Massachusetts’ Climate Forestry Committee Recommendations: Follow the Science

A forest advisory committee assembled by Massachusetts Governor Maura Healey’s administration urges the state to double down on its science-based approach to climate policy in a new report on forests as climate solutions. 

In June 2023, the Healey Administration announced the launch of its “Forests as Climate Solutions” initiative. In conjunction with this initiative, Governor Healey issued a 6-month moratorium on signing new contracts for logging on state lands and convened a Climate Forestry Committee tasked with recommending new climate-oriented forest management guidelines, with input from the public. The committee’s report, Recommendations for Climate-Oriented Forest Management Guidelines, was released on January 3rd

The committee of twelve (including six foresters) represented a range of viewpoints. Primary areas of disagreement related to perspectives on the advantages of active versus passive management, and on the climate benefits of harvested wood products. Nonetheless, the committee was able to reach consensus on several key issues, with recommendations that would significantly improve Massachusetts agencies’ approaches to forest management if properly implemented. 

Transforming these recommendations into guidelines and enforceable rules will be pivotal for the ultimate success of this initiative, and for the fulfillment of Governor Healey’s campaign promise to “develop and implement a science-based state forest management plan that accounts for the impacts of climate change on our forest resources and the role our forests can play in protecting the climate.” Taken together, the recommendations provide firm scientific grounding for implementing stronger protections of public and private forested lands in Massachusetts.  

Pending legislation in Massachusetts would ensure that state forested lands are managed in alignment with the committee’s recommendations. For more information about the MA forest protection bills, visit https://www.savemassforests.com/

The public has the opportunity to comment on the committee’s recommendations through January 24th. For more information, go to https://www.mass.gov/info-details/forests-as-climate-solutions

Key recommendations of the committee:

  • Shift emphasis away from early successional habitat, and increase emphasis on “late successional habitat and the development of old-growth forest characteristics.”
  • Forgo “salvage harvesting” in most circumstances, instead “leaving dead wood to realize the habitat quality and biodiversity benefits.”
  • “[A]rticulate [the state’s] rationale for active forest management on Division of Water Supply Protection lands.”  (This recommendation is underscored by the report’s note that the “Division [of Water Supply Protection] acknowledged to the Committee that active forest management is not necessary to maintain an abundant and clean water supply.”)
  • Regarding “resilience” as a management goal, “be more specific and transparent when developing and proposing management actions by identifying the forest element or characteristic to be made more resilient, the disturbance to be addressed, and the way a proposed action improves the situation.”
  • Where harvesting is allowed, “employ practices that reduce the disruption of forest soils and the complex biodiversity of fungi and other organisms that inhabit them.” 
  • “Increase the Commonwealth’s 2050 land conservation goal from 40% to 50% of Massachusetts to be consistent with what the IPCC has called for.”
  • “Protect significant forest areas in western Massachusetts to help create a large uninterrupted corridor of protected forest extending from Pennsylvania to Canada.”
  • “Evaluate life cycle carbon emissions of forest practices and products relative to other materials and processes and publish findings for Massachusetts forests.”

A few other highlights from the report: 

 “Unsurprisingly, disturbing the forests of Massachusetts as little as possible and allowing forests to grow and age through passive management is generally the best approach for maximizing carbon, ecological integrity, and soil health.”

“The Committee generally agreed that passive management confers greater increases in carbon stocks than active, and that allowing forests to grow and age is typically best to maximize carbon storage. The Committee strongly agreed that carbon storage is typically greatest in old forests and disproportionately in the largest trees, and that Massachusetts forests can continue to accumulate carbon for many decades if undisturbed.”

“The Committee strongly agreed on the importance of the soil carbon pool, which is underappreciated and often larger than the amount of carbon found in living biomass. They concluded that the most important way to preserve soil carbon (and advance related climate and environmental objectives) is to allow forests to mature naturally, and when harvesting, employ practices that reduce the disruption of forest soils and the complex biodiversity of fungi and other organisms that inhabit them.” 

“A critical cautionary note is that increasing the use of long-lived wood products and substituting them for other materials will not necessarily increase stored carbon or reduce net emissions if harvest volume is increased.  Some on the Committee also called for more impartial research on the carbon implications of substituting wood for other materials.”