By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
PITTSBURG – State officials said they are seeking a meeting with the new owner of the 146,000 acre tip of New Hampshire, Bluesource, whose business plan is primarily selling carbon credits to keep the trees growing rather than logging.
Bluesource Sustainable Forest Company, which merged last October with the Forestland Group, is in the business of “managing former timberland to maximize carbon and ecological benefits.”
Shawn Hagan, senior director of forest operations for Bluesource said Thursday the company is considering extensions to existing logging contracts which are all concluding but he did not specify any new logging purchase contracts for the massive tract, which represents about 3 percent of the state’s landmass.
The land is not only the state’s pointed top but its backbone for the logging industry left in the state.
The impacts to such a plan are many including to the economy of the North Country and logging related jobs, to the timber tax and base of three towns (Pittsburg, Clarksville and Stewartstown) that rely heavily on logging and to habitat for rare and hunted species in the Great North Woods who live and rely on recently cut areas including moose, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hares and many songbirds.
Gov. Chris Sununu said at the Executive Council meeting Wednesday the land is privately held and property owners have a right to do what they want with the land, but others have countered that is incorrect, that the state has rights to the easement it paid for more than two decades ago.
Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, D-Wakefield, said there is significant state investment in a working forest model for the land to help the region’s economy, once owned by International Paper.
The state and federal government and private fundraising paid more than $45 million two decades ago to protect the timberland from development and created plans for logging and recreation. It separated the tracts and acquired 25,000 acres for habitat, which is owned and managed by New Hampshire Fish and Game.
The remaining 146,000 acres is owned privately with restrictions to develop structures.
The state also maintains 254 miles of the more than 400 miles of road on the property.
The Connecticut Headwaters Advisory Council met Monday to discuss roads on the property. Charles Levesque, a member, and Hagan attended but the subject of the meeting was not to address the company’s plans on future logging and he said Hagan did not directly address that issue.
The legislature just allocated $1.5 million through the biennial budget to maintain the roads on the property. Some roads were damaged significantly from recent storms which are likely to persist in the coming years with more severe weather predicted due to climate change.
Levesque said the arrangement has the company paying to use the roads when they log. “If they don’t log, that money goes away,” he noted.
Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Commissioner Sarah Stewart told the governor and council Wednesday that they are asking for a meeting with Bluesource after hearing concerns from the North Country about the change in ownership and mission.
Councilor Kenney said there is a main concern that the three remaining timber sales on the tract are completing this month and there are no known new contracts.
Levesque concurred saying there is no clear message being sent yet from the new owners but that their mission appears to be taking over former industrial land and selling instead of the wood credits to capture carbon.
He said the conservation easement the state purchased does not require logging but it was clearly one of the purposes of the easement when it was drafted 20 years ago because of the economic importance of logging to the region.
“It does require an approved forest management plan with the state,” he said.
The easement never envisioned a carbon credit market because it didn’t exist.
Now, with companies interested in reaching a “net zero” carbon footprint, and some like California energy companies that are required by their state law to reduce carbon, they can sell essentially a contract to not cut wood as an alternative for revenue.
Just how much they get paid for the credits is proprietary and not publicly known, but it could be that investors make more money selling the credits than the wood right now.
Levesque said he plans to give Pittsburg town officials a presentation on carbon credits next Tuesday at a meeting and that it is a fairly new way for property owners to make money.
Jasen Stock, executive director of the NH Timberland Owners Association, said there is significant concern about potential change in logging operations on the massive tract but he noted that the prior owner, the Forestland Group, the prior operator which merged, was taking carbon credits off a portion of the land and sustainably logging at the same time.
Stock said, “it is not a one or the other situation” between working forest and carbon credit farms but it can be a mix and can depend on the market.
Right now, the market for wood is low, with prices down in part due to few new housing starts because of the high interest rates.
The impact of no logging could be on the foresters and land managers, Landvest. An official for that group was not available Thursday for comment.
It also extends to the loggers, the truckers, their leases or payments, and to the mills.
