Climate Matters: A carbon bomb in our Green Mountain National Forest?
I believe that the staff at the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) are good, well-meaning professionals who care deeply about our forest, but that they are locked into outdated science and policies in a 2006 Forest Plan that works directly against efforts to mitigate climate change.
I am part of Save Public Forests (savepublicforests.org), a Vermont and Massachusetts coalition of scientists, ecologists, foresters, and other citizens dedicated to contemporary, science-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises worsened by forest degradation. We want you to know what’s at stake, and to propose a new forestry paradigm for the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to consider.
A proposal has been recently released by our GMNF called the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project south and east of Brandon, which includes logging 11,800 acres of mostly old and mature forest, an area larger than the City of Burlington. Most of the stands are 80-160 years old, already sequestering vast amounts of carbon and continuously taking up and storing tens of thousands more tons each year.
Cutting them is a huge problem. We conservatively calculate that the Telephone Gap logging will remove at least 446,000 Mt (metric tons) of carbon from the GMNF. For comparison: 446,000 Mt of carbon is equal to the annual emissions of 354,300 cars, 1.6 times the total number of registered passenger vehicles in Vermont (221,936 as of 2021). Or 1.6 times the emissions from the McNeil Biomass Power Plant, Vermont’s largest point source of carbon emissions (about 340,684 Mt in 2022).
When the trees are cut, some of the wood will make it into durable wood products, but, based on recent sales, much will go for pulp and biomass burning that result in release of CO2. Considering that and the additional emissions from logging activity and processing, the Telephone Gap “carbon bomb” will release an enormous amount of stored carbon that will take decades to recapture. A global climate solution cannot wait that long.
A NEW PARADIGM
Here’s the urgency, and it is personal to us all. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us that we may reach the tipping point of 2.7 degrees F above the pre-industrial baseline as early as 2030 to 2040. The Global Carbon Budget Tracker report of 2022 reinforces that, saying we only have nine years left before we reach the tipping point. The IPCC says mass starvation, forced immigration of a hundred million people, and global economic instability are virtually inevitable beyond 2.7 degrees.
Today we are at 2 degrees, and we are seeing almost daily accounts of climate disasters here and abroad causing billions of dollars of damage and untold misery. It is easy to see how serious these predictions are. This is a-here-and-now thing. My grandson Arlo is two, and we may be beyond the tipping point before he is a teenager. How old will your loved ones be in 10-20 years?
Business as usual, including in forestry, must end now if we are to save the next generations from a very chaotic future. Ominously, New England is warming about 50% faster than the global average, according to EPA data.
To help, we need to better appreciate the role of forests in fighting global warming. Forests, especially old forests, absorb and store 50% of the above ground carbon worldwide. New England’s forests are one of the largest, most important concentrations of carbon-dense older forests in the U.S., and they could store two to four times more carbon if we just let them grow (UVM study). Keeping our old trees standing in our national forests is immediate, takes virtually no effort, and saves taxpayers’ money.
Save Public Forests is part of a nationwide groundswell led by Climate-Forests, a group of more than 120 groups pushing for a change in many of the USFS’s core policies and practices. Climate-Forests has reviewed proposed national forest timber sales across the country. Telephone Gap is identified as one of the 10 worst projects in the U.S.
My hope is that the good people of the GMNF will creatively lead from within on Telephone Gap and show the nation a new way forward.
CLIMATE ACTION MATTERS
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires alternatives to a proposed project such as Telephone Gap to be analyzed as part of an Environmental Assessment (EA). This can either be a meaningless perfunctory exercise, or it can shine a light on a serious new “climate-smart forestry” alternative.
I and others propose that the GMNF consider working with community groups and proactively take the lead in developing a new proposal that takes seriously the spirit of President Biden’s 2022 Executive Order and charts a new course for the USFS.
We suggest the essence of this would include designating a major amount of the project area as “carbon reserves,” in which there is very little to no cutting or site disturbance, and the old stands are allowed to grow older and bigger. Managing younger forest stands could be done in a way to produce lumber or other forest products, but in a way that also increases the average volume of stored carbon per acre over time.
Creating climate-smart forestry that sequesters carbon and increases resilience to climate change while producing forest products is a need that extends far beyond this project to the nation and the world. With Congressional support, community collaboration, and GMNF creativity, this could become a research laboratory and model for climate-smart forestry.
To date the GMNF has received over 600 comments on the project; more than 500 are in opposition. It would seem wise for the GMNF to work in collaboration with the larger community to develop an innovative project that enjoys widespread support rather than opposition that will certainly result in appeals and stronger actions.
Additional Actions Recommended for the Telephone Gap project are:
1. The Telephone Gap proposal and the 2006 Forest Plan on which it is based are critically out of date because they do not significantly consider the project’s impact on climate change. The Telephone Gap project should be stopped until it and the 2006 Forest Plan are revised to quantify and mitigate the effect on climate change.
2. Biodiversity: There is widespread scientific agreement that we are now in the sixth global mass extinction, much due to habitat loss. The Telephone Gap project area harbors thousands of species, many of which depend on interior mature and old forests for survival. We should protect them, not destroy their habitat.
3. The policy of cutting old trees is climate flawed. (Note: seedlings are hardly ever planted in New England’s forests. Natural regeneration is sufficient.) When stands of old trees are cut the area becomes a net source of CO2 for 10-20 years. Watch a fascinating 10-minute PBS video on this research at tinyurl.com/Forest-Carbon.
4. Cutting old forests to create young forests accelerates climate change. At the core of the 2006 Forest Plan and this project is an outdated policy of manipulating the forest by targeted cutting to bend it into conformity with Forest Service goals. The project proposes reducing mature and old forest from 12,000 acres to as few as 5,400, while increasing younger forest categories from 1,700 acres to as many as 10,500.
COMMENT BY MARCH 13
If you share my concerns and support for this alternative, please comment by filling in the simple form at tinyurl.com/forest-comment.
Please be as specific as you can. The Telephone Gap proposal can be read at tinyurl.com/Telephone-Gap. Equally important, please express your concerns to our members of Congress — Sen. Bernie Sanders, 202-224-5141; Sen. Peter Welch, 202-224-4242; and Rep. Becca Balint, 202-225-4115. Email addresses can be found online.
Howard Jennings, a Bristol resident, is the former research director of Mobility Lab, a transportation think tank in Virginia. He is now working with Save Public Forests, a collective effort of scientists, researchers, ecologists and individuals from many organizations, united in researching and promoting realistic modern-day solutions to climate change, forest degradation and the biodiversity crisis.
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