Using Nature to Reduce Carbon Pollution
Protecting, restoring and effectively managing forests in Massachusetts stores carbon and supports us all
Natural climate solutions are ways to use forests, wetlands and farms to pull carbon pollution from the air. Protecting, restoring and effectively managing these landscapes safeguards the large amounts of carbon they store. It also results in co-benefits, such as providing clean water and air, supporting healthy soil, creating wildlife habitat and enabling recreational opportunities for nearby communities. Natural climate solutions are critical for tackling climate change, but we also need to greatly reduce fossil fuel use and adapt to the changes we are already seeing to ensure a world where people and nature can thrive together.
In 2018, Nature Conservancy scientists and research partners authored a study defining 21 different natural climate solutions—from restoring forests and coastal wetlands to adjusting farming practices and grassland management—which can increase carbon storage and keep greenhouse gas pollution out of the air. Implementing all 21 pathways will absorb and store carbon equal to more than one-fifth of annual emissions in the United States.
Natural Climate Solutions in Massachusetts
Massachusetts has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from lands and increasing the size of its carbon sinks through the climate law it passed in early 2021. TNC in Massachusetts supports these goals, and in addition to protecting land and sustainably managing forests, we are advocating for policies that support tree planting, help farmers increase soil carbon, and make natural climate solutions easier and more effective for people to implement.
Natural climate solutions fall into three main categories: protection of natural systems, improved management practices on natural and working lands, and restoration of native plant cover.
"Much of TNC in Massachusetts’ focus is on protecting, managing and restoring forests, because these lands have the most potential for carbon sequestration and storage in the state," says Laura Marx, climate solutions scientist for the chapter. "However, there are also opportunities around wetlands and agricultural soils too. All are going to be needed to offset carbon emissions at the rate necessary to keep us on the right trajectory."
Protect: Preserving Our Forests
Protecting natural systems—especially forests in Massachusetts—is the most efficient natural climate solution, since clearing and developing these lands both releases the carbon they store and destroys their ability to continually remove carbon from the air. When you lose the amount of carbon stock stored in existing forests, it takes decades of restoration and management to build up such stores again, too long to help us reach our climate goals. Which lands are being protected also matters—TNC’s land protection is guided by the places that will stand the test of time to best support native plants and animals now and into the future, using our Resilient and Connected Network data.
Armed with data on resilience and carbon storage potential, TNC is protecting lands at the intersection of both benefits. For example, in 2020, a 340-acre forest property in Sandisfield and New Marlborough, Massachusetts, was listed for sale. It was set to become one of the nearly 22,000 acres of land that is deforested in New England and New York each year. Fortunately, TNC, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council and the state of Massachusetts collaborated to protect the property in perpetuity.
Conserving the property prevented any of the 37,100 metric tons of carbon stored in the forest from being released into the atmosphere, in addition to connecting priority protected lands within the Berkshire Wildlife Linkage. Each year, the trees of this forest are expected to remove from the air and store an additional 51.8 metric tons of carbon. That’s roughly equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of 58 passenger vehicles over one year.
Avoided Deforestation: A Climate Mitigation Opportunity
Deforestation is a major threat to forests in the northeastern U.S. It compounds climate challenges by releasing even more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere from the destruction of trees, and also by eliminating tree growth—one of the best tools we have for drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A study from Clark University, “Avoided Deforestation: A Climate Mitigation Opportunity in New England and New York,” assesses what seven northeastern states could do to protect the climate by curbing deforestation. This study was funded by TNC and a grant to the U.S. Climate Alliance by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The carbon data underpinning the study can be viewed using TNC’s Resilient Lands Map tool.
Manage: Climate-Smart Forestry
In certain cases, improved forestry practices can significantly reduce emissions while maintaining commodity production and land use. Climate-smart forestry supports working forests by reducing stressors—like invasive species or deer—and implementing sustainable management practices. These can include planting trees, increasing time between harvests, removing invasive species, protecting seedlings and saplings from deer browse, creating gaps to promote regeneration, and retaining more carbon in a thinning.
In Massachusetts, private landowners own 66% of forests, so TNC is finding ways to work with them to increase the adoption of climate-smart forestry practices. In fall 2021, TNC and the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science released a landowner and forester guide: Healthy Forests for Our Future. It describes ten forestry practices that increase the carbon stored in the forest within 20 years, while increasing the forest’s ability to adapt to climate change impacts.
Scaling Climate-Smart Strategies
TNC has been working with five landowners across Massachusetts—and five more in Vermont—to pilot climate-smart forestry practices, thanks to funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Natural Climate Solutions Accelerator grant program.
“TNC’s program allows us to step up our game and implement practices that are often out of reach because of financial constraints,” says Lincoln Fish, one of the foresters participating in the pilot. “The landowner with whom I work was able to invest in the future of her forest and its carbon storage capabilities by protecting trees from the stresses of deer browsing and invasive plants.”
What we are learning from this pilot is helping to inform a new incentive program, the Family Forest Carbon Program (FFCP). The FFCP, a partnership between TNC and the American Forest Foundation, pays family forest landowners to manage their forests in ways that increase the amount of carbon absorbed by and stored in the forest. The FFCP began in Pennsylvania and is expanding to New England and New York in 2022, and includes several of the science-based forest management practices outlined in the Healthy Forests for Our Future guide.
Most of TNC’s preserves in Massachusetts are situated within resilient, intact forest cores where they are best managed by nature—without commercial timber harvesting. However, we also own lands in areas outside forest cores, places where there is opportunity to practice climate-smart forestry on our own lands. TNC is collaborating with the New England Forestry Foundation to participate in The Pooled Timber Income Fund (PTIF), an innovative program that has the potential to protect thousands of acres of forest land while also supporting production of local wood products and increasing carbon storage, maintaining wildlife habitat and supporting recreation. We currently lease 500 acres across two of our preserves in Western Massachusetts to the PTIF, demonstrating how conservation and forestry can work hand in hand.
“Programs like these help us to scale up natural climate solutions in Massachusetts,” says Laura Marx, forest ecologist for TNC in Massachusetts. “By doing things a little differently, landowners are able to generate income, and in some cases, wood products, while ensuring that their forests maintain their carbon-absorbing power.”
Restore: Opportunities for Reforestation
Restoring forests provides vital benefits by increasing the land area or functionality of ecosystems that have been degraded or converted from their historical state. Reforestation helps increase carbon sequestration on these lands, in addition to providing habitat and connectivity for wildlife, supporting native plant life, improving water quality and quantity and increasing air quality.
TNC in Massachusetts has a long history working to reforest floodplains, such as the Fannie Stebbins Memorial Wildlife Refuge along the Connecticut River. These efforts include planting disease-resistant elm trees alongside habitat enhancement and hydrology improvement. Across the state, there are also many small streambanks and fields with soils that make it challenging to grow crops. A new program from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs will fund reforestation of streambanks for both climate and natural benefits.