Environmental groups zero in on small woodlots as part of larger carbon offsets initiative
By Chloe Bennett
Environmental organizations are increasingly focusing on landowners to help with the storage of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. A new carbon offset program hit the Adirondacks this month, which offers cash to woodlot owners.
Around 40% of forests in the U.S. are owned by families or individuals, says The Nature Conservancy, and Northeastern forest owners slightly exceed that number.
As of 2018, nearly half of forests in the region are stewarded by families, data from the U.S. Forest Service shows. Trapped above and below ground in the natural ecosystems are high amounts of carbon dioxide stored temporarily until a disturbance releases the gas.
The vast carbon sinks are looked at by many scientists as natural climate solutions that can help reach ambitious climate goals such as those set in New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.
Two organizations zeroing in on family landowners are The American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, which developed the Family Forest Carbon Program (FFCP) in 2020 with projects in Pennsylvania.
Now in New York, the organization pays landowners with at least 30 acres to limit tree harvesting or practice management strategies with the help of foresters.
“We really need natural climate solutions to meet these huge state goals that we have,” Michelle Brown, senior conservation scientist for The Nature Conservancy in New York, said. “So, a lot of the natural climate solutions depend on private landowners taking action on their property.”
As of November, the program is rolling out across the North Country. About 1 million acres of land in Adirondack counties are eligible for the program, Sierra Giraud, FFCP’s Northeast senior forestry manager, said. Around 200 landowners in the park have expressed interest with 18 of them in the process of partnering or reviewing their contracts.
The program is on the voluntary side of the carbon offset market, which is unregulated by government bodies. The nonprofit partnership accounts for carbon using a methodology approved by Verra, a large voluntary market player responsible for millions of dollars worth of carbon credits.
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Companies wishing to shrink their net carbon footprint can buy carbon credits, meant to represent 1 ton of carbon taken out of the atmosphere by forests or technology, to offset their emissions. The industry has grown rapidly in recent years and could reach $1 trillion in credits by 2037, a study from research organization BloombergNEF shows.
The state is investing time and resources in carbon offset projects, too, as the industry grows. New York and other northeastern states partnered on a three-year project to push carbon offset projects forward. The Securing Northeast Forest Carbon Program, which ends in 2024, encourages people to secure their land through the carbon markets and conservation easements.
Carbon offset forestry projects have received considerable criticism from some researchers for their high carbon storage claims that allow companies to invest in credits while continuing to pollute the atmosphere.
The American Forest Foundation wrote in July that it vets credit buyers by reviewing several standards including their conservation impact and whether they are working toward climate mitigation.
As of June, FFCP has sold credits to companies REI, Amazon, Disney, Netflix, Dominion Energy, Link Logistics, Bank of America and Grove Collaborative.
The Family Forest Carbon Program operates dissimilarly to many voluntary projects by targeting relatively small land plots and keeping landowners separate from carbon credit trades. The program also takes a different approach to measuring sequestered carbon, which is commonly overestimated in offset projects, research shows.
By outlining and monitoring sets of enrolled land and comparing them to similar forests outside of the project’s boundaries, FFCP measures the health of each forest to determine the change in the amount of carbon stored.
“It is comparing what’s happening with the enrolled properties on FFCP to what’s happening in the landscape as a whole,” Brown said.
Landowners enrolled in the program receive between $200 to $300 an acre, depending on applicable management practice. Giraud said those enrolled get the money through lump sums at the beginning and end of 20-year contracts with incremental payments in between.
Using a different method to measure carbon storage and targeting small landowners has value in curtailing offset shortcomings, Charles Canham, a senior scientist with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, said.
“That was one of the key things that really sets the Family Forest Carbon Program apart,” Canham, who is also a board member of the Adirondack Explorer, said. “It’s an attempt to correct the gross exaggeration that’s inherent in protocols for the voluntary and even the California (compliance) market.”
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Still, uncertainty around the actual amount of additional carbon stored and the permanence of the projects remains. While some offset projects require 100-year commitments, FFCP only asks for 20 years to encourage more small landowners to take part. There is a possibility that the landowners could halt sustainable management practices at the end of their contract, Canham said.
“It’s hard to be confident that there is truly additional carbon sequestration due to the program,” he said.
However, the economic benefits for rural landowners could be significant. Upkeep and taxes on family land can be burdensome, leading to its sale and risk of degradation. With payments from the FFCP, that land has more potential to stay the way it is.
Although forest management can help with climate mitigation, reducing fossil fuel production is key, Brown said, and about 20% of annual net emissions can be countered with natural climate solutions like forest carbon storage.
“It is super, super important that all of these strategies, these natural climate solution strategies, are coupled with decarbonization,” she said.