There is a tremendous opportunity to reduce GHG emissions, restore hydrology, reduce fire frequency and intensity, and improve resilience to climate change by rewetting peatlands. Photo by Sara Ward/USFWS
In its 2015 Global Lands Report, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) notes that at least 20 percent of global emissions of human-caused greenhouse gases (GHG) can be offset through protecting, restoring and enhancing such managed natural landscapes as grasslands, forests and wetlands. With the National Wildlife Refuge System responsible for more than 850 million acres of land and water, the Service’s management practices can be a natural climate solution, capable of meeting the Service’s wildlife mission while simultaneously achieving climate adaptation and mitigation.
For example, did you know that the Service collaborated with conservation organizations and other private entities on projects that have restored more than 80,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and will sequester more than 33 million tons of carbon?
The Service can expand this approach to other priority ecosystems where the restoration need and carbon sequestration capacity are great. Peatlands, such as those at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, are one such ecosystem, and the Service is collaborating with partners to increase resiliency to climate change by restoring the hydrology of these carbon-rich wetlands.
Pocosins are unique peat-based wetlands, also known as southeastern shrub bogs, which occur from southern Virginia to northern Florida along the southeastern Coastal Plain. The typically thick (up to 14 feet) layer of peat soil underlying pocosins has acted as a chemical sponge over geologic time, locking up metals, carbon and nitrogen in vegetation and the deepening soil layer. North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula has the greatest pocosin acreage in the United States, but, like peatlands all over the country, 70 percent of this habitat in Albemarle has been drained and converted to agriculture and forestry since the 1960s.
Drained pocosin peatlands present several problems: They are a source of carbon emissions and are particularly vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires that emit large amounts of carbon and negatively impact wildlife habitat and air quality.
Peatland forests are gaining global recognition for their tremendous carbon sequestration potential. Restoring the wetland hydrology in peatlands stops the loss of carbon via peat oxidation while allowing carbon sequestration via soil and biomass accumulation to resume (halting surface elevation loss and enhancing resiliency in low lying pocosins vulnerable to sea-level rise). Partnerships with TNC, North Carolina and others have already restored 20,000 acres of pocosins at Pocosin Lakes Refuge, which the Service estimates should ultimately sequester more than 21 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Given the magnitude of the carbon-mitigation benefit and the geographic scope of restoration needed (nearly a half million acres of degraded pocosin wetlands in North Carolina alone), the Service has partnered with TNC, TerraCarbon, East Carolina University and the U.S. Geological Survey to implement a 1,300-acre peatland restoration demonstration project at the refuge to test a first-of-its-kind accounting methodology to quantify the carbon-sequestration benefits gained.
The accounting methodology is undergoing review for adoption as an eligible method to verify carbon offsets. Approval could provide entities a new way to offset their carbon impact that, because of the amount of carbon retained in restored peatlands, could offer a high return on investment. Additionally, these entities might not otherwise have broad interests in restoration efforts. But the value of peatland restoration could entice nontraditional partners to help meet priority Service restoration, land conservation and monitoring goals in peatland habitats nationwide while meaningfully contributing to achieving GHG emission reduction targets.
SARA WARD, Raleigh Ecological Services Field Office, Southeast Region
|This article appeared in the fall issue of Fish & Wildlife News, our quarterly magazine.|