Steve Halle, operations manager for Milan Lumber with 51 employed, the change in logging practices on the land has already impacted operations and in part was responsible for a huge layoff in July impacting 46 workers. He said it was the first time since 1950 that the sawmill has been idled.
A lack of wood supply was the reason for the layoff which has ended. There is some wood still coming off the Headwaters tract to his mill but he said he is not sure how much is still out there to be trucked in before that dries up wood supply.
Halle said the mill needs to find 8,000 tons of wood from somewhere else, or enough to keep the mill going for three months.
He said he went to a Coos County delegation meeting this week where legislators from the region discussed the concern.
“I pray to God that there is so much concern that the land will be put back up for sale,” to someone who would log it, but he noted it could be worse if it was sold as conservation land.
“We can’t afford to lose a logger or a chainsaw,” he said.
Another mill potentially impacted processes hardwood for furniture, the Ethan Allen Mill in neighboring Beecher Falls, Vt.
Jason Smith of Ethan Allen said if there is no more logging on the tract “it is certainly not going to help us.”
He said the problem of procurement is increasing and he has had to expand as far as Saratoga, N.Y. to find product to feed the mill.
“What did we get for $45 million,” Smith said, referring to the original easement costs.
Levesque said the first timber owner, Lyme Timber, cut as the only form of revenue but had to do so sustainably with the plan.
After about seven years, Lyme sold to the Forestland Group which was the first to be able to take carbon credits for the land. It was initially because of California state requirements for polluters there, but there is now, also a growing voluntary market due to net zero carbon challenges corporations are engaged in to help reduce their impacts on global warming.
State Rep. Eamon Kelley, D-Berlin, said in an email to InDepthNH.org July 28 “the new owner of the Headwaters land announced this week that they will not be renewing logging contracts when they expire in August.
“That will have significant impact in the region,” Kelley said.
Bluesource is a subsidiary of Anew Carbon which with Recreational infrastructure on the property, is operated as a quasi-state park funded by a special tax on timber harvested.
“The traditional timber tax goes to the town of Pittsburg and amounts to nearly 5 percent of their total revenue ($150,000.),” Kelley said.
“The logs harvested represent a significant portion of logs used by Milan Lumber and other mills in the area. Beyond the economic impact to the region there is the question of how carbon credits fit in New Hampshire.
“Should they be considered a forest product which would grant them legal and tax benefits? Should we allow them to be sold on land that is under no threat of development? On land that was already under conservation easement and being operated as a state park?” Kelley said.
“In my opinion, this arrangement is allowing wealthy multinational companies to avoid cutting their own emissions by paying to push that hardship onto poorer communities. This parcel only represents 10 percent of the land…purchased when they acquired The Forestland Group last year,” referring to the total holdings of the new owners.
“This story is going to be playing out all across the country as those lands all shift from working forests to climate credit farms,” Kelley said.
Anew Climate of which Bluesource is a subsidiary had pledged $4 million to bring sustainability-focused jobs to affected communities, but that money would hardly be enough to counter the fallout in Coos County, let alone their other holdings nationally,” he said.
The land was owned by the International Paper Company and heavily used to feed the mills of the region for years before it was offered for sale, starting a scramble in state and federal circles to protect the land from development.
The Trust for Public Land came in and bought 171,000 acres from IP to hold it while a plan was devised incorporating it into a working forest with recreation.
Levesque, who worked for several years to develop that plan, is now a member of the advisory committee and even pays a lease to the new owners for a camp he has on the property.
He said ultimately this could be decided in court if the state rejects a management plan that does not include logging.
Levesque said the committee he sits on is advisory in nature to DNCR and may be asked to weigh in.
The state usually cedes to their recommendations, he said in terms of how to best manage the lands in perpetuity.
“The situation right now seems to be fluid,” he said and added he hoped that the state and the company could make some agreement that works for all.
Patrick Hackley, director of the state division of Forests and Lands and the state’s point person on the matter, will be seeking a meeting as soon as possible, Commissioner Stewart said Wednesday.