By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
PITTSBURG – As lawmakers work on drafting bills related to use of carbon credits instead of logging across New Hampshire’s forests this winter, the Attorney General’s office is looking at the plan to pare down logging on 146,000 acres at the tip of the state owned by Bluesource Sustainable Forest Company to see if it complies with an easement meant to protect it for logging.
The 20-year-old document taxpayers and private donors put in about $46 million to protect the tract for recreation and logging, never envisioned another revenue source for tracts owners, such as is now the case with carbon credit markets paying more for keeping the trees growing than cutting them.
And that is what is happening now with the new owner and its business model.
Sarah Stewart, commissioner of the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, told Gov. Chris Sununu and the state’s five-member Executive Council Wednesday that the department is in receipt of a requested harvesting plan from Bluesource.
Shawn Hagen, land manager for Bluesource told a citizens task force for the property in September it expects to cut in half the annual amount of logging on the massive tract, about 3 percent of the state’s landmass in 2024.
Asked for a copy of the document, a spokesperson for Bluesource Sustainable Forests Company said Thursday “The annual operating plan is currently under review by state regulators. As such, we defer to the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources regarding the timeliness and appropriateness of the release of what was submitted.”
The harvesting plan details the company’s objectives which are subject to the easement.
In 2003 when International Paper Co. announced its plans to sell its 171,500 industrial forest acres, state and federal lawmakers scrambled to protect the tract from development.
It worked on a conservation easement for a majority of the land with an objective to ensure the tract could remain forever open for recreation and logging, historical uses.
Another 25,000 acres were purchased and now owned for habitat by the state Fish and Game Department.
Charles Levesque, one of the drafters of the easement document said it never envisioned that there would be a future revenue potential to keep the trees standing to offset carbon emissions.
But that is now the case.
Corporations that want to reduce their carbon footprints or are mandated by California law to do so, can essentially buy the trees growing here on a carbon market and other areas of the country to offset their carbon emissions.
There are other properties, mostly large ones in the state which are also involved in the carbon credit market.
Stewart told the council the Attorney General’s office needs to look at the terms of that conservation easement as the new owners, who are in the carbon credit farm business, are looking to cut by about one half the traditional amount of logging on the land.
This reduction already has had an impact on local mills, loggers, the region’s economy and possibly taxpayers next year, and will find either fewer services or higher tax bills.
Patrick D. Hackley, director of the state Division of Forests & Lands under DNCR, sent a letter last week to members of the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Citizen Committee and others stating that Bluesource had submitted its revised Annual Operating Plan for the Connecticut Lakes Realty Trust property covering the period from May 1, 2023 to April 30, 2024.
The company told the state they would do so and complete it in October.
“We are now in the review process with our forestry staff and the state Attorney General’s office to ensure the new harvesting plan, based on the company’s participation in California’s Air Resource Board Compliance (Carbon) Offset Program, complies with the purpose and all provisions of the conservation easement.
“I will provide an update when the review is complete,” Hackley wrote.
Levesque, who is a member of the citizens advisory committee for the headwaters tract said he did not have a copy of the plan but thinks it is likely that the amount of cutting in 2024 will be less than 50 percent of the five year average.
“I don’t have the plan. Patrick Hackley said that the plan will become public when it is final and signed (it is a draft now and slips through right-to-know until it is final),” he wrote in an email.
“Regardless, I watched the Pittsburg Selectboard meeting online on Monday afternoon at which Shawn Hagan of Bluesource told the selectboard that Bluesource had submitted their draft new Operating Plan to the Division of Forests and Lands and ‘…the proposed harvest levels are 12,000-14,000 cords for the year…’ So that means that this plan is more than a 50 percent reduction of harvest compared to the last five years. So, in my book, they did their dog and pony show meetings, hired a lobbyist and didn’t listen to anyone.”
There were meetings this fall and letters from U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen D-NH to Bluesource that the logging component of the easement is critical to the economy of the region. Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, who represents the north country and has attended several meetings on the subject, asked Stewart whether the council would be expected to act on anything that may come from the AG assessment of the proposed cut as it relates to the easement terms.
She said she was unsure at this time but would provide information as it is made available and as the document is finalized.
Stewart also noted that legislation is expected to be introduced in the next legislative session to focus on the carbon credit issues.
For the Town of Pittsburg, which has derived almost 10 percent of the town’s budget revenue from timber taxes on the property, this winter’s budget process is going to be looking at either reducing services or raising taxes to make up for the projected loss in about 5 percent of its revenue, depending on how much is projected to be cut.
Selectman Steve Ellis said he met with members of the Coos County delegation recently to discuss the issue facing his town, where much of the land is located.
He said he was told there are some bills being developed but they would not likely be passed until at least next spring.
Three bills are in the form of legislative service requests or one-line descriptions right now.
State Rep. Eamon Kelley, D-Berlin has one that is relative to the creation of a former carbon credit program.
State Rep. Arnold Davis, R-Berlin has one which would suspend New Hampshire’s participation in emissions reductions credit programs for a period of two years.
State. Rep. Nicholas Germana, D-Keene has an LSR in relation to proxy carbon pricing in state procurement but it is not directly linked to the forest carbon credits issue.
Germana said his bill would require the state, through the Department of Administrative Services, to factor a proxy carbon price into purchasing decisions for transportation and construction and renovation projects.
“The bill does not seek to create a carbon tax or a carbon pricing system, but to use a ‘proxy’ carbon price in cost comparisons for state purchases. The goal, in addition to reduction of carbon emissions, is to save taxpayers money. If we assume there will eventually be some form of carbon tax (as Canada and the EU have already adopted), and the price of carbon will only go up, then it will save NH taxpayers money by making decisions that will pay off over time. This is a “pay a little more now so you can pay quite a bit less later” approach.
Efforts to get more information from the two other bill sponsors were not immediately successful.
Bluesource assumed ownership of the headwaters tract this time last year after it acquired the land and its easement with the state from the Forestland Group.
The Forestland Group initially just cut the timber on the land exclusively, as did its predecessor, Lyme Timber. But the Forestland Group entered the California carbon market several years ago.
Regarding proposed 2024 legislation, Bluesource officials said it continues “to be actively engaged with legislators and other stakeholders to offer expertise, and looks forward to continued collaboration.”