David Mears: Forests are Vermont's key to the climate crisis

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I look forward to hearing the sweet whistle of the White Throated Sparrow every spring, but am increasingly worried about losing their beautiful voices from Vermont. The White Throated Sparrow and many other forest birds like the Scarlet Tanager, Hermit Thrush and American Woodcock are at risk of leaving Vermont as a result of the combined impacts of forest habitat loss, and the excessive emissions of carbon dioxide associated with burning fossil fuels.

We are lucky in Vermont to still have significant blocks of healthy forests. These forested lands are a vital contributor to Vermont's economy and the foundation of our State's ecological health - both of which are at risk in the face of the climate crisis. We can protect these forests for our birds and our communities at the same time we advance the use of wood as part of an energy strategy to reduce carbon emissions.

The Energy Action Network's (EAN) recent 2019 Annual Progress Report includes analysis that supports thoughtful and sustainable management of our forested lands as good for the economy and good for the environment, including birds. Audubon Vermont is a member of the Energy Action Network because we rely on their analysis to inform our strategies for protecting the climate.

EAN's Report identifies specific steps we can take now to meet the climate challenge in ways that support healthy forests and a healthy economy. For example, switching from fossil fuel heating to efficient wood heating — using wood pellets harvested and produced in the Northeast — immediately cuts greenhouse gas emissions by more than half, and these benefits increase over time. Vermont has identified a target of meeting 35 percent of our thermal energy needs from wood by 2030, and we have both the scientific understanding and the proven technology necessary to accomplish this goal. In this way, we can switch to a cleaner, cheaper source of renewable energy while also supporting jobs in the forest, recreation, and tourism industries. By heating our homes using wood instead of fossil fuels, we can multiply the benefit to Vermont of every heating dollar we spend. Further, protecting and enhancing vital forest habitat for birds and wildlife can ensure a supply of sustainably harvested low-grade wood not just for advanced wood heat as well as for other wood products such as mass timber building materials that serve as important carbon stores. Through investing in sustainable forest management and restoration, we can advance a climate strategy and a bird-protection strategy while supporting the recovery of forest sector jobs for people with a mix of skills and knowledge including jobs in logging, transportation, forest consulting, manufacturing, and retail.

We must act now to turn our goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing renewable energy into strong, enforceable policies that support action, including financial incentives and resources for landowners to increase the amount of forested land being actively managed using bird-friendly design. We have a unique opportunity to invest in a strategy for forest protection, meeting our climate and energy goals, and supporting rural economic development. A number of important bills pending in the Vermont General Assembly including the Vermont Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) bill (H. 688) and the Act 250 modernization bill (H.926) will help advance these goals. Please contact your local legislators to encourage their support. See https://vt.audubon.org/ for more information.

David Mears is executive director of Audubon Vermont. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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