Value-Added Forests: The Working Woodlands Program

  • Forester Mark Banker checks the diameter of a tree during an inventory of the Lock Haven forest. Lock Haven in north central Pennsylvania is a member of The Nature Conservancy's Working Woodlands program.

  • The Spring Run Hemlock Biological Diversity area is in one of the plots that will be documented as part of the Lock Haven forest inventory.The run is part of the water supply for the city.

  • The Nature Conservancy's Mike Eckley uses a prism to identify trees to include in an inventory of the Lock Haven forest. 1000's of small plots will be documented in the 22,000 acre forest.

by Ann Murray 

Pennsylvania forests have a new, surprising ally. You might even call it a sponsor. Chevrolet is footing the bill for a 22,000-acre parcel near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The forest is owned by the city’s water authority, which draws off tributaries in the forested watershed to supply its 115, 000 customers.

“We’re anticipating- to be on the safe side- somewhere from $75,000 to $100,000 annually.   If we get more than that… great,” said Steve Repach, Authority director.

Carbon markets allow companies like Chevy to pay forest owners to sequester CO2 to compensate for their own greenhouse gas emissions. These markets are growing. California has a brand new one that just began January 1.

Bethlehem has access to carbon markets through The Nature Conservancy’s Working Woodlands program. It’s a model project the Pennsylvania arm of the Conservancy has put together with Blue Source, a carbon credit broker in California.Roger Williams, the president of Blue Source, the carbon brokerage, said Working Woodlands is a “one-two punch for landowners”.

Blue Source and The Nature Conservancy have combined FSC forest certification with the creation of carbon credits for landowners.

FSC is the Forest Stewardship Council. It is considered by many people to be the gold standard in sustainable forestry. Timber with an FSC certification can be sold for more than regular wood.

Getting that certification and access to carbon markets can cost tens of thousands of dollars but they’re free for Working Woodlands landowners. In exchange, they sign an agreement with the Conservancy that essentially says their land won’t be developed.

TAKING STOCK OF THEIR TREES

The city of Lock Haven in north central Pennsylvania has just agreed to permanently leave the woods in the city’s watershed as managed woodlands. Their next step in the process is to take a really close look at their 5,000 acre property.

That look begins with an inventory of trees. On a brisk December day, forester Mark Banker pounds rebar into the ground to mark one of a 1000 or so small plots that will be documented. The Nature Conservancy’s Mike Eckley calls out the trees he wants to be measured.

“Let’s start with that white pine. Right ahead of ya,” says Eckley.Banker loops a tape measure around the trunk of the tree and shouts back to Eckley that the tree is 17 inches in diameter. 

Eckley records the diameter and other notes about the tree’s health and timber value into a hand held device. An independent auditor will come in later to verify the numbers. And will do it again every five or ten years on permanent plots.

The information will help the team decide things like what trees to cut, and when.  Computer models will predict how much carbon the forest can store. This is key for the carbon markets this forest is tied to.

But Working Woodlands members can’t just rent out their woodlots to qualify for these programs. They have to prove that they’re increasing the amount of carbon absorbed by actively managing these woods. And they only get paid for the increased amount of carbon their trees store.

“The higher quality trees you have, the faster typically they grow,” said Josh Parrish, the director of land protection with The Nature Conservancy in Pennsylvania. “And from a quantity perspective, growing bigger and older trees will sequester more carbon both above ground and also below ground in their roots.”

HOW TO MEASURE CARBON

 

PROTECTING WATERSHEDS

Like Bethlehem, Lock Haven is happy about the chance to make money in the carbon market and sell the higher-priced FSC certified timber. But in both cases their real priority is protecting their watersheds. Rich Marsenkevage, City Manager of Lock Haven, has a mantra about why he joined the program.

“The quality of the water. That’s our primary goal,” Marsenkevage said.

Healthy forests filter and cool streams that pass through them. That’s why the Lock Haven authority has been buying woodlands in their watershed since 1850. They’ve held timber sales in the past but had little or no professional help with managing the cuts and re-growing the forest. Until now.

OTHER BENEFITS TO KEEPING WOODS AROUND

Dave Hunter- who holds an extreme running event through Lock Haven’s woods - backs the city’s plans to conserve the forest. On a recent afternoon, he passed other people who regularly walk in the woods around the city’s reservoirs.After a group of women walked by, Hunter mused about the connection between access to the forest and a healthy community

“The amount of weight that has been lost out in these woods is astronomical. I can tell you story after story after story,” Hunter said.

Walk-on recreation will be allowed under Lock Haven’s new agreement along with hunting, timbering and possibly deep shale drilling.  The Conservancy says any activity will be closely managed with an eye to forest regeneration. Parrish, of the Nature Conservancy, said the program was dubbed the Working Woodlands for a reason.

“Our conservation easements are moving from ‘thou-shall-nots’ and ‘put a chain on it’ and forget about it to working with landowners to figure out management plans to manage lands for sustainable harvest, for climate”.

The Conservancy hopes to expand Working Woodlands to other Appalachian states and is currently in China in Szechwan Province. There’s a temporal forest there that looks a lot like the Appalachian woods.