Woodland wonders

According to Bob Perschel, forest conservation and management can help meet climate goals.


If you worry about climate change, hearing Bob Perschel, Chilmark resident and executive director of the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), share about the organization’s work is a comfort. NEFF’s exciting forest restoration initiative, which has the potential to offset 30 percent of our regional climate mitigation needs to avoid the worst consequences of a changing climate in New England, creates a sense of hope. Perschel will speak about their endeavors at an upcoming hybrid event at the Vineyard Haven library on Tuesday, May 2, at 6 pm.

Trees are not just beautiful, but can also be robust agents in the environment. According to the USDA, the power of one tree is mighty. It quotes the Arbor Day Foundation’s information that in one year, a mature tree will absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange. Now think about it, Perschel points out, there are 31.7 billion trees in New England. He shares that our vast, wondrous woodlands in New England have the potential to help us avoid the worst effects of climate change, support a thriving wildlife population, sustain rural jobs, and just as importantly, provide the raw materials necessary to meet our housing needs.

“So, there are two objectives: to increase the number of trees, which store carbon and thus will keep it out of the atmosphere, and to continue to produce bio-based, renewable, climate-friendly products,” Perschel says. He clarifies that they are renewable because, after harvesting the trees, the forest regenerates — it’s a replenishable source. “If we stop doing that,” he says,“we would have to replace them with nonrenewable products, building with steel, concrete, or plastics, and that’s just going to be worse for the planet. We have 8 billion people on the planet, and in 30 years we’ll have 9.5. They will have to live somewhere, and we don’t have a chance of hitting our climate goals if we build with steel and concrete.” Examples in New England of these sorts of mass timber buildings are the John W. Olver Design Building, created by the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

Perschel will discuss how their research has proven that NEFF’s multipronged management strategy, which they have been practicing for 80 years on their properties, will work to reach a 30 percent carbon reduction in our region. (For more information, check out newenglandforestry.org/learn/initiatives/30-percent.) He will also speak about the practices that have brought the change about. In certain forest types, for instance, what they call exemplary forest standards include going in and thinning the trees out at 20 years of age, rather than letting them grow to 40 years old, and leaving the best trees to grow.

It sounds simple enough, and we’re in one of the most forested regions in the country. However, in northern New England, large commercial owners have bought up millions of acres, parcels as big as Rhode Island. Apparently, those 40 to 50 owners have been undertaking practices that have been diminishing the forest. Perschel says, “Part of the opportunity is to change the practices, and let the trees grow more than they are. But these owners can’t wait that long, based on their current economic system that tends to look out five to 10 years … not the 20 years necessary.” He continues, “They know it’s a good investment, but they can’t wait that long for the return. Our solution is to get into their financial model and provide them with the right incentive so that they’ll do this. This ended up being that they would be paid about $16 a ton of carbon to change their practices, which is really reasonable. The Biden administration recently asked Princeton University to calculate how much it really costs us when we pollute the atmosphere with a ton of carbon. They came up with a figure of $161 a ton, each of which affects the fisheries, people’s health, or the forest gets damaged.”

Perschel believes we are sitting on a very hopeful climate mitigation pathway. “Our forests could really do this, and we can build tall buildings with wood sourced from the right kind of forest. Both of these things can work, but we have to do them correctly,” he says. “There are certain techniques that need to be applied. We are not just talking about cutting trees haphazardly. This is a real scientific/social switch we’re making with these landowners.”

NEFF recently received a $30 million grant from the Department of Agriculture that will allow them to undertake a pilot with 80,000 acres to demonstrate that its approach works, and to figure out the details of how to scale up from there.

“Making our forest better improves the wildlife habitat, provides jobs, and the forest becomes more beautiful, and it’s better for recreation,” Perschel says. “The landowners are happy. You just gave them an incentive. The climate people are happy. You just reduced the carbon. The animals are happy because you’re letting the trees grow, and the people hiking through the forest or cross-country skiing are happy. So we think we have a really good solution here.”

Bob Perschel’s hybrid presentation, “The 30 Percent Climate Solution: Forest Conservation and Management in New England,” will take place on Tuesday, May 2, at 6 pm at the Vineyard Haven library and online at vimeo.com/event/2886385. For more information about the New England Forestry Foundation, see newenglandforestry.org.