A carbon offset company that bought more than 100,000 acres raises concerns in NH's North Country
For decades, it’s been the site of timber harvesting, which has been central to local economies in the North Country.
But, that’s changing, after Bluesource Sustainable Forests Company, a carbon sequestration company, acquired the land last fall. It’s dialed back on timber harvesting in the forest as part of its business model, and that’s raising concerns for community members, state and town officials about how that might affect the timber industry and local revenue.
The state’s interest in the property
Like many forests across the state, Connecticut Lakes Headwaters is protected through a conservation easement. This easement states that the property can only be used for certain purposes, such as outdoor recreation and ecological conservation. The landowner is also responsible for creating a forest stewardship plan every 10 years.
When the easement was drafted 20 years ago, carbon offset programs, like the one Bluesource is now operating, weren’t part of the discussion, said Patrick Hackley, director of the state’s Division of Forests and Lands.
“No one envisioned that this would be a form of revenue generation for a landowner back then,” he said.
Carbon offset programs allow people, groups or companies to buy certificates that reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions in one place to compensate for emissions in another. A Bluesource representative said the company’s goal with the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters is regeneration and conservation.
Where this could come into conflict, said Hackley, is with another principal purpose of the easement: “To retain the Property as an economically viable and sustainable tract of land for the production of timber, plywood and other forest products.”
Bluesource did not specify, nor confirm, to what degree harvesting operations would decrease. However, the forests and lands division said the company previously stated they may reduce harvest by as much as 50% in the upcoming year.
Hackley said the state’s Department of Justice determined this cutback in harvest would not be considered “a material breach of the easement.” The department is still reviewing the situation and hasn't made a recommendation on next steps, according to the state's Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. An updated stewardship plan from the company is due to be submitted this September or October, said Hackley.
“When it comes to saying how much they can cut, where they can cut, that's discretion that the landowner holds that we do not,” Hackley said. “It's just our goal to ensure we're having an open dialogue to remind them of the impact of their decisions.”
A representative from Bluesource said the company is also finalizing its operations and stewardship plan, which it will review with state agencies and other stakeholders in the next few weeks.
North Country foresters say they’ve been left out of the loop
Hackley said he feels as though Bluesource’s communication with the state has been adequate.
However, Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said the lack of information shared about the extent that timber harvesting will be reduced on the tract has caused alarm within the local forestry community.
“I think Bluesource is doing themselves a disservice by not communicating to the broader forestry community, introducing themselves and explaining what they do,” he said.
He said foresters have only learned about carbon offset programs in the context of this situation, which he said has left bad impressions and caused community members to jump to conclusions.
“It's really unfortunate that that's the impression they're walking away with, is that these carbon deals are bad for logging, bad for forestry, bad for landowners that want to do active management. And that's really not the case,” he said.
He said the previous owner, the Forestland Group, was an example of sustainable timber harvesting dovetailing with carbon offset programs.
Early effects on local mills
Some companies, like Milan Lumber, said they’ve been told they can no longer procure timber from the tract by the forest management company that harvests on behalf of Bluesource.
Seth Roope, the company’s procurement manager, said he negotiated a contract in May to receive a certain volume of timber with Landvest, the company procuring timber on behalf of Bluesource. But in June, Landvest walked back on the agreement.
He was told it was “due to a change in the landowner's willingness to harvest timber,” said Roope.
Roope said this loss in volume affected the company's lumber operations because he couldn’t easily find that amount of timber elsewhere on short notice, and the sawmill had to shut down its operations for July. That caused them to furlough 35 employees. He said the company lost $2 to $3 million in potential revenue. Bluesource declined to comment on the specifics of this contract.
North Country communities look toward their timber tax
New Hampshire has a timber tax, in which a town or municipality receives 10% of the stumpage value at the time timber is cut and harvested.
Pittsburg, where the forest is located, is a primary beneficiary of this tax.
Steve Ellis, a Pittsburg selectman, said the town earned $175,000 in taxes from this tract this year alone. With the town budget sitting around $2 million, he said the town hasn’t had to consider going without the timber tax.
“We're very concerned about that loss,” Ellis said. “But right now, there's no specific plan on how to [cover it] because we haven't heard directly from the new owner on what exactly their intentions are this year and going forward.”
Earlier this month in Pittsburg, officials dedicated an entire select board meeting to offer an overview of carbon offset markets.
Ellis said about 75 people attended.
“The first step when you have a problem like this is understanding what the problem is and then you can develop some strategies going forward,” he said.
Hackley, who leads the state’s Division of Forests and Lands, said the entire wood supply chain in the state could be impacted if there are significant changes in harvesting practices; anyone from loggers, truckers and sawmill employees.
Hackley said in the state’s most recent meeting with the director of forest operations for the property, they’ve been trying to communicate the importance this tract has to the economy of the North Country and people that work within the wood supply chain.
“We'll be keeping that in the forefront and doing our best to articulate why it's important to see this land managed in such a way that it can support the folks that have enjoyed working on the land and the wood products that the mills have enjoyed from the forest management that has occurred [on the property] over many decades,” he said.