Menning: An Intuitive Path Towards a Bigger Green

To offset its carbon footprint in the energy transition, Dartmouth should consider expanding the Second College Grant through landscape-level woodland acquisition.

by Isaiah Menning | 7/15/22 4:05am

Dartmouth owns 27,000 acres of forestland in northern New Hampshire. A gift from the state legislature in 1807, the Second College Grant has since become a beloved piece of Dartmouth’s heritage. The area is beautiful; Bear Brook and the Diamond River wind in open wetlands beneath forested mountains, hosting habitat for moose, whitetail deer, grouse, black bears, otters and beaver. The College currently manages the area for sustainable timber production and recreation, and the Dartmouth Outing Club maintains three cabins on the property that students can use from matriculation through life after graduation. While the Grant clearly plays to the “crunchy” aura so quintessential to life at Dartmouth, it may also provide a high-reward model to achieve one of the College’s most pressing priorities: a low-carbon future. 

As Kyle Spencer ’23 recently pointed out in his column “The Big Green is Not So Green,” Dartmouth has a pollution problem. With nearly 57,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent gases emitted in the 2020 fiscal year, Dartmouth needs to make major reductions before meeting its goals of reducing emissions to less than 39,000 metric tons by 2025 and less than 16,000 by 2050. Currently, the College is focused on reducing its climate impact by making energy systems more efficient and transitioning to renewable sources, but Spencer and the experts he interviewed are skeptical that the College’s current strategy is sufficient. To both offset their emissions and bolster their access to rich natural benefits, Dartmouth should invest in forestland.

By photosynthesizing carbon dioxide into biomass, forests are a critical deterrent against human-caused climate change. In recent decades, a combination of carbon emission regulations and private commitments to sustainability have created a carbon credit market in which, at its best, credit buyers pay landowners to manage their properties to store more carbon dioxide than they otherwise would have, offsetting the emissions of the buyer. Changing land management to increase carbon storage is critical to this process –– otherwise, no offset occurs. However, by directly purchasing land and changing management to increase carbon storage, Dartmouth could avoid this scenario and credibly offset its emissions footprint while gaining an asset. 

To determine whether a land acquisition plan would be feasible, Dartmouth would need to investigate the fiscal and ecosystem prospects of potential holdings. Thankfully, the College’s research and alumni resources are extremely well-positioned to answer these exact questions. Jim Hourdequin ’98 is the CEO of Hanover-based Lyme Timber Co., a forest investment firm that has earned $53 million in carbon offset transactions in the last two years. Hourdequin is also interested in reforming the carbon credit market toward more meaningfully combating climate change, an effort covered in a recent Bloomberg Green Finance article published in March. Hiring industry-savvy alumni like Hourdequin to consult on project prospects would be an invaluable first step towards evaluation. The College can also use its own research resources. Faculty and students associated with Dartmouth’s Ecology, Evolution, Environment and Society Program have found that even forests used for timber production can be managed to sequester large amounts of carbon. If conditions are correct, Dartmouth could reach its energy goals in time by purchasing land, changing management and storing carbon, all while benefiting from the sale of forest products.

Of course, despite the seemingly endless $8.5 billion endowment, College resources are limited. It is possible that rather than investing in nature-based solutions, money may be better spent simply on high-quality carbon credits or more rapidly engaging the energy transition. However, before dismissing an expansion of the Grant, it is critical to realize the potential investment benefits that outright ownership of lands may bring the College beyond moving towards sustainability.

Firstly, the land could be a lucrative financial investment even after Dartmouth fully transitions to renewable energy. After using its woodlands for its own carbon storage, Dartmouth forest managers could enter the carbon market by selling carbon credits through increasing carbon storage. Beyond producing traditional forest products, Dartmouth’s land holdings could potentially yield significant returns by servicing major firms who have already made net-zero pledges.

Second, the College could explore conservation leases that would support large-scale conservation goals like the Biden administration’s 30 by 30 initiative. Establishing conservation leases adjacent to the Grant would be ideal – island biogeography theory suggests that larger protected areas host greater niche and genetic diversity, increasing natural system resilience to threats like climate change. 

A large-scale forest acquisition project could also strengthen College research. Land in the Second College Grant has long been used for research on forest management and climate change. New land acquisitions could provide easier access for researchers to conduct experiments like these and provide greater opportunities to use landscape-level replicates, a notoriously difficult component to procure in ecological science. Bolstering Dartmouth’s research contributions through expansion of the Grant would not only earn it regard but also provide critical knowledge for other forest managers. 

Large land acquisitions would also yield day-to-day recreational benefits for the Dartmouth community. The cabin, road and trail network on the Grant have been well-tailored, and this system could serve as a ready model if more land was acquired. Forest acquisition would bolster opportunities for students, faculty, staff, alumni and the public to responsibly interact with the land, from hiking to fishing to wildlife-watching to hunting to canoeing. Growing the culture of hands-on environmental stewardship among Dartmouth students would more holistically prepare them for global leadership while strengthening the natural capital of the College. 

Dartmouth depends on wilderness. The forests of New Hampshire already protected by the Second College Grant provide financial returns, a buffer against climate change, habitat for various species and recreational access that defines the Dartmouth experience. Large-scale land acquisition for carbon storage could offset Dartmouth’s excess emissions while providing a financial asset, conservation gains, robust research benefits and rich natural experiences for the Dartmouth community. The College knows how to steward large tracts of forest. It has faculty and alumni intimately knowledgeable about forest carbon storage. And it has gaps to make up for in its sustainability goals. What could be more fitting than the Big Green leading peer institutions in carbon reductions through responsible land stewardship of vast woodlands? Dartmouth should consider how the intuitive path of purchasing forestland for carbon storage may strengthen its ambitions of a bigger Green.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!