free days, leaf out dates of deciduous trees, mean annual precipitation ranges, and mean annual snowfall. This UMP does not say over what time interval this data was acquired.
The Sentinel Range Wilderness UMP, now under review at the DEC and APA, also contains a paragraph about climate, but not a single word about how any aspect of the area’s climate may have changed already or could change in the years ahead, affecting natural resources, human recreation and DEC management:
“The region’s climate, in general terms, is best described as cool and moist,” it reads. “Climatic conditions can vary considerably throughout the unit and are influenced by such factors as slope aspect, elevation, seasonal temperatures, precipitation, prevailing winds, and the location of natural barriers. Summers tend to be warm with cool nights. Maximum day-time temperatures seldom exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Frost can occur any month of the year and occasionally freezing temperatures are recorded in July and August. Winters are long and extremely cold…The resulting influence of climate on local flora and fauna, in particular, is profound. “
This may an accurate description of the region’s climate in 1985. How about 2020, or 2040? And what about variation and trends in the intensity of precipitation?
Planning Action Needed
The point is made that despite important new statewide responsibilities DEC bears for ensuring climate change mitigation and avoidance, DEC’s Adirondack Forest Preserve UMPs consistently fail to meaningfully describe and anticipate climate change, impacts and actual and potential consequences of more intense precipitation events and less durable snowpack, to name just two, for management.
These changes are being observed and documented by a variety of Adirondack research and conservation scientists. As Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager reported to the APA last winter, many Adirondack lake freeze-up dates occur two weeks later, and ice-out dates occur one to two weeks earlier than in 1988. That’s one new entire ice-free month over 30 years.
Stager reported we can expect 4-6 additional inches of precipitation in “bigger dumps” per episode by 2099, and 6-11 degrees F. warmer by then. “These are not natural cycles,” he told the APA. Scientists regularly mention the actual or potential disruptions caused by, for example, earlier spring flowering, earlier insect emergence and later arrival of species of birds, or movements of bird ranges northwards.
Why in the world would the Adirondack Park Agency allow the Department of Environmental Conservation to issue Forest Preserve UMPs that fail to mention climate change, much less analyze actual and potential consequences for public recreation, carrying capacity and wild land management for access and stewardship for wilderness character, hiking, bicycling, snowmobiling, nordic skiing, fishing, hunting, trapping, ice climbing, wildlife observation and more. When planning trails, DEC ought to be considering future mechanized technologies and related recreational pressures when the trails are snow-free for an additional month.
DEC has a staffed Office of Climate Change and many related new mandates. Its Division of Lands and Forests should similarly be consistently climate aware, knowledgeable and accountable. The management consequences of measurable or predicted changes in precipitation or duration of snow and ice, for instance, should be consistently factored into all Forest Preserve UMPs and recreation management planning on private conservation easement lands. And the “good news” of new forest conservation incentives and measures should be shared and promoted by Governor Cuomo, DEC and APA.
Photo of Indian Lake from Snowy Mountain provided.