Michigan forests could become partner in carbon storage, climate change fight

Generally speaking, foresters count on Michigan’s 3.9 million acres of state forest for two primary things: Maximizing a steady supply of timber, and providing a habitat for wildlife.

A third value could soon be found in the potential for storing carbon, leading to Michigan’s forest land being recruited for a fight to limit climate change.

The director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources points out that climate change, at its base, can be boiled down to a math problem.

“We are contributing a lot more carbon into the atmosphere than we are able to sequester, consume and store,” said DNR chief Daniel Eichinger.

Sequestering carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming, refers to storing it in some manner.  Michigan’s state forests, some of the largest in the nation, have plenty of room to store carbon.

Because older trees have already stored most of the carbon they’ll ever handle, Ed Golder, a public information officer for the DNR, said it amounts to planting more trees because “young trees have more carbon storage potential.”

Sequestering carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming, refers to storing it in some manner.  Michigan’s state forests, some of the largest in the nation, have plenty of room to store carbon.

That amounts to planting more trees because younger trees have more carbon storage potential, said Ed Golder, a public information officer for the DNR. Older trees have already stored most of the carbon they ever will.

Some forestry experts, though, are worried the new emphasis on carbon storage might come with a cost: Restrictions on harvesting the forest.

Scott Robbins, the public affairs director for the Michigan Forest Products Council, said he hopes the new value doesn’t interfere with timber production.

“We don’t see any reason to be alarmed,” Robbins said. “Although it can get sticky if they start putting restrictions on there that you can’t manage the timber.”

Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican from Vulcan chairs the House Natural Resources Committee. His Upper Peninsula district includes Copper Country and Escanaba River state forests.

Restrictions could be problem
He agrees restrictions on cutting trees down could become a problem. 

“I love to plant trees. I think it’s great,” McBroom said. “I also don’t want us to get into any sort of position where we don’t recognize that trees need to be harvested eventually.”

According to Eichinger, another way carbon sequestration is maximized is by using timber from older trees to construct buildings. That way, he said, the carbon stored in them can stay for as long as the building stands. 

McBroom lauded Michigan Technological University in Houghton for the work it’s doing in this area.

“We should be doing a lot more when it comes to building with wood,” he said. “(MTU) is doing some tremendous work on large scale wood buildings. If there’s a benefit in continuing to sequester the carbon, that’s an added bonus.”

Michigan State University’s STEM Teaching and Learning Facility, the first of its kind in Michigan, is built with mass timber – large, older trees that continue to store the carbon they’ve accumulated rather than release it as a greenhouse gas. Photo by David Poulson

Storing carbon in forests could grant the state access to the carbon credit market, Golder said. These markets allow companies that emit greenhouse gases to buy credits from places that store carbon in an effort to be more environmentally friendly.

In this case the state would sell the carbon storing capacity of trees on state forests to companies that need to reduce their emissions.

Cap and trade
California runs a regulated cap and trade program now, but it is largely filled up and difficult to access, Golder said. The California program is regulated with specific caps for polluters, he said. A cap and trade program is more robust than a voluntary market.

Michigan’s DNR is hoping for renewed national momentum.

“What we were thinking of doing is getting ourselves well-positioned, anticipating there probably will be some sort of a national carbon tax or cap and trade system put in place within the next two years,” Golder said.

The Nature Conservancy in Michigan is finalizing an assessment from Bluesource to gain  revenue from the carbon storage potential in more than 6,000 acres of its Wilderness Lakes Reserve in the Upper Peninsula, said Richard Bowman, the association’s director of working lands.

The Nature Conservancy plans to enter California’s regulated market, Bowman said.  Voluntary carbon credit markets work, just not as quickly as their regulated counterparts, he said. 

“The fact is, there’s more and more pressure on companies not only to be environmentally responsible, but to prove they’re being environmentally responsible,” Bowman said.

Take some timeBut for the scale of Michigan’s state forests, a regulated carbon market may be necessary to generate the environmental benefit state officials desire.

“Absent some sort of mechanism to force that transaction, it would probably take a long time to utilize the carbon that’s being sequestered in the state forest system to offset that many emissions,” Bowman said.

Michigan could model California’s policy, but would face political opposition, Bowman said. 

“I’m opposed to any sort of mandate from a government that would force somebody to go to this marketplace,” McBroom said. “As long as it remains a free-will thing, that’s A-OK with me.”

Still, the benefit for the state government to begin managing state forests in this way has an immense environmental benefit, Bowman said.

“What we don’t want to lose in all of this is that managing forests in a sustainable way that they both produce an ongoing supply of timber and wood fiber for human needs, but they are also managed in a way that sequesters carbon, is one of the really positive things that we can do to try to offset emissions,” Bowman said.

“We’re going to need to do everything we can think of to offset emissions,” he said.

Evan Jones of Capital News Service contributed to this report. See the story at http://news.jrn.msu.edu/2019/11/plant-trees-store-carbon-save-the-environment