A New Appreciation for Old Forests

By Elle O’Casey

Bill Keeton, Professor of Forest Ecology and Forestry from the University of Vermont was a guest at last month’s Working Woodlands workshop at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. The workshop was cosponsored by Sustainable Woodstock, Vermont Woodlands Association and Vermont Coverts. Vermont Coverts works with landowners across the state to gain their commitment to maintain and enhance diverse wildlife habitat and healthy ecosystems. Professor Keeton’s talk, entitled “Forests, Carbon and Climate Resilience: Approaches for Woodland Management” looked at carbon sequestration, managing forests for carbon, managing for old growth forests, and the market-based context for carbon. Professor Keeton has been conducting long-term research at the park examining how the park forests store carbon. For his talk, Professor Keeton focused on northeastern forests, sharing more about their history and how they store carbon during various stages of growth.

Courtesy Prof. Bill Keeton

Courtesy Prof. Bill Keeton

Professor Keeton has been studying some of the older stands at the park because he is interested in the old-growth forest characteristics that exist in these stands. Because Vermont was almost completely cleared of trees in the 1800s, many of the forests that have grown up since then are still considered fairly young by forestry standards. However, there are some woodlands exhibiting what Professor Keeton called “old growth characteristics.” Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park happens to have some of the oldest stands in the state.

Courtesy Prof. Bill Keeton

Courtesy Prof. Bill Keeton

Old growth characteristics can be recognized a number of ways but a key trait is the big woody snags and debris present on the forest floor after older trees fall. At the park, there are a few stands exhibiting old growth traits including the 1880s plantation near the park’s visitor center and another stand on the backside of the park near the Prosper Gate. These older stands are critical for carbon sequestration, keeping carbon locked up in soils and trees for long periods of time. Professor Keeton’s research matters because previous research of northern hardwood forests predicted a peak in biomass after 200 years of stand development, followed by declining biomass in stands 200 to 350 years old. Yet, his work and other recent studies found that biomass neared maximum values in stands with trees closer to 300 to 400 years old, demonstrating that forest biomass can continue to accumulate very late into succession in northern forests. These differences affect how we understand carbon storage in old-growth forests and how we manage for it.

Beyond carbon sequestration, Professor Keeton also discussed carbon credits and how those apply to landowners. Many landowners can receive financial incentives and credits for conducting good forest management. Incentives exist for both individual and aggregate groups of landowners. If an individual landowner would like to conserve his/her forests but does not have enough acreage to qualify for a credit, organizations like Vermont Coverts can serve as a resource offering more information for how to form cooperative groupings of landowners. Forest carbon projects are coming online across the country. Eligible ownerships include private, municipal, and state forests – these include places like town forests, land trust properties, state forests, and private landholdings.

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Did you miss this workshop? Not to fear — Working Woodlands are regular workshops sponsored by the park that explore a variety of topics related to woodland conservation. These workshops are open to the public and advertised through the park’s website and Facebook account. Join the next workshop and be on the lookout for the upcoming Working Woodlands workshops. Topics will include a forest monitoring introduction, a workshop on the emerald ash borer, and the Forest Festival September 23-24th.

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