Climate Change in the Northeast

The Earth’s climate is changing rapidly and unpredictably. Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, are emitted by people through deforestation, land use changes, and burning fossil fuels. In the coming decades, the Northeast will likely see more frequent and severe ice storms, tornadoes, droughts, fires, floods, and other extreme weather events.

We don’t know exactly how climate change will affect forests and wildlife in the Northeast. We do know things will be different—probably very different—especially if we don’t take significant and immediate steps to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. A report released by the UN in 2019 states that human actions now “threaten more species with extinction than ever before.”  

In the best-case scenario, the Northeast’s future forest ecosystem will continue to be shaped by cold winters. Those winters will still be much warmer and we can imagine that northeastern forests will look similar to today’s Pennsylvanian forests. However, the more likely trajectory is that the forests of the Northeast will become more like those of the Carolinas.

Either way, climate change will continue, with dramatic consequences for nature and society. Recent peer-reviewed science demonstrates that there is perhaps no better solution for combating climate change than permanent protection of wildlands. From the global Half-Earth Project of E.O. Wilson to the regional work of Northeast Wilderness Trust, wild forests offer hope. Moreover, setting aside forests that already exist by legally preserving them as forever-wild is proving to be the most scalable, cost efficient, and effective option for carbon storage.

Northeast Wilderness Trust is embarking on an ambitious effort to help curtail the worst effects of climate change using a three-pronged approach: mitigate, adapt, and rewild.

One can see from space how the human race has changed the Earth. Nearly all of the available land has been cleared of forest and is now used for agriculture or urban development. The polar icecaps are shrinking and the desert areas are increasing. At night, the Earth is no longer dark, but large areas are lit up. All of this is evidence that human exploitation of the planet is reaching a critical limit. But human demands and expectations are ever-increasing. We cannot continue to pollute the atmosphere, poison the ocean and exhaust the land. There isn’t any more available.

Stephen Hawking, Physicist & Author

Mitigate

Northeast Wilderness Trust is working hard to proforest the Northeast. “Proforestation” is the act of permanently protecting existing forests as wilderness, so that they can sequester and store their full potential of carbon. Vast reserves of carbon can be captured by protecting land as forever-wild. When a forest is no longer logged or harvested, virtually all of the carbon on those acres will stay in the forest, and not in the atmosphere. On average, Northern Hardwood Forests store 77 metric tons of carbon per acre, and Spruce-Fir forests store 79 metric tons of carbon per acre.* Furthermore, the belief that old forests give off carbon into the atmosphere has been disproved by research showing that old, wild forests act as carbon sinks for centuries.**

Northeast Wilderness Trust is working to create a Wild Carbon market to incentivize proforestation. Northeast Wilderness Trust pioneered wild carbon credits, having developed our first carbon project in 2010.

Not all carbon credits are equal. Credits generated on forever-wild land are the gold standard because the carbon storage impact is permanent. Only permanently protected wildlands can claim that carbon storage will continue in perpetuity.

Managed forestland or timberland credits do not guarantee that carbon won’t be released into the atmosphere when the term of the carbon project has ended (usually after about 40 years). To sell credits on a managed forest, a landowner agrees to keep their property forested (but still harvested), or agrees to improve the sustainability of their management practices—but only for a few decades.

The climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change.

Greta Thunberg, climate activist

Wild Carbon credits, on the other hand, are created by protecting forests as forever-wild. These forests will never be converted to another type of land use (timber, agricultural, residential, or commercial), and will never release carbon through logging. Every forest that generates Wild Carbon credits is a future old-growth forest.

In 2010, the Wilderness Trust enrolled the 500-acre Howland Research Forest and 1,500 acres of the Alder Stream Wilderness Preserve in the California Climate Action Reserve (CAR), becoming one of the first land trusts in the country to register Wild Carbon credits. In 2016, the Wilderness Trust began to see revenue from this Wild Carbon project. To date, credits from these two properties alone have generated more than $580,000 in unrestricted income. These funds support the conservation of even more wilderness.

Northeast Wilderness Trust is currently assembling a new Wild Carbon project, to sell credits on properties it owns across the Northeast. Our goal is to create a model that will be easily replicated across the region, allowing private landowners and land trusts to realize financial benefits when they choose to keep forests standing and storing carbon indefinitely.

Forest carbon credits sell, on average, for higher prices than other carbon credits (such as agricultural, methane abatement, or gas capture). This is largely because of all the other benefits beyond carbon storage that come along with protecting forests, including wildlife habitat, clean air and water, and recreation. Landowners or land trusts interested in entering our Wild Carbon program, or businesses looking to offset their carbon footprints, can email sophie@newildernesstrust.org to learn more.

In addition to proforestation and Wild Carbon credits, Northeast Wilderness Trust takes all possible steps to minimize the amount of fossil fuels it takes to run the organization and conserve land. Read more about our Green Guarantee here.

Adapt

If human and natural communities are to survive a rapidly changing climate, we must act now and use a variety of strategies. Humanity needs to immediately reduce fossil fuel use and increase carbon storage, but that’s not all. We also must restore degraded ecosystems and preserve the few natural areas that are still healthy and whole. Creating new wilderness (i.e. parks, protected areas, ecological reserves, natural areas, and private conserved lands) is critical to maintaining biodiversity in the coming decades. Diverse, interconnected habitats are essential for species to evolve, move around, and occupy new habitats as the climate rapidly changes.

But protecting individual, isolated pockets of habitat is not enough. If healthy and vibrant natural landscapes are to prosper, we must create corridors of vast forestland. Large forest blocks, uninterrupted by roads or development, are necessary for natural processes to play out. They give wildlife enough space to roam, migrate, forage, find mates, and raise their young. They also allow plants to move their ranges northwards and into higher elevations as temperatures grow hotter. 

Rewild

The Adirondacks are perhaps the world’s greatest experiment in ecological recovery, a place hard used a century ago and now slowly recovering, slowly proving that where humanity backs off, nature rebounds.

Bill McKibben, Professor, Author & 350.org Co-founder

“Rewilding, in essence, is giving the land back to wildlife, and wildlife back to the land.”*** Very few acres of the Northeast’s original forest were spared the ax over the past few centuries of European settlement. Rewilding offers new hope that our region might again have old, mature forests.

Northeast Wilderness Trust is proud to be an initial endorser of the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth. We join a growing, international coalition working to rewild the planet. Scientists, policymakers, and conservationists around the world agree that nature-based solutions (protecting and restoring the living world) are integral in slowing and helping reverse the climate and protecting biodiversity.

*Forest Carbon: An essential natural solution for climate change. Paul Catanzaro (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and Anthony D’Amato (The University of Vermont) 2019.

**Keeton W.S. (2018) Source or Sink? Carbon Dynamics in Eastern Old-Growth Forests and Their Role in Climate Change Mitigation. In: Barton A.M., Keeton W.S. (eds) Ecology and Recovery of Eastern Old-Growth Forests. Island Press, Washington, DC

***John Davis, Rewilding Institute