Forests and Land Use

Just as it is essential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from sources such as tail pipes and smokestacks, it is also essential to protect and enhance our nation’s abundant forest carbon sinks that absorb greenhouse gases. U.S. forests today soak up an impressive 13 percent of our annual carbon emissions, and eastern forests are an important part of that equation.

When our eastern forests leaf out in the spring, atmospheric scientists in Hawaii can measure the carbon decreasing in the atmosphere. Forests play a key role in the carbon cycle because trees use photosynthesis to convert atmospheric carbon dioxide to oxygen, storing carbon in their leaves, trunks, roots, branches, and surrounding soils. Forests also release carbon as they are harvested, burn, or otherwise decay. The U.S. Forest Service projects that forest carbon storage (or “sequestration”) could almost double through additional forest conservation and improved management practices, such as longer harvest rotations that retain older trees in the forest. However, at current trends, U.S. forest carbon storage will decrease as development consumes forests at an increasing rate. We must protect and enhance our valuable forest carbon resources as part of the national climate strategy.  ENE Boston Globe Forest Op Ed: Forest conservation will allow some breathing roomBackground: The Importance of Forest Carbon in Climate Change Policy

ENE has been working since 2003 to craft policy approaches to protect and enhance forest carbon storage (or “sequestration”) and to make forest carbon a climate priority in the United States. We have worked to include goals for the forest sector in state climate action plans, researched forest management practices that have the potential to sequester additional carbon, reframed regional development as a climate issue, and led efforts to include forest offset protocols in RGGI and forest conservation programs in federal climate legislation.  ENE Forests and Land Use Program Overview

ENE advocates four major forest climate strategies:

  • Modify forest management to retain more carbon (such as longer rotations) through forest offset and additional funding incentive programs;
  • Protect forests as forests through funding for permanent conservation easements to prevent forest conversion as development pressures increase;
  • Minimize forest loss during development through mitigation including cluster zoning and forest replacement requirements; and
  • Utilize wood waste, logging residue and sustainably harvested wood for electricity, transportation and heating fuel in place of high carbon oil or coal as appropriate, ensuring that harvesting is sustainable and that water quality, biodiversity, recreation, forest resilience and other important forest values are not compromised.

ENE is focusing on a number of current project priorities to advance these strategies:

  • Regional forest offsets under RGGI: ENE has taken a lead role in creating peer-reviewed recommendations for three new forest offset categories under the 10-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).  Adding these forest offset categories would give emitters some flexibility on how to reach the emissions cap imposed through RGGI, encourage sustainable forestry and forest conservation, and create a welcome new revenue stream for land owners.  Developed over two years, the recommendations were formally submitted to RGGI in 2009 and are now under review by the agency. 


  • Federal forest offsets and supplemental forest carbon incentives: ENE is working with other forest advocates and Congressional leaders to encourage sustainable forest management and permanent forest conservation as an integral part of the federal climate strategy. Making a substantive investment in forest conservation for carbon storage must be a high climate priority that will reap many co-benefits including clean water, biodiversity and wildlife protection, climate adaptation, recreation, forest jobs, and aesthetic conservation. ENE is advocating specifically for rigorous forest offset standards so that real emission reductions occur, and for a supplemental emissions reduction program that would pay landowners who could not meet the expense or standards of the offsets program to manage their lands for long-term forest carbon retention.


  • Minimizing forest carbon loss from development: ENE helped reframe the land use debate in Maine as a significant climate change issue when we performed an extensive analysis of the “carbon footprint” of the massive Plum Creek development proposal on Moosehead Lake, quantifying projected building emissions, increased emissions from cars, and emissions from lot clearing and lost forest sequestration capacity. ENE is now working on new efforts to advance targeted land use law and policy changes, including legislation in Maine that would mandate minimizing forest loss from development and mitigating for forest loss that does occur. 


  • Sustainable use of forests for renewable energy: State and federal laws require an increasing percentage of renewable energy for electricity generation and liquid fuels.  Sustainably harvested wood can make an important contribution to replacing carbon-intensive alternatives, but “sustainability” definitions vary, and pressure to meet renewable energy requirements could threaten other important forest values including biodiversity, wildlife, recreation, water quality, and forest resilience if sustainability rules are not carefully crafted and implemented. ENE is working to ensure that biomass and biofuels definitions in state, regional, and federal climate and energy bills promote renewable wood energy only within a sound sustainability framework.


ENE Forests and Land Use Projects