Encroaching development and accelerated climate change are stressing Eastern forests, but a new program aims to help preserve and protect at least 50,000 acres of critical, carbon capturing, woodland habitat along the spine of the Appalachians.

The Appalachian Landscapes Protection Fund, an $18 million initiative launched Thursday by the Open Space Institute, will provide grants and loans to purchase or arrest development on forested Appalachian properties with strong climate change mitigation capabilities in three targeted regions.

About 10,000 acres of that forest focus unfolds from the Kittatinny Ridge, which arcs through Pennsylvania from the Mason-Dixon Line south of Harrisburg to north of the Delaware Water Gap on the state's eastern border. That Mid-Atlantic region also includes the New Jersey Highlands and parts of the Pocono Mountains in New York.

"The Mid-Atlantic region is a very critical corridor, a wildlife and plant pathway that allows for movement and adjustment as the climate changes," said Peter Howell, executive vice president for research and conservation investment at OSI, a New York City-based nonprofit founded in 1974 that has partnered in the protection of nearly 2.3 million acres in North America.

He said sprawling housing, industrial development and pipelines are all squeezing the region's forests, especially in Penn's Woods.

"Pennsylvania is the most critical area where development pressures are most intense and those climate corridors are most vulnerable," Mr. Howell said.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn welcomed the new forests funding program and noted its close alignment with state climate and landscape goals.

"Both its key elements — addressing climate change, fostering resilient forests, and other goals — and some of the areas targeted — Kittatinny Ridge, the Pocono Mountains — all are directly in line with DCNR's conservation landscape initiatives in these threatened habitats," Ms. Dunn said. "They are valuable in their own right but also have heightened importance and urgency given the need for forest land connectivity in these critical Appalachian landscapes."

The fund will also target woodlands in the Cradle of Southern Appalachia, which includes parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, and a Northern Appalachian region focused on sylvan swaths of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Mr. Howell said those Appalachian areas were selected based on their climate resilience — that is their ability to withstand shocks that come from rising temperatures and changing precipitation — plus the presence of potential forest preservation partners.

"We asked where are the carbon risk places," he said. "And where are the land trusts and where is the political will."

Forests, through photosynthesis, remove and store carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming. The Appalachian Mountains contain the world's largest broadleaf forest and are responsible for the majority of U.S. forest carbon sequestration while also providing essential climate refuge for plants and animals, according to the OSI.

The Appalachian landscapes fund is seeking to leverage an additional $66 million in matching public and private money to use for land acquisition and conservation easements. The easements allow land ownership to remain in private hands but restrict or prohibit development long term.

The new fund is focused on preserving "the land that matters most" in combating climate change, said Kim Elliman, OSI president and chief executive officer.

"While a changing climate can create overwhelming uncertainty," Mr. Elliman said, "the conservation of forests can go a long way toward helping wildlife and people adapt while reducing emissions through carbon storage and sequestration."

OSI cites studies saying that reforestation and better forest management can provide 18% of climate change mitigation through 2030. The initiative aligns with the Biden administration's recently announced plan to conserve 30% of U.S. land and waters by the year 2030 to leverage natural climate solutions, protect biodiversity, and slow extinction rates.

In 2019, U.S. forests sequestered 59 billion tons of carbon — the equivalent of more than 33 years of emissions from the nation's economic activities. And every year, forests remove 15% of the country's carbon dioxide emissions, equal to removing more than 673 million cars

Mr. Howell said the forest fund's 50,000 acre preservation goal is a pilot effort to provide incentives for the improved management of carbon and its removal from the atmosphere.

"Our overarching goal is to show the powerful role that land can play in responding to climate change, Mr. Howell said. "This is just a start, but the idea is to highlight and provide proof of the forest's capabilities and what can happen on a greater scale."

OSI is accepting grant applications through April 14, from not-for-profit conservation organizations, state agencies, municipalities, Native American tribes and land trusts accredited by the Land Trust Alliance. It plans to hold future grant rounds every eight to 10 months through 2023.

No minimum or maximum grant amounts are set, but awards will typically be between $50,000 and $400,000.

All applications must be submitted through the institute's online grant portal. A Webinar for fund applicants is scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. Mar. 8, with registration online.

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