1.28.2022 – Climate Change, Carbon Sequestration, and the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap
Last week, I wrote about the concept of a regional food supply system and some of the work being done toward that end. I also reviewed the development of the Farm to Plate Initiative and how that has led to a thriving local foods movement and a greater understanding of soil health principles and regenerative agriculture.
While agriculture sometimes gets a bad rap due to nutrient runoff, especially in the Lake Champlain watershed, it should be noted that agriculture is responsible for 41% of the problem in Lake Champlain but is taking responsibility for cleaning up 68% of the mess. The last report card indicated that agriculture is credited with 96% of the phosphorus reduction in the lake. This is in great part due to the work that our farmers have been doing to employ practices that reduce nutrient runoff. These soil health practices such as cover cropping, reduced tillage, and manure injection not only reduce runoff but also aid in sequestering carbon.
As these various aspects of agriculture, a regional food supply system, food security, and climate change mitigation are discussed in committee, I get a hopeful feeling for the future of Vermont. We are truly blessed to have Natural and Working Lands covering 94% of the state. Seventy-three percent of our land base is forest, 12% is agriculture, 5% is wetland, and 3% is other perennial vegetation. The remaining 6% is water, at 4%, and 2% development.
Vermont has gotten warmer, and we’ve had a 21% increase in precipitation. In the last 20 years, the major reason why crops fail is excess moisture. That was the experience of many southern Vermont farmers last summer. We know, however, that by increasing the amount of organic matter in the top several inches of topsoil, we enable increased absorption of precipitation. The other benefit is that during periods of drought, like in the summer of 2020, the soil releases the moisture more slowly. It is like a sponge that absorbs great quantities of moisture and, unless squeezed, releases that moisture as needed. This increases our resiliency to the effects of climate change.
We have three Greenhouse Gas mitigation opportunities through protection, management, and restoration of our natural resources. Based on estimates done by The Nature Conservancy Canada, if we protect our forests, wetlands, and grasslands; manage our forests, croplands, and pastures; and restore our forests, agriculture, grasslands, and wetlands, we have the opportunity to mitigate tens of metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year.
Part of our efforts regarding protecting, managing, and restoring our forests is included in our work on H.566, the Forest Future bill. Some of our witnesses last week expressed frustration that this would be just another study and there is a sense that we’ve had enough of those. The challenging aspect of this is that after all of the work including field trips all over the state and excellent presentations via Zoom, the proposed Omnibus Bill was split in two, with the more immediate action steps to improve things quickly included in H.581, and the more aspirational items included in H.566, which is in our committee. We are working to see if we can peel off some of the immediate steps in H.581 to get them through the process individually.
The proposal in H. 566 is to have the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) perform the same intensive process it did with the Farm to Plate Initiative with the goal to identify the bottlenecks and market opportunities in our forest products sector. Ellen Kahler, Executive Director of the VSJF, visited with us again to explain the kind of process that would be carried out. This was very helpful because most of the people on my committee were not around when the Farm to Plate Initiative process was conducted. We have decided that this is more of a Forest Future Strategic Roadmap than a program.
Ellen emphasized the fact that there have been several studies done in the past that will be helpful but that markets have changed since they were done. The fact that these studies exist will expedite the process because the necessary network has already been built. It will be the task of the VSJF to identify what is needed to fix the problem and to get into the “weeds” on what policy changes need to happen. She noted that there are fewer trade associations in the forest products sector and there is a need to build trusted relationships with the stakeholders.
Perhaps, the most important piece is that the stakeholders have to participate as the “Roadmap” is developed. This is not something that is being done to them, but something they are doing for themselves with some expert facilitation. Better communication amongst the many silos in the forest products industry will advance the cause across the supply chain.
What I was very appreciative of was testimony we took on Thursday. We had two witnesses with diametrically opposing views. Our first witness was a proponent of not cutting trees and letting forests grow into old growth forests. Our second witness was the Executive Director of the Vermont Woodlands Association who believes that woodlands should be carefully managed and periodically harvested. I was proud of the fact that there was mutual respect for each other’s perspectives without the rancor that we are witnessing in some public meetings these days.