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Protecting Forests That Help Fight Climate Change

TOM GILBERT / NJ CONSERVATION FOUNDATION – In the fight against climate change, some of New Jersey’s most powerful weapons are tall, green, and leafy.

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

The Earth’s warming from excessive greenhouse gases is leading to sea-level rise, 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 is now looking toward forests and other “natural and working lands” as a key part of its strategy to address climate change.

While all trees sequester carbon, scientific studies increasingly show that mature forests do it best. One study in the Northeast found that forests over 170 years old supported the highest levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species richness. Nearly all New Jersey forests are many decades younger, and they will mature and store carbon at rapid rates for a long time to come – if we let them.

For a small, densely populated state, New Jersey is rich in forests. The state is 42 percent forested, with 62 percent of those forests on public lands.

But our forests face many threats, including overabundant deer, invasive plant species, and insect pests. For maturing forests with large, healthy trees, another potential threat comes from inappropriate commercial logging on public lands.

Active forest management on public lands is sometimes needed to address threats such as disease and pests, and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. However, New Jerseyans may be surprised to learn that commercial logging that has nothing to do with reducing threats to forest health is sometimes conducted on our public lands, including state, county, and even municipal parklands.

How to protect our public forests – including those sequestering the most carbon – was the topic of an online expert discussion this week, organized by the New Jersey Highlands Coalition.

Elliott Ruga, policy and communications director for the Highlands Coalition, noted that officials at all levels of government can be tempted by the potential revenues from allowing forests to be commercially logged. These revenues can help plug budget holes, defraying taxes.

But is logging revenue worth the sacrifice?

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

“It’s hard to overstate how serious the issue of climate change is,” Sauer told the online audience of about 360 people. “The bottom line is that nothing sequesters carbon better than a forest. We need to manage our forests as carbon reserves.”

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

Dr. Emile DeVito, staff ecologist for New Jersey Conservation Foundation, said that although New Jersey currently has relatively little commercial logging on public land, the pace could increase in the coming years. The vast majority of public forests are not protected from commercial logging and there are relatively few “natural areas,” a state designation that would provide greater protection.

DeVito noted that New Jersey has virtually no virgin, old-growth forests left. The state’s oldest forests, at 130-plus years old, are barely middle-aged. “Our healthiest, maturing forests will sequester carbon at rapid rates for more than another century. We need to set most of them aside as carbon reserves or natural areas, and concentrate our active forestry management efforts on degraded forests in need of ecological restoration,” DeVito said.

Jay Kelly, a professor at Raritan Valley Community College who studies northern and central New Jersey forests, said many forests are failing to regenerate because deer devour saplings and young trees before they reach a safe height. Deer populations have been exploding since the 1970s, he said, and overabundant deer remain the greatest threat to forests’ ability to fight climate change. Our forests desperately need strong measures that successfully reduce the deer population.

State Senator Bob Smith, Chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, agreed that state policy needs to be revised to give a higher standard of protection to publicly owned forests.

One reason the Earth’s climate is warming so quickly, he said, is because “we’ve been attacking forests all over the world. We’re going the wrong way, worldwide, on forests.”

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

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

A natural and working lands strategy will help! New Jersey’s forests and other natural and working lands currently store the equivalent of eight percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. The state is counting on increasing the carbon stored in forests, wetlands, and agricultural soils.

In December, the New Jersey Departments of Environmental Protection and Agriculture jointly released a scoping document describing the ways these lands can store more carbon. The agencies are taking public comments through Feb. 11, and a comprehensive plan is expected be completed before the end of the year.

Read the scoping document here.

Learn more about Rutgers’ research into the management of natural and working lands as a natural climate solution here.

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

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