Monday, March 05, 2007

Climate change in the Maine woods

Maine Today
March 4, 2007

J.D. Irving Ltd. is Maine's largest private landowner, with 1.3 million acres in Aroostook County. Foresters manage its land primarily for spruce-fir sawlogs, as well as paper mill pulp and power plant fuel.

Now the Canadian-based company is exploring another potential value for those forests that could be worth millions of dollars -- carbon dioxide storage.

Irving is supporting carbon storage as part of plans to establish a Northeast regional program that would cap how much CO2 power plants can emit. To exceed the limits, plants could buy credits from landowners that manage trees in ways that store additional amounts of carbon. That would give forest owners additional financial value from their land.

"The land will have all the same values for the company," said Bill Borland, Irving's director of environmental affairs. "But while we're growing for that, we'll be receiving credits each year for absorbing carbon."

Irving's interest in carbon storage is an early example of how Maine's forest-products industry hopes to position itself to cope with global climate change. It's notable because the topic is just beginning to get serious attention from most forest-dependent businesses in the state.

A warmer, drier world in the 21st century will bring with it changes in tree species, researchers say, transforming Maine's northern forest into a landscape that today s found in southern New England and the Middle Atlantic states. That's bound to be disruptive, in a state that's 90 percent woodland and has long relied on the northern forest as a foundation of its economy.

A few examples: Maple sugar businesses could dry up over the next 50 years, as the familiar hardwood stands of maple and birch in western Maine give way to oak and hickory.

Sawmills in York and Cumberland counties could scramble for high-value white pine, as the species is replaced by loblolly and southern pines.

Paper and lumber mills that depend on the vast spruce-fir resource of northern and eastern Maine would have to adapt to a forest of oak and pine.

Climate change, though, can also bring opportunity for business.

Forest owners may find new values by keeping CO2, the prime greenhouse gas associated with climate change, out of the atmosphere. They also may become a source of fuels that replace oil-based compounds, and be rewarded when wood is substituted for more energy-intensive products, such as steel building materials.

"We're hoping that eventually the markets will mature not only for storage, but for increasing productivity," said Alec Giffen, director of the Maine Forest Service. "That's where the real payoff is."

Giffen spoke last week about carbon markets and sustainable forestry, at a conference in New Hampshire on how climate change could affect the working forest in that state. Other Maine speakers included Eric Kingsley, vice president of Innovative Natural Resources in Portland, who outlined the economic impacts of climate change on New Hampshire's forests; and Stephen Shaler, associate director of the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center at the University of Maine, who discussed the potential for new products and fuels from wood.

Giffen's agency has joined with the U.S. Forest Service and Environment Northeast, a regional advocacy group, to study the potential for northern hardwood forests to store more carbon through various management practices. They have determined that thinning trees prior to harvest -- taking out dead or decaying limbs, for instance -- creates a forest stand that stores more carbon than traditional harvesting methods.

The added carbon storage and the sustainable forestry behind it, they say, should have a dollar value. It's a case that Giffen's agency, Irving and others are making as Northeast states work to set up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market where carbon credits would be traded on a per-ton basis. A so-called cap and trade emissions market already exists in the European Union.

With 17 million acres of forest, Maine may be able to capitalize on its carbon storing capacity. That opportunity would have been impossible a century ago, when much of the land south of Bangor was cleared for farming.

In heavily forested New Brunswick, where Irving has its largest holdings, Borland estimates that carbon credits could be worth $25 million in some future trading market, based on sustainable management practices.

"Healthier trees give you the biggest bang for your buck," Borland said. "You're getting a lot more carbon sequestered in an acre of land."

Carbon caps cut both ways for Irving, a diversified company that's also trying to build a second oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Strict greenhouse gas emission limits in Canada could kill the project, the company said last month.

And while disputes over carbon caps and the human contributions to global warming make headlines, the connection between changing climate and changing woodland is hardly new.

Researchers at the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine have documented the shift in tree species since the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. They have created maps that show how spruce -- so common now in northern Maine -- were confined largely to Canada 1,000 years ago, when the weather was warmer and drier.

The global climate is moving in that direction again, perhaps at a faster rate. It didn't matter 1,000 years ago, but it does now.
Take eastern white pine. Common and valuable enough to be Maine's official state tree, it supports many sawmills and small landowners, especially in southern Maine. What if it becomes less prevalent?

"It's a concern," said Terry Walters, production manager at the Lavalley Lumber sawmill in Sanford. "But there's not much discussion because in the short term, there's not much we can do about it."

Walters is a board member of the Small Woodlot Owners Association of Maine. His more-immediate worry is keeping white pine forests, which tend to occur on well-drained soil, from being developed for house lots.

Walters attended last week's conference in New Hampshire, however. His company wants to stay informed about climate change, he said, even if it's too early to know how to respond.

For some forest enterprises, there's no clear way to react to climate change. That may help explain why interest in the topic is only now emerging in the industry.

For example: Maple sugar generates an average of $6 million in sales each year in Maine. While not a major industry, maple products are part of the identity of northern New England and viewed as a rite of spring.

"People connect with it differently than with a sawmill," said Kingsley at Innovative Natural Resource Solutions. "They connect with it at their breakfast table."

Kingsley outlined a gloomy future for maple products in New Hampshire. The decline in maple trees, he predicted, would basically eliminate the industry within 50 years. The direct economic loss would total $1.8 billion in the 21st century.

New Hampshire is a distant third in New England maple sugar production, well behind Vermont and Maine. So the impact in Maine would be greater. But Jeremy Steeves, secretary treasurer of the 150-member Maine Maple Producers Association, said climate change hasn't generated much discussion in the state's sugar houses.

Steeves, who taps 450 acres of maple at Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan, said his review of 100 years of records suggests only seasonal fluctuations in sap flow and timing. He's not worried about losing Maine's maple stands, at least not over the next generation.

"Personally," he said, "there's not much we can do about it."

Staff writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or

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