Preserve Pennsylvania's trees to slow climate change

Family-owned forests absorb a lot of carbon; they must be protected and well-managed

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The 2,000-acre forest I manage with my family in Centre County has been in my family since 1943 when my grandfather, Carey Shoemaker, purchased the land. Over the years it has provided us the personal benefits of income, recreation and immeasurable joy. What many people don’t realize, though, is that my forest and the rest of the state’s woodlands also provide tremendous public benefit in combating climate change.

How we deal with a changing climate is in the news with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holding public hearings Thursday and Friday in Pittsburgh on the agency’s proposal to curb carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. While this debate focuses on the energy sector — especially concerns about the coal industry — the conversation can and must be broader. If our goal is to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, we have a powerful tool in our arsenal that can be put to work right away: trees.

Forests capture carbon dioxide and offset nearly 13 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Here in Pennsylvania, we have 17 million acres of forestland — nearly 60 percent of our state’s land. And while many people think the bulk of these forests are owned or controlled by the government, nearly 75 percent in Pennsylvania are actually privately owned.

There is vast power in forests to capture carbon dioxide emissions and protect natural resources like drinking water and clean air, which are under threat from climate change. Family-owned forests across the country, like mine, now store 14 billion tons of carbon, which equals the annual emissions of more than 13,000 coal-fired power plants. This is 20 times the number of power plants in operation in the United States and more than the number operational worldwide.

Forests across the country capture 800 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, which is even more than the 730 million tons the EPA is aiming to reduce nationally through power plant regulations by 2030. Additionally, our woodlands help to reduce emissions by supplying renewable energy for homes and generation facilities, wood products and vital environmental services from which all Pennsylvanians benefit — including cleaner air, cleaner water, wildlife habitat and recreation opportunities.

Healthy forests contribute to healthy communities in other ways, too — especially in rural areas where family forests have been economic engines. These renewable resources produce timber, pulpwood, chips and wood fuel, which, in turn, are used to make lumber for homes, paper products and furniture. After a tree provides these benefits, a new tree grows to take its place.

Family forests also produce jobs and promote economic growth through recreation, tourism spending and hunting leases. Wood products and related businesses contribute an estimated $13.5 billion to Pennsylvania’s economy.

When it comes to tackling climate change, we forest owners need support so that we can further increase carbon capture. We need to keep existing forests as forests by improving active forest management so they can adapt to the stresses of climate change. We need to increase the use of wood for construction and maintain tax incentives that provide markets to support sustainable management. By investing in woodland stewardship, we can spur economic growth and create thousands of new jobs, while also taming the climate crisis.

The EPA predicts that by keeping forests as forests and improving forest management, forests could store up to 20 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. To do this, we must equip family forest owners with the resources they need to better manage their woodlands and keep forests healthy for the long run.

What can we do to realize this vision? If you own woodlands, get the tools you need to keep your forest healthy — Penn State Extension and www.mylandplan.org are great resources.

If you just appreciate these wooded spaces, support woodland owners as they harvest trees in order to combat invasive species, create a healthier mix of trees or pay their bills.

If you are a policy maker, reward woodland owners for the clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat and other quality-of-life attributes they protect for all of us.

As a family forest owner, I have to think long term. My growing cycles are decades long and preserving the legacy of this land for my children and grandchildren is my highest priority. With a changing climate a threat to all of our futures, I’m ready to work now at helping to ensure our precious natural resources continue to sustain us.

Susan Benedict owns and manages Beartown Family LP in Centre County, along with her brother Michael Shoemaker and their families.


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