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Resetting carbon offsets from the bottom up

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Resetting carbon offsets from the bottom up

Inside one quest to restore tarnished carbon markets, one family forest at a time

By Gabriel Popkin

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

On an unseasonably cool morning this past spring, Don McCann and Nathan Hartley plunged into a dense, lush Pennsylvania woods. Hundred-foot oaks, tulip poplars, hickories and pines towered from a hillside that plunges toward the Susquehanna River, which was swollen from recent rains. Seasonal plants like may apple and skunk cabbage sprang from the forest floor. When the two men stumbled across an occasional invasive barberry shrub, Hartley cut it down and dabbed the stems with a blue-dyed herbicide solution to keep it from growing back.

McCann has owned this 55-acre tract since 2005, along with a 30-acre parcel surrounding a cabin in a neighboring county. The forests here have long rebounded from being cut over in the 1900s, and his trees have reached an age that entices loggers to come knocking. “I get things in the mail all the time—‘we buy trees!’” McCann says.

But Hartley, a forester with the nonprofit American Forest Foundation (AFF), envisions a different future. As he sees it, landowners like McCann have one of the most readily available tools to slow climate change: trees that pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in wood and soil. 

McCann is a member of one of America’s largest clubs that you’ve probably never heard of: family forest owners. Some 11 million Americans collectively own 40 percent of American forests—an area roughly the size of California and Texas combined. That’s more forest than either the government or private corporations own. 

Yet McCann is no professional forest manager—he’s a retired banker who lives 70 miles away in Millersville, PA. And he’s far from alone.

For most small landowners, forest management “is almost never the thing they wake up in the morning thinking about,” says Nathan Truitt, executive vice president of climate funding at AFF. “It’s not that they’re making bad decisions; they’re making uninformed decisions.”

Those decisions often end up with loggers taking the largest and most valuable trees in an environmentally destructive process known as high-grading, depleting forests of both carbon and biodiversity. Truitt, Hartley and their colleagues have devised an alternative that aims to put the millions of individuals and families who own their own woodlands at the forefront of forest carbon stewardship. AFF thinks crowdsourcing carbon sequestration can unlock a new kind of climate solution that removes millions of cars’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions and makes money for forest owners at the same time

Don McCann inspects a rare shortleaf pine in his Pennsylvania forest. Photo by Gabriel Popkin.

While the foundation pays landowners up front to induce them to join, it doesn’t issue credits until measurements confirm a forest has captured more carbon than the controls. REI, Amazon, Disney, Netflix, and Bank of America have all committed to buy credits. 

Forest owners such as McCann who enroll in the Family Forest Carbon Program (FFCP) sign 20-year contracts committing them to grow trees for longer or take other actions that increase stored carbon. The foundation has developed an elaborate protocol to ensure that such changes truly capture additional carbon beyond what would have been sequestered anyway.

Some 380 landowners have signed up since the program launched in early 2020, and the foundation estimates their combined 57,000 acres of woodland will squirrel away more than a million tons of carbon dioxide. 

That’s a start, but it represents a tiny fraction of the 272 million acres of forest owned by families, and a sliver of the excess greenhouse gas that’s overheating the planet. Whether private forests can make a meaningful dent in atmospheric carbon will depend on a big unknown: how many of America’s small forest owners are willing to join the carbon game?

US Forest land ownership

One thing that’s not unknown: Trees exert a powerful and largely beneficial force on Earth’s climate. In 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, public and private forests in the U.S. collectively soaked up over 750 million tons of carbon dioxide, or 12 percent of the nation’s total emissions.

That 12 percent happened without anyone trying to manage forests for carbon sequestration, and  many advocates think it could be even higher. Promoters of so-called “nature-based solutions” laud forest carbon sequestration as a potentially powerful stopgap measure available today, as the U.S. and the world figure out how to ramp down fossil fuel emissions. One popular recommendation is to plant huge numbers of new trees. But tree planting’s climate benefits are often exaggerated; in some cases, new trees can actually warm the planet.

Another strategy involves growing trees in existing forests to larger sizes. It sounds simple. In practice, however, it would require millions of dispersed, often highly individualistic and politically conservative landowners spread across the United States to collectively change their behavior. 

As it is, when landowners find themselves needing to pay college tuition or cover a financial setback, they often contract a logger to cut old, high-value trees like oaks, hickories and walnuts—which happen to support the most wildlife and biodiversity. Lower-value trees that remain, such as red maples, then take decades to make up the deficit. 

“You’ve removed your best producers and you’re leaving behind the slow growers,” says Kevin Yoder, director of land management for The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC’s) Pennsylvania chapter. “That’s really what we want to address.”

A few years ago, the foundation and the conservancy began devising a scheme: Pay landowners to manage their forests for carbon rather than timber, and sell credits against that carbon to companies that emit greenhouse gasses. The idea would require a rethinking of carbon offset programs which were historically designed for forests consisting of thousands of acres of trees.

Now, if you know anything about these offsets, it’s probably nothing good. Last year, comedian John Oliver devoted an episode of Last Week Tonight to lampooning programs that claim to fight climate change by protecting trees that were, in fact, in no danger of being cut down. Earlier this year, The Guardian and partner organizations published a devastating critique of the industry, labeling more than 90 percent of rainforest offsets sold by Verra, the largest certifier, as “worthless.” (Verra defended its offsets and argued that the investigation’s methods were themselves flawed.)

