DEC Forester Bryan Ellis on forestland and value in the changing climate
By Megan Plete Postol
New York’s forests play an important role in climate change by the way they cycle carbon.
The Adirondack Explorer caught up with DEC Forester Bryan Ellis, to break down how carbon sequestration relates to forestland in the changing climate. Ellis holds a master’s degree in forestry from SUNY-ESF and he manages the climate forestry and carbon section with the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests.
AE: Let’s talk about your role at DEC and the work you do.
BE: The climate forestry and carbon section with the DEC’s Division of Lands and Forests is a new section that was created about two years ago to help Lands and Forests better address and integrate the work that we do across the state in New York’s forests with the changing climate that we are dealing with.
We assess the impacts that is going to have on our forests and as well as the potential for New York’s forests in terms of climate mitigation, including how much sequestration is happening in New York’s forests and where we have potential to gain sequestration, and where we might have more opportunity.
AE: Can you explain sequestration and how it relates to our forests?
BE: Sequestration is the amount of carbon dioxide that trees take out of the air over a period of time. Trees both sequester and store carbon as different activities. Our forests in New York store a lot of carbon. It is important for us to understand how much carbon is being stored and held in our forests but also how much carbon they (the trees) are taking out of that air in each given year.
AE: How does DEC work with land owners to optimize sequestration of our forests?
BE: DEC has a long history of working with land owners through the stewardship program. In every one of our DEC offices across the state we have outreach and stewardship foresters that work directly with landowners. They answer questions, they will go walk their woods with them and talk to them about specific things they might see on the land, such as invasive species that might be threatening their forests, help them make forest management decisions on their properties and things like that. We also work closely with agencies such as Cornell Cooperative Extension to broaden our reach to forest landowners across the state.
About 75% of New York State’s forests are owned by family forest owners, meaning private landowners. So understanding what’s happening in our forests across New York and how we can better improve the health and resiliency of our lands really depends on this large population of people across New York.
AE: What work has DEC done in the past few years to monitor and manage the carbon sequestering process in our forests?
BE: New York state is currently about 63% forested. About 100 years ago, New York was about 20% forested. We have gained all these forests through the reclamation of agricultural lands over the past hundred years. Some of the work we have been doing is looking at the role of the forests in terms of climate mitigation, so how much carbon these forests are sequestering as they age. That sequestration will slow as these trees age over time. We track that change in carbon over time. We have been looking at the impact of things like invasive species on these forests. We have things like hemlock woolly adelgid, which is moving up into the Adirondacks currently. Hemlock is the fourth most common tree in New York State and represents a large storage of carbon in those long-lived trees. Hemlock can live to be over 500 years old. We monitor the threat and impact that invasive species will have on the stored carbon within our forests.
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AE: How do you quantify the sequestration?
BE: We are really lucky in that the US Forest Service has a long history of doing Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) plots. There are thousands of FIA plots across New York. We rely on FIA plots and reports to quantify what tree species are on the rise and which are declining. In recent years they have done a lot of analysis on their data on the carbon that is stored on the forest plots and the interaction of that carbon over time.
We have also been working with SUNY-ESF on incorporating more fine scale remote sensing data. An FIA plot represents about 30,000 acres of New York forests. As they do thousands, that is a very good representative sample of the state but to really get more into the fine scale measurement we have been working with ESF using aerial imagery and Lidar data to narrow down what changes we are seeing in the landscape and where we are seeing them.
AE: As our forests age, what is the significance in terms of carbon sequestration?
BE: As trees age the amount of carbon they sequester over time will change. We see our highest sequestration rates in forests typically occur in between 25 and 60 years of age. As we look at New York’s forests and the sequestration and the role they are playing in terms of climate mitigation, we are seeing that carbon storage in those forests are continually increasing. Our forests are a net-carbon sink, meaning that they are playing a significant beneficial role in climate mitigation but we are also seeing that sequestration rate slow down over time. We’ve seen a steady decline in the state’s forests sequestration since the 1990’s. Those trees are aging past that 60-year threshold into one hundred plus year forests. That is significant. We are seeing a general slowdown of New York State’s productivity.
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