Why Wild Forests?
Only 3% of New England is permanently protected from logging.
That's not balanced management.
Forests are New England’s greatest asset as we work to create a more resilient future, naturally sequestering carbon, providing essential habitat for our native biodiversity, and reducing the impacts of droughts and floods. On the global scale, forest protection represents approximately half or more of the climate change mitigation needed to hold temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. New England's temperate deciduous forests are among the planet’s most effective carbon sinks and have an outsized role to play in the global fight against climate change.
Most importantly, wild forests simply deserve to exist.
The old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest get a lot attention, but New England's temperate deciduous forests are carbon storage powerhouses, too. Forests in temperate zones such as here in the Northeast U.S. have a particularly high untapped capacity for carbon storage and sequestration because of high growth and low decay rates, along with exceptionally long periods between stand replacing disturbance events. Our forests function similarly to the moist coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, sequestering and storing carbon for centuries on end. A peer-reviewed study found that the Northeast's forests have the potential to increase carbon storage 2.3 to 4.2--fold if we simply allow them to grow older.
There is a common misconception that young forests are better than old when it comes to removing carbon in the atmosphere. In fact, old forests store much more carbon than young forests, and they continue to sequester carbon as they increase in age.
This map shows carbon storage density (darker green equals more carbon) with New England circled in red. New England is clearly among the most important regions in the US in terms of carbon storage.
What we now call “old forests” were once the majority of New England’s natural forests. Much of New England’s community of life evolved over millennia within these remarkable forests alongside the region's indigenous communities. According to the 2018 Vermont Conservation Design Natural Community and Habitat Technical Report:
“The state’s native flora and fauna that have been here prior to European settlement are adapted to this landscape of old, structurally complex forest punctuated by natural disturbance gaps and occasional natural openings such as wetlands or rock outcrops. The complex physical structure of old forests creates diverse habitats, many of which are absent or much less abundant in younger forests.”
In just the blink of an eye, a combination of overhunting and habitat loss following European settlement led to the disappearance of wide-ranging carnivores such as cougars, wolves and wolverines. Elk and caribou met a similar fate. Some New England species we might take for granted today, such as bear, moose, beaver, and loons, were on the brink of extirpation only a short while ago. Lynx and pine marten currently teeter on the edge. Many of New England’s imperiled bird species are adapted to interior forests and reliant upon the complex structure of old forests for their survival, including standing snags and large living trees. Indeed, the availability of dead, dying, and downed wood (increasingly removed from forests for biofuels, mass timber, or other uses of so-called “low-grade wood”) is critical for the health of many species, from bats to pine marten to invertebrates.
Our native ecosystems preserve – and present the opportunity to restore – the greatest levels of biodiversity. Although passive management is most often all that’s required to restore old forest conditions, it takes centuries to develop forest complexity, requiring permanent protection from timber harvest if restoration is to be successful.
Climate Resilience and Provisioning of Ecosystem Services
Old forests sequester and store the most carbon, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that they are also the most resilient to changes in the climate, produce the highest outputs of ecosystem services like clean water, and are superior at reducing the impacts of droughts and floods. These services protect downstream communities from flooding, purify drinking water at low cost, and maintain base flows and low temperatures in rivers during hot summers for the benefit of fish and wildlife.
Protecting headwaters has been identified as a top priority to mitigate the effects of natural disasters and climate change. After Tropical Storm Irene ravaged western New England in 2011, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation commissioned a report entitled “Enhancing Flood Resiliency of Vermont State Lands.” According to the report:
“There may be a tendency to assume that lands in forest cover are resilient to the effects of flooding simply by virtue of their forested status. However, forest cover does not necessarily equate to forest health and forest flood resilience. Headwater forests of Vermont include a legacy of human modifications that have left certain land areas with a heightened propensity to generate runoff, accelerate soil erosion, and sediment streams. These legacy impacts affect forest lands across the state... The quality of [today’s] forests is not the same as the pre-Settlement old growth forests. The legacy of early landscape development and a history of channel and floodplain modifications continue to impact water and sediment routing from the land [emphasis added]."
A study by the University of Vermont found that:
“[older forests] simultaneously support high levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species richness. Older forests also exhibit low climate sensitivity…compared to younger forests… Strategies aimed at enhancing the representation of older forest conditions at landscape scales will help sustain [ecosystem services and biodiversity] in a changing world.”