Truitt, Yoder and their colleagues were well aware of these issues when designing the FFCP. To avoid crediting carbon that would have been stored anyway, they developed a methodology that compares the carbon gains of forest stands in the program against those of a set of control stands in the same area and under similar management. They were able to do this thanks to data collected by the U.S. Forest Service, which regularly measures trees in hundreds of thousands of forested plots on both public and private land. The protocol has been approved by Verra and is separate from the one that came under fire in The Guardian.

AFF and TNC argue that this approach, called a dynamic baseline, takes much of the guesswork out of figuring out what would have happened without the intervention—the so-called “additionality” criterion that has dogged other programs. Some outside experts agree.

“They’re doing something fundamentally different,” says Erin Sills, a forest expert at North Carolina State University. Incorporating time-tested practices long used in medical trials, where separate experimental and control groups are monitored over time, moves the forest carbon industry “much closer to the frontier of science,” she says. 

While the foundation pays landowners up front to induce them to join, it doesn’t issue credits until its own measurements confirm that an enrolled forest has captured more carbon than the controls. REI, Amazon, Disney, Netflix, Dominion Energy, Link Logistics, Bank of America and Grove Collaborative have all signed commitments to buy credits from the program, but only if future measurements bear out what the models predict.

But not everyone is convinced the program has fully shed the practices that have tarnished other forest-based offsets. Danny Cullenward, an expert at American University’s Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy and a frequent critic of offset programs, reviewed the protocol and said it has weaknesses. For example, control plots could be selected to generate unrealistically elevated carbon gains in enrolled forests. This might happen if AFF chose control plots with a lot of ash trees, which are being wiped out by an invasive beetle. Cullenward is also concerned that AFF’s contracts are simply too short to store much extra carbon. “Whatever good intentions the program might have, a 20-year commitment does not prevent a landowner from engaging in more aggressive harvests after the contract is over,” he says. 

For its part, AFF says that the 20-year contract period is a compromise designed to give forests time to accumulate meaningful amounts of carbon without asking landowners to accept long-term restrictions on how they manage their land.

Photo by Gabriel Popkin

The foundation estimates its combined 57,000 acres of woodland will squirrel away more than a million tons of carbon dioxide. That’s a start, but it represents a tiny fraction of the 272 million acres of forest owned by families

Cullenward also points to a case study describing a forest that was able to enroll in the Family Forest Carbon Program despite seemingly little chance it would be logged.

“If done well, this would be an important improvement over the status quo,” he says of the program’s protocol. “It’s hard to see it in the long run being the answer.”

AFF maintains that their methodology is designed to select unbiased controls and prevent algorithmic gaming. 

For all of AFF and TNC’s planning, not everything has gone smoothly. The program launched just as the pandemic was starting, delaying site visits for months. A plan to pay landowners to remove invasive species that hinder tree growth was shelved after modeling suggested that the carbon gains were less certain than hoped. (Program leaders say they still hope to incorporate that practice in the future.)

Recruiting landowners has also proven harder than anticipated. For every Don McCann, who was already enrolled in several forest stewardship and sustainability programs, dozens of landowners are off the radar of forestry and conservation groups. AFF is going after them with, among other things, billboards along the highways of Appalachia touting the message: “Grow Your Woods. Earn Income. Help the Planet.” 

AFF is betting that forest carbon credits can transform the forest industry while bringing a large and powerful group of people off the climate sidelines. Those efforts should be buoyed by several major new funding streams, including a recent $35-million USDA grant. The foundation will use this funding to try to recruit hundreds of new landowners and to create a tracking system for participants to market their wood as climate friendly.

McCann got his first email about the program in 2021. “I just jumped on it,” he says. He had been hearing about carbon payments for a while, but most were limited to larger landowners. 

He soon had a check and an updated management plan for his two properties. Hartley visited and delineated square plots of trees that the foundation will measure to quantify carbon gains. On a recent site visit, the two discovered a shortleaf pine tree hiding among McCann hardwoods. Shortleaf pine is a mostly southern species that’s rare in Pennsylvania, but as the climate warms, it will need to migrate north. Trees on properties like McCann’s can help populations get established, Hartley says, if they’re allowed to thrive.

Before he joined the program, McCann was considering cutting some of his larger trees. “There’s so much timber here, I would have been tempted to do something,” he says. 

And he—or his heirs—still could. In 2041, his contract will expire. He’s free to cut some trees even before then, though the program limits the total volume that can be harvested.

Instead, the program has McCann rethinking his plans altogether. “It has crystallized in my mind that I want to leave a legacy for my grandkids,” aged 11 and 13, he says. “I have the next dozen years or so to imbue them with a land ethic of taking care of trees.” 

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Editors’ Note: This story was updated on October 16 to clarify the methodology and duration of forest contracts
Gabriel Popkin is a Maryland-based science and environmental writer who often writes about trees and forests. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Science and many other publications. Find him at www.gabrielpopkin.com and @gabrielpopkin
Top image: ©Anthropocene Magazine

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