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Family Forests Are Key to Fighting Climate Change. But They Need Help.

Family Forests Are Key to Fighting Climate Change. But They Need Help.
A path runs through a dense forest. James O'Neil / Getty Images

By Austyn Gaffney

Wayne Brensinger, 63, has spent his entire life exploring Deer View Farm in eastern Pennsylvania. From an early age, he hunted squirrels and deer, drank clean spring water, and meandered down game trails through 500 acres of Northern Appalachian woodlands, with just 25 acres cleared for corn and soybeans. The property, in his family for over 150 years, was an idyllic place to grow up and raise his own children.

Brensinger just assumed the trees would always be there; he didn't have a plan for how to manage them long term. Then came the gypsy moths.

Dotted with blue and red circles down their backs, the bristly gypsy moth caterpillars chewed through the leaves of 250 acres of hardwood trees, including an estimated 1,250 of Brensinger's favorite tree, the white oak, and over 7,500 chestnut oaks. The damage cleared the way for invasive species. Ferns and stilt grass, accompanied by the fast-growing saplings of birch and gum trees, took root and shaded out other valuable seedlings.

"They came in and just ate all the trees," said Brensinger. "We had some large die-offs due to those caterpillars."

Only half his woods remained. Brensinger hired a forester for the first time, and together they created a forest management plan ― a road map for the continual care of his forest. They applied herbicide and replanted ravaged trees, and his woods have started to rebound. But it will take over 60 years of continual management for the new, younger trees to grow to the maturity of the ones killed.

Brensinger's struggle is far from unique, it's hard to maintain healthy forests especially as the impacts of the climate crisis become more pronounced.

"Family forests face numerous threats, amplified by climate change, including invasive pests, pathogens and a legacy of unsustainable forest management," said Josh Parrish, director of working woodlands for the The Nature Conservancy, an environmental non-profit. Forest owners need support and resources to tackle these, he added, not just for their own benefit but because their trees represent a vital weapon in the fight against climate change.

Forests are natural carbon sinks, soaking up more carbon from the atmosphere than they release, and research shows that improving the stewardship of woodlands is one of the most effective tools for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Today, forests blanket 766 million acres of the U.S., and 38% of these woodlands ― more land than California and Texas combined ― are owned by families and individuals. There are more than 20 million of these private owners, and according to the nonprofit American Forest Foundation, their family forests alone store an estimated 14 billion tons of carbon ― equivalent to the emissions of 12,000 coal-fired power plants.

They could store much more.

Conservationists have identified these private woodlands as one of the best routes to increasing carbon storage in the U.S. Forests currently offset 11.3% of the nation's annual carbon emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But they have the potential to offset around 20%, the American Forest Foundation says, if conservation programs are implemented.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has recognized the untapped value: His company is putting the first $10 million of its $100 million Right Now Climate Fund ― an initiative aimed at removing carbon from the air ― toward family forest preservation.

In order to manage their forests in sustainable ways ― culling invasive species, cultivating mature trees and fighting pests ― many families need help. It requires a lot of work, expertise and financial outlay, which family owners can't always pull together.

"The first thing they need is a forest management plan, and less than 15% of forest owners in Pennsylvania have a plan," said Parrish.

Many family owners generate income by selling trees to loggers. But loggers often want to buy older trees and are willing to pay more for them ― a practice called "high grading." Selling off too many mature trees, however, shortens the lifespan of a forest and lowers its carbon capturing powers. In Northern Appalachia, where Brensinger is based, unsustainable logging is one of the biggest hindrances to cultivating healthy forest lands.

But there is another avenue to make money that conservationists say can both help owners maintain healthy forests and maximize their potential to tackle climate change: carbon offsets. Previously, only large commercial landowners and federal or state governments have had easy access to carbon markets, but now there is a new focus on bringing in smaller family-owned forests, too.

The idea of carbon offsets is simple: Carbon emitters purchase "credits" to offset their emissions, essentially paying someone else to remove carbon from the atmosphere in their place ― through actions such as protecting wildlife habitats or planting trees. The credits are popular because they allow countries and corporations to continue to emit and still remain within legally binding caps on carbon emissions. Global carbon markets are now worth around $214 billion.

In order to qualify to sell credits, forest landowners typically have to pay a forester to calculate the carbon in every tree on their property, which can cost upwards of $100,000. Then, sustainability standards programs like Verra determine what additional carbon storage could be obtained through conservation efforts over and above what the owner is already doing.

It's this additional carbon storage ― from not logging mature trees or not selling a portion of the forest to developers ― that is meant to be sold as offsets. The goal is to ensure that carbon polluters aren't trying to offset their emissions with practices that landowners were already implementing anyway.

