While it’s pretty audacious to reduce the Northeast, a region with hundreds of unique ecosystems, to three generalized parts, if pushed, you can do it. There’s the North Woods, stretching through Northern Maine, the Whites, the Greens, and the Adirondacks. Then there’s the middle, hill-country forest in mid-Maine, southern New Hampshire and Vermont, the Berkshires, the Catskills. And, finally, southern New England, with its flatter land and proximity to the population centers on the coast. You can see these rough divisions on forest maps – the sub-boreal regions of the far north transition to the Acadian hill forests in the midlands before becoming oak/hickory forests in the south. You can see the lines on settlement and forest cover maps: dark green in the still sparsely populated North Woods morphing into a light green mix of farms, forests, and development before becoming heavily populated pink and red fingers that point toward Portland, Boston, Providence, and New York City.
These north/south divisions give us a framework for telling stories about land conservation efforts, too. In the North Woods, the big story in land conservation over the past 25 years has been the fate of large blocks of industrial forestland – Joe Rankin’s story on page 40 relates to this. From the moment Diamond International sold 1,000,000 acres of forest in 1988 to the Finch Paper-to-The Nature Conservancy-to New York DEC deal that was recently completed in the Adirondacks, the burning question in conservation circles has been, How can large blocks of forestland and the rural ways of life (animal and human) that are attached to them be kept intact?
In the middle region, where most parcels are more modest in size, the conservation questions tend to revolve around forest health and development pressure. How can income be generated from a forest that, through generations of high-grading, has been reduced to a fiber supply? Or from a forest that, through simple farmland reversion, is stocked with 50-year-old pasture pine and red maple? And, as development pressure increases and tax rates go up, how do you keep a 135-acre lot of marginal timberland from becoming five neat 27-acre lots?
In the south, of course, the high population density shifts the paradigm, and conservation becomes more about preserving what’s left.
As fate would have it, right after we received Rankin’s piece, Chuck Wooster sent us an update on carbon credits (page 18). For years there’s been buzz around the idea that a carbon credit could become a saleable forest product, and since the new California initiative went into effect on January 1, the buzz has increased.
I’m as confused by the idea of buying and selling an invisible product as you are. And even proponents of carbon credit trading agree that there’s a host of open questions about the endeavor’s viability: Is the math reliable enough to establish a carbon baseline on a property, from which someone can measure an increase or decrease in carbon storage over time? What about the problem of fixing the price, even if you can quantify the increase in stored carbon? How do you deal with the fact that forest ownership is constantly in flux? (And nature, too – how do you factor a forest fire into your sequestration plans?) And what greater good has been accomplished when relatively well-off landowners in the Northeast, where there’s a long tradition of sustainable forest management, are paid to take their forestland out of production, and the hole left in the global wood market is filled by black market Cambodian hardwood that’s being cut from a steep hillside by some poor logger making $5 a log so he can put food on the table?
I’m skeptical, frankly. If the Emperor is wearing clothes, he’s wearing a flesh-colored body suit and my eyes are getting old. But it helps if, instead of considering the whole idea based on a small woodlot in the middle or southern part of the region, I picture it working on one of those big parcels up north, where there are greater social and ecological benefits to be gained from preventing fragmentation. If timberland owners can use carbon credits to diversify the management portfolio on their 50,000 acres; and if the associated management for carbon improves the land’s carbon storage capacity and also makes it more productive in a traditional cords-and-boards sense (thus allowing the carbon credits market to complement the wood products market, not compete with it); and if this market-based “solution” to emissions control really does push polluters to clean up their acts, and the entire system doesn’t just become a twenty-first-century version of the old Catholic system of indulgences (commit a sin, pay your way to absolution) – as some fear – or a drain on the economy – as others fear – then, well…