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

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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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