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Helping small landowners break into carbon markets

A new USDA investment will enable family forest owners in the Pacific Northwest to join the fight against climate change and pay for health care.

By David Diaz, Ecotrust and Brian Kittler, Pinchot Institute for Conservation 

For more than a decade, carbon markets have offered the allure of rewarding landowners who change their management plans to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and store it in their forests. Under California’s cap-and-trade program, about three dozen forestry projects have sprung up around the country with this in mind, and globally, the market for carbon credits from sustainable forestry has expanded to over $1 billion. However, for more than 99% of non-industrial forest owners in Oregon and Washington, these markets have been a mirage.

The high cost of measuring, monitoring, and certifying individual carbon projects has historically limited carbon funding for improved forest management (typically for harvesting on longer rotations and leaving downed trees and other biomass on property) to the relatively few landowners with mature forests and properties covering at least several thousand acres. These larger land areas are needed so that enough carbon can be stored (and eventually sold as carbon credits) to cover the startup costs. Ironically, this has done little to halt one of the largest trends driving U.S. forest loss: smaller parcels sold off by families and smallholders who encounter financial hardships.

To overcome this hurdle and unlock forest carbon payments for small landowners, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) directed $820,000 in Regional Conservation Partnership Program funds this week to the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative, a groundbreaking partnership in the Pacific Northwest, that will help family forest landowners store more carbon in their woodlands through sustainable management. The project was one of 115 supported nationwide by NRCS this week. Partners include the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, Ecotrust, Woodlands Carbon (a subsidiary of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association), Oregon Department of Forestry, Northwest Natural Resource Group, and Oregon State University Extension Forestry. They will use the funding for technical and financial assistance aimed at unlocking carbon markets for non-industrial forest owners in the Pacific Northwest.

The four-year grant will be channeled to start up a more cost-effective process for smaller landowners to band together and have their aggregated land certified as a bone fide carbon storage unit.  It will also enable the project team to begin integrating the tools and steps needed to account for carbon storage into the management planning systems and conservation incentive programs offered by state and federal agencies like the Oregon Department of Forestry and NRCS.

Ecotrust will be tailoring and applying the online Forest Planner toolkit we launched in March 2014 (available at www.forestplanner.ecotrust.org) to give landowners an easy way to quantify the carbon benefit they can provide through long-term commitments to sustainable forest management. That will pave the way for landowners to easily get certified and start generating new revenue by storing more carbon.

Family forest owners and local foresters at a Forest Planner workshop in 2014.

Backed by the support of the Murdock Charitable Trust and NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants in 2011 and 2014, Forest Planner offers a first-of-its-kind, open source, online planning support system for landowners across Oregon and Washington to easily create and compare custom forest management scenarios side-by-side with maps and graphs (watch a video about Forest Planner here).

On the ground, this new NRCS support will start scaling up the innovative Forest Health-Human Health Initiative spearheaded by the Pinchot Institute in northwestern Oregon.  In hundreds of interviews conducted in 2010 and 2011, 25%-30% of family forest owners reported medical costs as the primary driver for selling their land.

In response, the Pinchot Institute designed the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative to help family woodland owners retain, conserve, and manage their land with a new “conservation for health care” incentive model; some or all of the revenues from carbon funding could be put onto a stored-value card – dubbed the  “ATreeMTM” card – which landowners could use to pay for health care expenses (watch a video about the FH-HH Initiative here). With support from Meyer Memorial Trust, the Kelley Family Foundation, the USDA Forest Service and NRCS, this program will soon be a real option for a first group of landowners in the Pacific Northwest.

In partnership with the Pinchot Institute and Ecotrust, Woodlands Carbon and Northwest Natural Resource Group will be working with landowners to develop sustainable forest management plans and guide them through carbon certification in two main clusters of activity beginning in Northwestern Oregon and in Washington’s Puget Sound region.

With the generous, timely support of the new NRCS grant, we are now closer than ever to producing the first wave of landowners successfully verified through a forest carbon aggregation program anywhere in the United States.  It’s about time.

David Diaz is Forestry Program Manager at Ecotrust; Brian Kittler is Western Regional Director for the Pinchot Institute for Conservation.