Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Sequestering Carbon in Our Forests

Carbon Sequestration: A Community-Based
Project to Reduce Carbon Dioxide and Global Warming

View of forest in the Green Mountains. Photo: Lynn Peterson.

By Lynn Peterson

Vermont’s hillsides are bursting forth in brilliant green! And the green color comes from chlorophyll, an enormous tool for removing carbon dioxide from the air, combining it with water and turning it into oxygen and carbohydrates. Both the beauty and the chemistry are truly amazing.

Beyond the exhilarating feeling lies a crucial element in our struggle to preserve the natural world by reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide and its role in global warming. Scientists and public officials have so far focused primarily on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to prevent dangerous global warming. Evidence more and more points to the importance of photosynthesis to sequester carbon dioxide, thereby removing it from the atmosphere. A group of 32 leading scientists from all over the world authored an article in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claiming that forests, properly managed, could reverse the trend to a catastrophic rise in carbon dioxide.

Interest in using forests to reduce carbon dioxide levels has existed for years, and programs exist to provide economic incentives for these efforts. The Nature Conservancy has advocated this approach and has recently reported that some 300 programs in sequestration currently exist. To be successful, large tracts of forest, in the range of thousands of acres, are needed. This is more than that owned by most individual landowners. But larger tracts become possible when landowners collaborate or when public lands are used.

Fortunately, in Woodstock, Vermont, we had an organization dedicated to promoting activities that reduce the risk of environmental harm, Sustainable Woodstock. By using this existing resource as a platform, we began a series of community presentations around removing or sequestering carbon dioxide. We turned to the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park, a local institution, and they agreed to host a series of meetings on sequestration.

The Forest Center at Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was the host of the series of meetings on sequestration in Woodstock, VT. Photo: Lynn Peterson.

The first presentation was given by a University of Vermont forestry professor who has been studying carbon sequestration. His findings show that existing, older trees can sequester a significant amount of carbon (it had been previously assumed that older trees were not as actively growing so would not produce much new wood). He also described two current approaches for funding sequestration and options for measuring it.

Our second meeting addressed George Perkins Marsh, Woodstock’s legendary nineteenth century environmentalist and a namesake for the park. Marsh’s pragmatic view of man’s interaction with nature would seem to favor projects like sequestration which promise to improve habitat and human welfare.

Next, local foresters and a private landowner described their experiences working and living in Vermont’s green mountains. Both private and public forest lands face challenges (e.g. declining forest products industry, invasive species, avoiding fragmentation, etc.), but people who live here appreciate its beauty and practical value.

At our fourth meeting, a Vermont official talked about the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) which had just completed its tenth year and produced about $7 million for the state of Vermont. The nine states joining in RGGI receive financial compensation for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from electric power plants. We wondered whether this was a model for funding sequestration efforts.

Carbon sequestration

A representative from the National Park Service spoke at our next meeting. She talked about current programs in the national park system as well as what’s currently going on in Vermont. Wildlife habitat, tourism, and invasive species are programs being addressed by the Park Service.

Four more meetings are scheduled for presentations on state forests, the role of fungi in forests, experiences in managing forests for sequestration in Maine, and, finally, a return of the University of Vermont’s forestry professor to continue the conversation regarding options for us in Woodstock, Vermont.

Two kinds of science bear on these efforts to explore options for carbon sequestration. One is an older, more traditional view of environmental science which is mostly descriptive and focuses on understanding what currently exists. The other is more interventional and focuses on the future and what might be done to improve it. This later view represents the kind of program advocated in education circles, called STEM. The emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics is relatively new in environmental work but has been flourishing in medicine for the past 50 years. Lessons from that realm of applied biology show the importance of informed consent and engagement of a wider community to approve projects. While informed consent seems irrelevant, community engagement seems even more important in environmental science: alterations in the natural world have more obvious and widespread impacts on large numbers of people. Existing community groups, like Sustainable Woodstock, are one way of ensuring public engagement.

So we intend to continue conversations beyond these talks and come up with plans for enhancing forest capacity for sequestration. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could use Vermont’s forest to reduce the risk of catastrophic warming and at the same time enhance its natural and aesthetic value?

Lynn Peterson, MD retired to Vermont after practicing surgery, teaching and doing medical research for 40 years. Lynn has turned his attention to the environment, gardening and caring for 103 acres of forest while serving on healthcare boards and committees.

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