Massachusetts was the first state in the US to recognize that burning forest biomass generally increases emissions compared to fossil fuels, ultimately deleting biomass electricity plants from the list of technologies eligible to receive renewable energy subsidies.  The state’s science-based approach to policymaking on climate is now showcased in a new report on forests as climate solutions.

The report was written by a committee of stakeholders. While inevitably reflecting some business-as-usual forest industry perspectives, there is a lot to like about this report. The main unresolved issues are the advantages of active versus passive management, and a persistent credulity about the climate benefits of harvested wood products, which is counterbalanced to some degree with warnings about the need for lifecycle accounting.

People have an opportunity to comment on the report. The main page states:

We invite public comment to inform the state’s implementation of the recommendations. To provide written comment on this report, please do so via the following form: share comments Comments submitted by January 24th at 5pm will facilitate consideration. If you are limited by length or wish to share attachments, please send materials to guidelines@mass.gov.

 

Quotable highlights of the report include:

Forests for climate
“Unsurprisingly, disturbing the forests of Massachusetts as little as possible and allowing forests to grow and age through passive management is generally the best approach for maximizing carbon, ecological integrity, and soil health.”

Carbon Stocks and Sequestration
“The Committee generally agreed that passive management confers greater increases in carbon stocks than active, and that allowing forests to grow and age is typically best to maximize carbon storage. The Committee strongly agreed that carbon storage is typically greatest in old forests and disproportionately in the largest trees, and that Massachusetts forests can continue to accumulate carbon for many decades if undisturbed.”

Soils
“The Committee strongly agreed on the importance of the soil carbon pool, which is underappreciated and often larger than the amount of carbon found in living biomass. They concluded that the most important way to preserve soil carbon (and advance related climate and environmental objectives) is to allow forests to mature naturally, and when harvesting, employ practices that reduce the disruption of forest soils and the complex biodiversity of fungi and other organisms that inhabit them.”

Salvage logging
“The Committee found no ecological rationale for salvage harvesting and noted that it usually represents a short term (10-20 year) carbon loss to the atmosphere in comparison to leaving the wood to decay. In most circumstances, it recommended foregoing salvage harvesting and leaving dead wood to realize the habitat quality and biodiversity benefits.”

“The Committee was deeply skeptical of pre-salvage harvesting (removal before trees are affected by a pest or pathogen) and the notion that it is ecologically beneficial and indicated that it could only be justified in very narrow circumstances, such as trees causing a public safety hazard or a rapid response to a novel detrimental species occurrence”

Managing for habitat
Recommendation: “establishing habitat goals that place less emphasis on early successional habitat and more emphasis on late successional habitat and the development of old-growth forest characteristics.”

Protected lands
“Increase the Commonwealth’s 2050 land conservation goal from 40% to 50% of Massachusetts to be consistent with what the IPCC has called for.”

“Protect significant forest areas in western Massachusetts to help create a large uninterrupted corridor of protected forest extending from Pennsylvania to Canada.”

Harvested wood products
“A critical cautionary note is that increasing the use of long-lived wood products and substituting them for other materials will not necessarily increase stored carbon or reduce net emissions if harvest volume is increased.  Some on the Committee also called for more impartial research on the carbon implications of substituting wood for other materials.”

Recommendation: “Evaluate life cycle carbon emissions of forest practices and products relative to other materials and processes and publish findings for Massachusetts forests.”

 

Taken together, these recommendations provide firm scientific grounding for implementing stronger protections of private and forested lands in Massachusetts. Pending legislation in Massachusetts would ensure that state forested lands are managed in alignment with the committee’s recommendations. For more information about the MA forest protection bills, visit https://www.savemassforests.com/.

Massachusetts lights the path for forests and climate