"Existing healthy forests are the status quo," said Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist and co-director of the University of California's Berkeley Forests. "We need to improve the situation by capturing more carbon and holding it."

The carbon offset process is long and complex. Plus, landowners entering the carbon market typically need huge swaths of forest ― roughly 1,500 acres ― to draw the interest of offset buyers. Family forest owners have an average of 67 acres.

To help these small forest owners capture additional carbon from their properties and enter the carbon marketplace, the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy have started a program to aggregate the offerings of small, family-owned properties.

Called the Family Forest Carbon Program, it aims to sell carbon credits to companies based on those bundles of acres and to pay landowners annually from the proceeds. In March, the program's pilot effort opened applications for landowners in six rural Pennsylvania counties.

Bypassing expensive methods of measuring a forest's carbon storage ― like going tree by tree ― the organization developed a system that estimates carbon capture potential based on the overall health of the forest. It provides landowners with instructions on how to improve forest health based not on a costly assessment of their land, but on knowing what it takes to have a healthy forest in their particular part of the country.

For example, owners in the West might be advised to reduce a forest's vulnerability to wildfire by clearing debris and overgrown vegetation. In Pennsylvania, that advice would cover timber management practices, including high grading, which can damage the forest ecosystem by taking away important species, reducing both diversity and density.

The Family Forest Carbon Program hopes to persuade owners to forgo the short-term cash boost of high-grading by paying 20% of the "opportunity cost" of preserving mature trees for a more diverse harvest later on. The scheme will also foot roughly 60% of the cost of treatments that remove competing vegetation, like invasive species or overcrowding saplings.

Initially funded by a mix of foundations, companies and the U.S. Forest Service, the program received a multimillion-dollar injection from the Right Now Climate Fund this month, making Amazon its largest supporter. "Amazon's investment in the Family Forest Carbon Program showcases the significant role family-owned forests can play as a climate mitigation solution," said Christine Cadigan, director of the program at the American Forest Foundation.

The pilot had an initial goal of partnering with 100 family forest owners, together owning roughly 9,000 acres, by the end of the summer. By 2021, they hoped to roll out a larger pilot, banding together 1,000 landowners across Pennsylvania and expanding into western Maryland and West Virginia. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, however, the mini-pilot has been put temporarily on pause.

But even without COVID-19, creating carbon credits is a challenging enterprise. While offsets have become a multibillion-dollar market, they've remained a controversial way to mitigate fossil fuel emissions.

One problem is "leakage," when storing carbon in one area simply leads to it being released in another. For example, while landowners in an offsets program may harvest less timber, the same quantity of wood may just be harvested elsewhere if the demand for wood products doesn't change. In California, a research paper found that around 80% of the offsets purchased for its statewide carbon program leaked in another location.

Programs must also address permanence. In traditional forest programs, this means offsets are purchased on the premise that the carbon will be sequestered from the atmosphere for at least 100 years. The Family Forest Carbon Program says that while it aims to partner with landowners for shorter contracts, between 10 and 30 years, it plans to have enough landowners participating so that carbon storage will be ongoing across the region, and eventually the nation. If a contract expires with one landowner, other forests will still be under contract or coming under contract.

Still, forests are inherently risky carbon containers, said Barbara Haya, a research fellow for the Berkeley Carbon Trading Project at UC Berkeley. Climate change is causing a tremendous loss of forest carbon. Increasingly frequent and destructive wildfires as well as warmer weather ― which leads to more disease and pest outbreaks, like Brensinger's gypsy moths ― are destroying huge swaths of forestland.

"Drawing carbon out of the atmosphere with trees is never equal to, and it never truly offsets, our emissions from fossil fuels," Haya warned. While managing forests for carbon sequestration is something landowners need to do, she said, "it in no way takes the place of reducing our fossil fuel emissions as quickly as we can."

The less quantifiable value of projects like the Family Forest Carbon Program might lie in their ability to change the way society views forests, from the appraisal of what is removed to the embrace of what an intact forest can offer.

Parrish, the Nature Conservancy official, pointed to the "co-benefits" of carbon sequestration: protecting wildlife habitat for birds, mammals and amphibians; preserving the landscape with edible foraging and conservation hunting; and promoting recreation. These co-benefits can help sustain a forest owner's dedication to woodland management ― a dedication that Parrish, who manages 150 wooded acres in Pennsylvania, hopes to pass on to his daughters.

"A couple years ago I started thinking about legacy and thinking about when my two girls someday have the property and own it," said Parrish. "I want to make sure there are more tools around that can help them essentially understand the complexities around forest management and have the right tools to make the right decisions."

This story originally appeared in HuffPost and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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