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Updates from the Sustainability Working Group


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Carbon Neutrality Through Forests And Trees

By the Sustainability Working Group

Hamilton’s commitment to carbon neutrality requires a diverse and multi-pronged approach that pursues the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions on campus as well as opportunities to enhance atmospheric carbon removal. As the College Sustainability Working Group (SWG) works to advance all options, our land-management strategy in particular aims to use Hamilton’s forested lands to decrease our net greenhouse gas emissions and achieve multiple co-benefits aligned with our educational mission and our historic land stewardship legacy. 

Hamilton’s landholdings beyond its core campus include 790 acres of forests, 110 acres of agricultural lands, and 20 acres of the former golf course. Hamilton sustainability coordinators recently have worked to reforest portions of the golf course, install pollinator gardens, and promote student and faculty research in our forests. These efforts to reduce carbon on a microscale also provide students with experiential learning opportunities. A subcommittee of the working group is developing a land stewardship plan designed to take this effort to a new level, driven by the five key principles below: 

  • Promote academic teaching and research opportunities to enhance Hamilton’s educational mission.
  • Maximize carbon storage and sequestration to the extent possible in consideration of our other goals, from our forests, agricultural lands, and former golf course.
  • Protect and expand the health and diversity of native flora/fauna, through reforestation, invasive species management, and appropriate silvicultural practices.
  • Facilitate low-impact recreational and wellness opportunities.
  • Promote animal biodiversity and populations. 

To develop this land stewardship plan, Hamilton has partnered with Dr. Steven Bick, a forester under whose guidance Colgate University recently implemented a similar plan that helped Colgate achieve carbon neutrality in 2019. Our proposed land management action will begin at Hamilton’s Reservoir Forest. This 236-acre forest plot, a half mile from campus, is a historical legacy from the days when Hamilton protected three reservoirs as its drinking water source. Bick performed a detailed carbon assessment of the Reservoir Forest in 2017, and came to two principal conclusions. First, the tract is dominated by a monoculture of pines planted in the 1930s, and the health and carbon sequestration potential of this single-age stand is both in decline and shades out native hardwoods. Second, regrowth and carbon sequestration have been further compromised by widespread invasive species like European buckthorn and Asiatic bittersweet. To address both concerns, a restorative silviculture project — a forest wellness initiative — is planned under Bick’s supervision.

The work plan will include a “release cut” to remove some of the unhealthy and poorer “carbon performing” plantation trees, leaving all native hardwood trees and understory. These release cuts will be carried out in a 56-acre tract that, according to Bick, has the highest likelihood of hardwood regeneration. Although Hamilton could earn $8,000 to $10,000 from the proposed work, by selling sawlogs and biomass woodchips, the goal is anything but economic: The revenue from the sawlogs and woodchip sales will be used to fund mechanical removal of invasive species, installation of deer exclusion fences, and planting of hardwood saplings in the release-cut areas. Associate Professor of Biology Bill Pfitsch is a member of the SWG Natural Resources Subcommittee that is collaborating on the work plan, and he has focused some of his research efforts in the Reservoir Forest since 2011. Pfitsch describes this work as “harvesting that’s ecological rather than economic in nature.”

The silviculture project also will serve as a research and learning opportunity for Hamilton students. For example, Assistant Professor of Biology Andrea Townsend is working with Bick to design and implement deer fencing and reforestation strategies that will promote regrowth of native hardwoods in the release-cut areas. She and her students will compare tree community structure, invasive plant encroachment, and deer browsing pressure in plots with and without deer exclusion fences. Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Aaron Strong will work with his students and the forester to track carbon storage in the harvested wood products themselves (wood used in construction still stores carbon!). His first-year course on carbon footprints will track detailed information on where the logs are sold, what they are milling and using them for, and what fraction of the cuts are going to biomass for energy.

These experiments and classroom exercises will serve both as a learning tool and as an opportunity to evaluate best practices for future land management at Hamilton. 

The aggregate of the actions described above will ultimately increase the amount of forest carbon that Hamilton can “debit” from its annual emissions inventory while providing educational and environmental co-benefits under the long-term tenets of a land stewardship plan. Of all the carbon neutrality project options that SWG is considering, the highest priority are those that will involve and benefit both our students and our community.

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