Protecting forests that help fight climate change

By Tom Gilbert

In the fight against climate change, some of New Jersey’s strongest weapons are tall, green, and leafy.

Trees, through their natural process of photosynthesis, extract harmful carbon dioxide from the air and emit oxygen. The carbon is stored in the wood, roots and surrounding soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun like in a greenhouse.

The warming of the Earth due to excess greenhouse gases leads to rising sea levels, increased precipitation, and more extreme and deadly weather events. These changes have major impacts on public health and safety, infrastructure and the economy.

New Jersey now considers forests and other “natural and working lands” a key part of its climate change strategy.

While all trees sequester carbon, scientific studies increasingly show that mature forests do it better. A study in the Northeast found that forests over 170 years old supported the highest levels of carbon storage, wood growth and species richness.

Almost all of New Jersey’s forests are decades younger, and they will mature and store carbon at a rapid rate for a long time – if we let them.

For a small, densely A populous state, New Jersey is rich in forests. This state we are in is 42% forested, 62% of which is public land.

But our forests face many threats, including an overabundance of deer, invasive plant species and pest insects. For mature forests with large, healthy trees, another potential threat comes from inappropriate commercial logging on public lands.

Active forest management on public lands is sometimes necessary to deal with threats such as disease and pests, and to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.

However, New Jerseyans might be surprised to learn that commercial logging that has nothing to do with reducing threats to forest health is sometimes carried out on our public lands, including state parks. , counties and even municipalities.

How to protect our public forests — including those that sequester the most carbon — was the topic of a recent online panel discussion, hosted by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

Elliott Ruga, director of policy and communications for the Highlands Coalition, noted that officials at all levels of government can be tempted by the potential revenue from commercial logging. These revenues can help fill budget holes by paying taxes.

But are the revenues from logging worth the sacrifice?

Ecologist Leslie Sauer, author of “The Once and Future Forest”, noted that mature, intact forests are much more valuable for carbon sequestration and other ecological services than for logging.

“It’s hard to overstate the seriousness of the problem of climate change,” Sauer told an online audience of about 360 people. “At the end of the day, nothing sequesters carbon better than a forest. We need to manage our forests as carbon stores.

Sauer and many other environmentalists favor “proforestation” – leaving forests mature in their natural state without active management – to reach their highest carbon storage potential. New Jersey should identify areas of intact, mature forest on public lands where proforestation is the management priority.

Dr Emile DeVito, New Jersey Conservation Foundation staff ecologist, said that although New Jersey currently has relatively little commercial logging on public lands, the rate could increase in the coming years.

The vast majority of public forests are unprotected from commercial logging, and there are relatively few “natural areas”, a designation by the state that would offer greater protection.

DeVito noted that New Jersey has virtually no virgin and old-growth forests left. The oldest forests in the state, over 130 years old, are barely middle-aged.

“Our healthiest and most mature forests will sequester carbon at a rapid rate for more than another century. We need to set most of them aside as carbon stores or natural areas, and focus our active forest management efforts on degraded forests in need of ecological restoration,” DeVito said.

Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley Community College who studies forests in northern and central New Jersey, said many forests don’t regenerate because deer eat saplings and saplings before they grow. reach a safe height.

Deer populations have been exploding since the 1970s, he said, and the overabundance of deer remains the biggest threat to forests’ ability to combat climate change. Our forests desperately need strong measures that succeed in reducing the deer population.

State Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, agreed that state policy should be revised to provide a higher level of protection for public forests.

One of the reasons Earth’s climate is warming so rapidly, he said, is that “we have attacked forests all over the world. We are going the wrong way, all over the world, on forests.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is turning to forests and other “natural and working lands” as part of its multi-pronged strategy to combat climate change.

Governor Phil Murphy recently signed an executive order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors by 50% by 2030.

A natural and working lands strategy will be helpful. New Jersey’s forests and other natural and working lands currently store the equivalent of 8% of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. The state plans to increase the carbon stored in forests, wetlands and agricultural soils.

In December, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Agriculture jointly released a “guidance document” outlining ways in which these lands can store more carbon.

The agencies are collecting public comments until February 11, and a full plan is expected to be completed before the end of the year. So make your voice heard on the important role our forests can play in the fight against climate change.

To read the document, go to

Tom Gilbert is co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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