One of the great joys of wandering through a Vermont forest is finding old trees. Ancient gnarled maples and oaks often mark the boundary of long-abandoned pastures and help tell the story of a landscape that has changed through the centuries. Known as “witness trees” for having stood the test of time, these trees ground me in the knowledge that our decisions today will affect generations a hundred years from now.
As the third-most-forested state in the lower 48, Vermont’s 4.6 million acres of forestland are a critical part of the last, largest remaining extent of temperate forest in the world. The maples, oaks, beech and birch that make up our northern forest, spanning from the Tug Hill plateau in New York through Vermont and into the Canadian Maritimes, have long been diminished if not entirely lost from many parts of Europe and Asia.
While this expanse of forest has seen generations of change, today’s forest is a workhorse in service of modern society. Not only do our forests continue to provide timber, sustain wildlife, and support recreation, but intact forests clean our water, stabilize soil, and maintain the genetic diversity that helps combat disease and pests.
As the Nature Conservancy revealed in its ground-breaking 2017 study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, healthy forests could offer 37% of the emissions reductions needed to keep the earth’s warming below 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. In fact, researchers found that carbon-absorbing trees, especially larger, older trees, have the greatest potential to cost-effectively reduce excess carbon in the atmosphere.
And, ancient groves may have even more benefits than we imagined. This past June, University of Vermont researchers found that as forests age, their capacity to store carbon and provide habitat for a range of species actually increases. This is because older forests are more structurally complex, with lots of downed trees, differing age classes, natural canopy gaps and more genetic diversity. According to this research, older forests are simply better at managing the impacts of climate change.
Because of Vermont’s land-use history, with rugged hill farms where sheep were raised into the late 19th century, only a few isolated patches of old forest remain. Most experts estimate that less than 1% of Vermont’s forests are older than 150 years, and the majority of our forests have yet to reach the age of 100. So, how can we manage our forests to absorb more carbon? While we can’t speed up time, we can still manage some of our forests to promote old-growth conditions.
In fact, Vermont Conservation Design, a visionary report by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, recommends that 15% of priority forest blocks should be managed for old-forest condition to achieve maximum resiliency and ecological function.
One way to help reach this target is to provide financial incentives for landowners to manage their forests for an older condition. Enrollment in carbon markets, where carbon credits are bought and sold as part of a long-term effort to reduce greenhouse gases, is one such incentive. To pilot this effort, the Nature Conservancy enrolled its 5,400-acre Burnt Mountain property in Montgomery into the California carbon market. The sale of carbon credits will help lower carbon emissions and provide a new revenue stream that can be reinvested in more forestland conservation, while also helping Vermont work toward its climate and ecological management goals.
The potential for more private landowners to benefit from carbon markets is good news for the health of Vermont’s forests. The Burnt Mountain project and others, such as the forest carbon partnership between Vermont Land Trust and Cold Hollow to Canada, have attracted the attention of landowners, lawmakers and government. Coming out of this legislative session, The Vermont Forest Carbon Sequestration Working Group will study how to create a statewide program to facilitate more participation in carbon sequestration markets and provide new income for forestland owners, while also supporting our timber and recreation economies.
While not every forest should be managed for carbon, the possibilities are exciting. More diverse, healthy forests mean a more resilient, healthy Vermont. And, as the witness trees offer a glimpse of decisions made long-ago, I hope that more Vermonters find themselves experiencing the beauty and majesty of old forests because of our actions today.
Heather Furman is the state director of the Nature Conservancy in Vermont.