Thoughts On Blue Hill Heritage Trust and the IPCC 2021 Report

Thoughts On Blue Hill Heritage Trust and the IPCC 2021 Report

August 27, 2021

Hans M. Carlson

On International Indigenous Peoples Day 2021(August 9) the U.N. released the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It gave an updated assessment of the scientific, technical, and socio-economic parameters of climate change, and was released against a backdrop of west-coast wildfires, water rationing in the Colorado River drainage, European, US, and Asian flooding, and much more climate-related news. The report sounded a clear and unavoidable warning: the window for beginning meaningful and effective action to mitigate the worst of the impending crisis is closing quickly; we know the scope of the climate problem and it is time for the world to act.

I am personally committed to action in the face of climate change, and I lead an organization that sees this crisis as the defining challenge of our times. Blue Hill Heritage Trust is committed to action, and so the question becomes, how do any of us, personally or through organizations, take meaningful action at the scale open to us on the Blue Hill peninsula? Climate change is a global crisis, after all, and the most meaningful and effective solutions must be effective at a global scale. That is true, but I believe that reaching global scale means leadership from multiple levels, and I believe local action is powerful and meaningful when connected with a wider network of thought and action.

The IPCC report reiterated the two main paths for addressing the crisis. First, countries around the world must end their economic dependence on fossil energy and make the dramatic shift to “renewables.” My own view is that nature, which runs wholly on solar energy, and which is 100% recyclable, is our model. We must make the human built environment – our whole economy – as photovoltaically robust as the natural world is photosynthetically robust. Solar panels and electric vehicles are an initial answer, but ultimately the solution will be fully integrated photovoltaic technology: solar roofing, solar paint, solar pavement, and more. All those things exist in working prototype. We must also reduce our carbon-emitting waste stream to something approaching zero, so truly biodegradable plastics and composting at scale are essential. Those exist too and remaking our whole infrastructure will require national and international policy changes. Local action can be taken within the current policy framework, and this is meaningful, but governments need to act.

The second necessary global action in the IPCC report is carbon sequestration. Forests, grasslands and wetlands, all the planet’s ecosystems in fact, extract carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it over long periods of time, if they are healthy and intact. Land conversion runs a close second to fossil fuels when it comes to adding CO2 to the atmosphere, and globally we must increase the amount of conserved land to address climate change. Being healthy and intact does not require land to be untouched or unused, however. Good land use can in many cases increase nature’s ability to sequester carbon, so conserved land can be managed carefully for economic value. But land must remain unconverted to development and be carefully stewarded (restored when necessary) using practices that prioritize ecological health and carbon sequestration over economic gain. Here too local action is possible, and even more importantly I believe that local thinking has a role to play in shaping the larger conservation effort.

Large changes in infrastructure are likely to be uniform (renewable energy in Los Angeles will rely on much the same technology as New York City) and large policy changes seem the best way to make those changes happen. Conservation and climate-oriented land use will not be uniform. The healthy biosphere will modulate and regulate a more stable climate, but that healthy biosphere will only be possible in the aggregate: a planet of healthy and highly differentiated local ecosystems. Conservation is as necessary as infrastructure in resolving the climate crisis, as the IPCC says, but it will need to look as different place to place as the ecosystems and human communities where it happens. It will need to meet the criteria necessary to make conservation meaningful in addressing climate change, but it will have to keep land tied to local community’s socio-economic needs to be successful. This will not be easy.

The lands that Blue Hill Heritage Trust has already conserved on the peninsula are serving to address climate change. This is particularly true of our big, forested areas – Surry Forest, Meadowbrook Forest, Kingdom Woods, and Wallamatogus – which are sequestering carbon as I write. They are also offering up large, eco-systemic stages on which species can thrive and hopefully adapt to the changes which are now inevitable because of climate change. We are managing those lands with all that in mind, in addition to all the other ways we and our communities use Trust land. And we need more conserved land on the peninsula if we are going to play a meaningful role in mitigating climate change. That is climate action we can take because, while conserved forests and wetlands here on the Blue Hill peninsula are not going to solve the climate crisis on their own, they will play their part in the larger effort. We must keep up the work that we started thirty-six years ago, but here is also where we should start to define our role in larger conservation thinking too.

