Study says strategic pine planting and harvesting in North Carolina could help fight climate change

ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. — Acres and acres of loblolly pines line the rural roads of Rowan County. Some tower above 60 feet, others are just barely high enough to see out your car window.

Forestry consultants like Todd Dowdle with Yadkin Forestry and Realty, have spent the past few decades planting and managing these stands as part of the piedmont’s timber industry, a $35 billion dollar sector of the state’s economy.

“[Loblolly’s] a good economic tree and it’s a faster-growing tree than just about any species that’s going to be out here,” he said.

More than an economic boon, however, researchers from the Yale School for the Environment believe growing more of these loblolly pine stands can also help combat climate change.

As a part of the Roads to Removal study, which looks at ways the United States can leverage its resources to remove and store atmospheric carbon dioxide, researchers like Thomas Harris and Sarah Kuebbing looked at the potential impact of using loblolly stands as carbon sinks.

“The southeast has this rich amount of land available for tree planting and we’re really good at planting loblolly pine trees,” Kuebbing said.

The study focused on currently unforested land in the southeast that is not well-suited for agriculture. They modeled out the potential carbon impact of planting loblolly on that land and either letting it grow to 2050 or letting it grow to maturity, harvesting it, and replanting trees on the land. They found both methods show a massive potential to remove and store atmospheric carbon.

The process is natural. Through photosynthesis, plants take in CO2 and convert it to energy while also storing some of that carbon in their tissue. Bark and pine needles -- most of what we think of that make up a tree -- are made up mostly of carbon. Because loblolly is such a fast-growing tree it’s very efficient at converting that CO2 and storing it and according to the researchers, the warm, humid climate and rocky, formerly forested soil of the piedmont makes the region a particularly good candidate for planting more of these trees.

Rowan County alone has the potential to store 3.84 million tons of CO2 by 2050, which is the equivalent of taking more than 900,000 cars off the road for a year.

“The forest wants to grow but being thoughtful about the management and how you initiate that forest will dictate what you will get in the end,” Harris said.

Those CO2 numbers, however, assume all of the harvested wood will go to long-term use products like furniture, building material or biochar, ensuring the carbon from the trees is converted into something we will use for decades.

“You will only see the climate benefits if we build out new commercial products,” Kuebbing said. “Being really thoughtful about where those harvested products go.”

The scope of the study looks specifically at loblolly pines because the tree is commonly used in timber harvesting, but Kuebbing and Harris acknowledge that, if reforestation efforts are focused on biodiversity or habitat-building, planting one species is not ideal and leaves the forest more vulnerable to disease or pests.

“Loblolly pine is one of the few species that we have the seedlings pathways that we have the expertise and knowhow to grow these trees quickly and getting forests up on the landscape,” Kuebbing said. “It is a sliver of the solution just like lots of other actions within forests are.”

Ultimately, it’s up to landowners to choose how they want to use their land. While there are federal and state subsidies for landowners to encourage planting pine on this targeted land, there are often competing land-use interests such as pasture, small-scale agriculture, or solar development.

“It’s a trade-off we can’t have all the land converted to agriculture and we probably can’t sustain our population if we return all that agricultural land to forest,” Harris said.

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.