Carbon credits spell new future for forests

Carbon credits spell new future for forests

29 November 2009

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USA — Driving through the verdant timberlands of Oregon’s Coast Range, Matt Fehrenbacher pointed out a mountainside where every tree had been clearcut.

“That’s business as usual,” said Fehrenbacher, a forester with The Pacific Forest Trust, a conservation group that manages private forest both to produce lumber and to store carbon as a hedge against global warming.

Later Fehrenbacher walked through the forest he manages for the Van Eck Forest Foundation, showing off tall Douglas firs that are breaking into a new growth spurt after trees around them were cut to let in more sun, dead logs with mushrooms sprouting from them left behind on the forest floor, and hemlock seedlings planted next to stumps left from logs sold for lumber.

“There’s a sweetspot where a landowner can potentially balance your timber value with your carbon values,” said Fehrenbacher. “As this market emerges it’s becoming more of a reality. Landowner’s interest is very high right now.”

The Van Eck Oregon Forest that Fehrenbacher manages is not yet getting paid for the carbon it stores, but it is positioning itself for the day when it will be, either under an emerging voluntary market for carbon credits, or if climate legislation — one of President Obama’s top priorities — is enacted in the U.S. Senate.

Trees naturally absorb carbon dioxide as part of photosynthesis, and store it in their leaves and wood. When trees burn, rot, or are cut down, they return carbon to the atmosphere. The trick is to maximize the amount that gets stored.

While the climate bill has drawn strong opposition from conservatives wary of creating a cap and trade system that charges carbon producers, like coal-fired power plants, it has united two longtime adversaries.

Timberland owners and environmental groups both want to see the bill pass. For timberland owners, it means new sources of revenue immune to the boom and bust of the housing industry. One comes from the cap and trade market paying for leaving trees standing. Another comes from promoting the sale of biomass — small trees cut to reduce fire danger and make room for other trees to grow — that can be mixed with coal in power plants, or turned into pellets for wood-fired furnaces.

For conservation groups, it is a way to stop millions of acres of forest land from falling to development, leaving it standing for fish and wildlife habitat.

“A lot of people in the Senate want to get the whole thing through without cap and trade,” said Andrew Light, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. “Some are starting to realize … that if you don’t get cap and trade, you don’t get all the great forestry stuff, which is bringing together a lot of strange bedfellows.”

As yet, the bill does not address national forests, or the desire of wood products manufacturers to get credit for lumber and plywood that will store carbon in buildings for a century or more.

The “forestry stuff” it does have has timberland owners very interested.

“We’re taking it on the chin right now,” said Dave Tenny, a former Bush administration timber official now heading the National Alliance of Forest Owners. “Markets are down. The economics pressures are real for every class of landowner. Now here comes an opportunity for new incentives or markets for these forests to make a contribution, not only to the environment, but to landowners as well.”

Landowners are already starting to reap the benefits of leaving trees standing as companies look for ways to voluntarily offset their carbon footprint.

The Walt Disney Co. recently pledged $7 million to protect or restore tens of thousands of acres of forest in the Congo basin, the Amazon basin, California’s North Coast and the lower Mississippi Valley.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. is paying the city of Arcata, Calif., $400,000 to manage part of its city forest to store carbon for the next 100 years.

Brian C. Murray, director for economic analysis at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, said carbon credits could move tens of millions of acres of cropland into forest, particularly in the Southeast and Midwest, where they have moved back and forth since the Civil War.

“It would be largest land movement we’ve ever seen in such a short period of time,” he said.

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