Most forest conservation in Maine has been done in the Northwoods, where there are tracts of tens of thousands of acres. Some of these have been conserved, there are many more that could be, and these huge projects register individually at the global scale when you look at carbon sequestration. This is not the scale at which BHHT operates. Our scale of operation much more closely resembles the northeast generally, where most conservation needs to happen in places which have large, forested areas but which are divided into small lots held by numerous owners. These forest and wetland areas need to be conserved too, and here I think we have a chance to lead as well as play our small part in the big picture. Here is one place where I see local action and local ideas being as important as policy changes at the top.

Conserving land successfully, at some point for every organization, means a transition. Conservation moves from a series of individual land transactions to a process by which organizations like BHHT involve themselves in a community discussion around the ideas of conservation and land management. Conservation and management are always local issues, underpinned by local thinking and local community, and this is true even when carried out by an international organization with a global mission. It will be true with large policy goals like “30 by 30” too, and global success in meeting those kinds of benchmarks will be, by definition, the sum of local successes. BHHT has started these kinds of dialogs to good effect, and we need to do more, if we are going to succeed in what I see as a changing conservation landscape. Here is where I see both our land management and all our thinking and outreach around the idea of land stewardship as key.

The kind of land management that BHHT has been doing in the last five years is very different than most local conservation organizations. Larger conservation organizations, like The Nature Conservancy and the Appalachian Mountain Club, started doing land management a decade or more ago, when they started conserving those large blocks of land in norther Maine. This became necessary because those forests are integral parts of local economies and local communities up north, and so they made the transition. For an organization like TNC, this was a major philosophical transition that made news in the conservation world and beyond. It continues to be a learning process for them as they work to both conserve and use the forests they have protected. This is a process of evolving both practice and philosophy.

I said above that BHHT’s work is not at the scale of those northern projects, but we made a similar transition when we purchased Surry and Meadowbrook Forests, and there are important connections to be considered in that. I believe that, if small organizations are to be successful in conserving enough land to address climate change, then others like ours will have to do the same. The internal skills and capacity we are building (having a forester on staff for example) and the dialog we are beginning with our communities about stewardship and land management, are leading the way on a path that other small organizations will need to follow. I hope that BHHT has some things to teach the wider conservation world in this regard, and I know that we have lots to learn from others, here and beyond this peninsula.

For me these are important changes in conservation thinking and activity, but they are not real stretches for organizations like ours. There are other ways in which conserved land can help meet the climate challenge, and we can and should do more. Here too we must expand our thinking about what conservation means in light of the IPCC report, and think about where our land might intersect with some of the infrastructure changes that addressing climate change demands. Carbon sequestration is the global climate goal, and the healthy forests and wetlands we conserve will be part of meeting that goal. They will also address local climate issues, like habitat shift, marsh migration, or another purely ecological matters, but they can help us in other ways too.
BHHT is currently leasing two acres of an old gravel pit in Surry to Chickadee Compost, a company which will work peninsula wide to remove biodegradable matter from our waste stream and turn it into usable compost. The land we are leasing has been highly impacted and has grown nothing but scrub for decades. From a carbon sequestration standpoint, it is a poor carbon sink. Composting on this site, with the participation of peninsula communities, will go a long way toward decarbonizing our local waste stream. Those two acres will then be playing an outsized role in climate action, as well as creating a useful local product. Like our forests, it is not a global solution all on its own, but it is our local contribution, and I hope a model for others.

There are other intersections possible between conserved land and climate action, and BHHT is looking for those opportunities. This, as I have said, will require dialog and learning as well as action, and that will happen within our peninsula communities and beyond as well. We must have all the voices we can in this. Biodiversity is nature’s answer to creating healthy resilient ecosystems, and I believe that diversity of all kinds is our model in creating lasting conservation and meeting the climate challenge. And here I want to highlight one more thing about the IPCC report.

It was not an accident that the report was released on International Indigenous Peoples Day. The message there – implicit and explicit – was that globally, Indigenous cultures hold some of the knowledge needed to meet the climate crisis. I believe this too, especially in matters of land management and stewardship. Building meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships between conservation and Native peoples is essential to all our success, and BHHT committed in its latest strategic plan to building these relationships. Here too we are part of important change in the conservation world.

The global moment has come to make meaningful change, and for all of us to take action in the face of climate change. It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can do. This seems daunting here at what seems like the periphery of the world, and it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of what needs to happen. Without downplaying the absolute necessity of national and international action, my belief is that we can be the center of thinking and action. We will be only one of innumerable centers of thought and action around the world, and we will need to stay engaged with the wider world to be successful, but what we do here on the Blue Hill peninsula can have a global effect.

Hans M Calrson
Executive Director
Blue Hill Heritage Trust