Q&A: Get to know Research Fellow, Karin Bothwell

February 28, 2018

We caught up with Karin Bothwell, AMC’s first ever research fellow. AMC’s research fellowship program, supported by the Leadership Giving Initiative (LGI), provides a recently graduated MS or PhD student an opportunity to build their professional resume while augmenting AMC’s research capacity in a relevant area of expertise. In December 2017, Karin Bothwell joined AMC as our first research fellow after completing her Masters of Science in Forest Resources. Karen is researching the economic impact of and opportunities for carbon sequestration on AMC’s major forest lands in service to AMC’s mission, including evaluating carbon offset projects.

Bothwell hiking Mount Katahdin
Bothwell hiking Mount Katahdin

What is your background?

I completed my Master of Science in Forest Resources from the University of Maine in August 2017, which focused on the economic and management impacts of deer winter habitat on forestlands. Now I’m looking at the economic impact and opportunities for new carbon sequestration projects on AMC’s major forest lands, balancing the values in terms of carbon and timber, ecosystem resources, recreation, and wildlife habitat.  The fun policy part is looking at the broader angle and weighing additional factors besides carbon. Economics is a useful tool for making people care.

What is involved in your day to day work?

I research carbon offset protocols and work with spreadsheets and calculations. I look at policy and forest management in addition to the accounting side of things. Spreadsheets, calculations, modeling, and forest management decisions are part of my background while carbon projects are new to me.

Describe a typical day on the job.

I am based in the Pinkham Notch [New Hampshire] Programs building. I am generally at a computer processing spreadsheets, reading research papers, looking at other companies who’ve designed carbon projects on their land, and researching what else is going on in the field. It’s a lot of computer time for someone who likes to be in the woods!

Will you have opportunities to take your work outside?

In the spring I’ll be able to visit AMC’s properties that may be eligible for new or additional carbon projects: Cardigan Mountain and land in the Maine Woods Initiative (MWI). We already have a completed carbon project in Katahdin Iron Works Ecological Reserve and are completing a project in the Silver Lake reserve we recently acquired. Currently we are looking at Cardigan and elsewhere in MWI as potential good candidates for additional carbon projects, which would mean AMC entering more carbon into the market.

What is the potential like for Cardigan and Roach Pond as far as carbon credits?

The challenge is that neither is a perfect candidate at first glance. Cardigan has lots of mature trees but is a small property. You need the right balance of mature trees on a large enough property to make it worth it. There is a large upfront investment cost to officially inventory and register the stored carbon.

The area we are looking at in MWI is a large property but has been previously cut heavily. We’re looking into other options for what we can do there even if it doesn’t justify an official project. That’s part of my research focus—can we use carbon internally to sell to visitors to offset their travel emissions or to help offset AMC’s own operational carbon footprint?

What is your process for determining the feasibility of carbon projects on specific sites?

First you perform an initial inventory which includes calculations to determine (a precise estimate) how much carbon is stored in the trees on the property—trees that you are promising to keep there for 100 years.

A growth and yield model projects future carbon sequestration based on the site and conditions in the region. You have to get specific information to calibrate the model. It’s really hard to predict 100 years in advance, so verification checks occur every six years with more intense evaluations every 12 years to make sure that the modeling is right. The evaluation involves measuring trees and comparing those measurements to the model to verify that the model’s predictions are right so what you planned for will be there 100 years out. You can update the model using the six and twelve-year checks, but it’s critical to get the model’s initial framework and input as accurate as possible.

A third party independent verifier performs the checks. There are a few big carbon credit registries in the carbon market who broker them. Carbon credits are sold to a registry and then the registry sells the credits to companies who want to offset their carbon emissions.

Climate Action Reserve (CAR) is the registry AMC has used and is one of the larger ones. They certify verifiers so an approved person checks out our property.

What makes you happiest coming to work each day?

I like that I can chart my own route through the research project. I know what the end goal of each phase is, and I get to figure out on my own how to get there. I like going to Pinkham, seeing the people, …and the weather on top of the notch. It’s cool to listen to experienced researchers and try to model myself off them.

[The research] is worth doing even if the economics don’t pan out for additional official [carbon] projects. It is critical information to inform AMC’s management decisions and it could be useful for other landowners in the region as well.

What are your interests outside of forest research?

I like hiking, snowboarding, snowshoeing, running, walking with my dog, paddling, horseback riding, anything outside.

You mentioned that you were a Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) intern for six months in the Boston office as your first job out of college. What made you come back to AMC?

I finally figured out that I wanted to work in natural resources. Looking for careers in that field, AMC was a fit. I knew I liked the organization because of the people that I met working with YOP. Everyone seems enthusiastic all the time and excited about what they’re doing. They also had outside interests, like hiking, that sounded fun and a good perspective of enjoying work and making time to do other fun things. Everyone seemed satisfied with what they’re doing. That’s what made me excited. I knew I wouldn’t be just going to work everyday. I’m happy to be able to join that crowd again.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

Not knowing what I’m doing! [laughs] Part of the fun is figuring it out. The harder part is trying to make sure that I get all the intricacies right. I can read the guidelines, follow the equations, but it’s the second aspect of looking at all the factors that go into the decision of carbon on your property. There’s a financial aspect involving a cost benefit analysis, but we are also influenced by what is important to [AMC] members. Given AMC’s mission, what areas should we be involved in and how should we handle the value of trees on our land? I want to understand the background that is informing the project, like the mission of the research department, what land acquisition means for AMC, what the board is doing, and getting a good read on membership. This all helps to make a good recommendation for the most responsible and appropriate use for trees on AMC’s land. It is also important for setting the standard for other timber owners in the region who look to organizations like AMC to base their decisions.

Where do you see hope in face of climate change?

You have to have hope! It’s pretty much a blind faith. We’ve done a lot of really rough things to the world so it’s hopeful to know that other people care too. Even people with interests very different from mine are all working on the same problem. What I’m doing might contribute somehow. That makes me feel good about what I’m doing. Also seeing nature around, being up in northern New England, being in the woods; it makes you appreciate what’s there. [Nature] is really resilient. But there is a point when it can’t save itself anymore. It can still can be saved and a lot of people are working on it. It’s not time to give up.

What steps can our donors, members, and volunteers take if they want to get involved with conservation?

I like to inform myself about what I care about and what is interesting to me. There is plenty of stuff that AMC is already doing and wants to do with Citizen Science. There are lots of initiatives people can get involved in. Even if you don’t know where to start, start with someone at AMC and you’ll get directed to the right contact who can help. Take friends hiking, sleep outside overnight, go paddling on a pond—help friends appreciate what we’re trying to conserve by enjoying it.

Why is the LGI fellowship important?

As envisioned, LGI funding will provide 10 years’ worth of fellowships. I think it’s pretty cool that [AMC] gets two years’ worth of someone focusing on a specific project that is relevant and that AMC needs to know more about while training the next generation of environmental scientists. Because I want to do practical research that is directly tied to environment and conservation, I’m excited to be here and appreciate that others are excited to fund it. Even though it’s just two years, it is fun to have a snapshot of being a researcher for AMC, and it’s useful for the organization.

With just two years, will you have enough time to implement the carbon projects?

I will have enough time to do a full mock project which is all the stuff that goes into a project that gets registered. If we decide to go ahead with [the carbon project], some of the initial modeling would already be done. Carbon projects are labor intensive. The simulations and calculations have to be spot on for the checks. You have to perform detailed inventorying, calculations, and modeling for 100 years, which will be an ongoing task for AMC’s forestry and research staff.