The port city of Astoria, Oregon, owns an island of old-growth temperate rainforest, situated in the Bear Creek watershed and emptying into the Pacific.
From this waterway, Astoria and surrounding areas have drawn potable water since the 1880s.
So when they were faced with a need for additional revenue, city managers were reluctant to turn to intense logging, which could threaten water quality. But there was another way the forest could generate income: the production of carbon credits.
“With this carbon opportunity, it created an alternative that said, ‘Okay, if we give up the right to harvest timber for a certain period of time to certain levels, then we can generate carbon offset value,’ ” said David Ford, president of L&C Carbon and lead contractor on the Bear Creek Watershed Forest Carbon Project.
The forest carbon project was established in 2014, and the city of Astoria committed to a 40-year term. During that time, 3,423 acres of forest will be managed with the ultimate goal of sequestering carbon.
Landowners nationwide are considering a new source of revenue: the carbon market. While a viable option for some landowners, experts say it is a complicated, costly system that can be difficult for smaller landowners.
As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon in leaves, trunks, roots and branches.
When Astoria entered into the offset project, its leaders agreed to maintain a baseline of carbon storage, or trees, for at least 40 years.
With this commitment, the city amassed carbon credits to sell. Each credit represents one metric ton of greenhouse gas emissions. In California, companies are mandated to reduce emitted greenhouse gases, and they can purchase a limited number of carbon credits from accredited projects to help meet those reduction goals.
Already, Astoria has sold more than 260,000 carbon credits. Over the 40 years of sequestration, Ford said the city can expect around $2 million in revenue.
That’s $2 million to leave trees in the forest.
Climate Trust land asset manager Mik McKee also worked on the Bear Creek project. He said carbon offset projects provide a number of benefits beyond revenue and pollution reduction.
“Big trees can be more resistant to fire, can be more resistant to drought,” McKee said.
But offset projects can be complicated and expensive, he said, with development costs regularly starting at more than $200,000. Landowners must also pay for regular monitoring and inspections.
Even the process of considering a carbon offset project can be surprisingly complex. McKee said the starting point for landowners is to determine if they have more timber on their land than other areas around them. The next step, he said, is seriously considering the long-term commitment. A carbon offset plan can be a 100-year contract.
Finally, McKee said landowners must have enough eligible land.
“If you have upwards of 3,000 or 4,000 acres of timberland, it might make sense to hire a consultant to look at the feasibility of a carbon project on your property,” he said.
Federal lands are usually not eligible for offset projects. The National Forest Management Act dictates that federal lands should be periodically evaluated under the multiple use ordinance, and management goals should reflect new priorities. But none of the offset registries offer short enough programs for federal agencies.
There are three kinds of carbon projects. The Bear Creek Watershed project is an Improved Forest Management project, where the landowner agrees to sustainably manage the forest, improve productivity and guarantee a set amount carbon storage over time. Reforestation and afforestation are also an option for carbon offset projects.
The final offset project is Avoided Conversion. Forestry professor Erin Kelly said this type of offset project is designed to retain forest land that might otherwise be converted to other land uses.
“There’s always this fear that you’re going to lose forest land over time, or it’s going to fragment,” Kelly said.
In California, forest lands are being converted to agricultural land for growing marijuana, Kelly said. Other forests around the world are being converted into subdivisions, industrial parks and other agricultural uses. Avoided Conversion carbon projects are the landowner’s promise that the forest will not be converted to another land use for decades.
Kelly, who has been keeping an eye on the carbon market from her position at Humboldt State University in California, said small landowners often don’t have the capital to get involved in the carbon market. Others don’t want to consign their children and grandchildren to a 100-year management commitment.
Some folks in the carbon offset business, like David Ford, are developing procedures for aggregation projects. These would allow a group of small landowners to pool their holdings into a collective offset project.
The trouble with those projects, Kelly said, is the same as any huge collaboration.
“I would support any additional revenue streams for small landowners,” Kelly said. “[But] tying land to other people becomes difficult and complicated.”
According to Kelly’s data, more than 5.7 million acres of American forests are in carbon offset projects. While the number of new projects has decreased, the amount of acreage going into projects has increased.
One of the largest proposed projects is in Alaska. Earlier this year, Ahtna Incorporated submitted documents to put 504,000 acres of mixed conifer and hardwood forest into an Improved Forest Management project, according to Kelly’s data.
Kelly pointed out that landowners can still log these forests and sell the timber, as long as they leave the contracted amount of biomass in the ground.
“In California, people are putting carbon projects on land they are planning to harvest,” Kelly said. “They’re not mutually exclusive. They’re supposed to be compatible.”
According to Kelly’s data, several timber companies have entered into carbon projects, including Caulk Island Land and Timber Company in Arkansas and Hawthorne Timber Company in California, whose project encompasses 63,000 acres.
The city of Astoria, too, is allowed to harvest about one-third of annual growth throughout the project period, though it’s unclear if the city will do so.
For now, it seems this year’s carbon profit of $50,000 will be a nice addition for improvements around town.