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With her two sisters, Louise Hartman inherited a storied property in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. At one time, the 254-acre site was part of a chestnut tree farm, until a blight bankrupted the landowner in the early 1900s. Hartman’s family bought it sometime after that.
Now, about 154 acres are forested.
“We’ve made mistakes,” Hartman said. “We made a big one.”
Soon after inheriting the property from their mother in 2000, the sisters were talked into high-grading a section of the forest, selling off the best trees for timber and leaving the rest.
So when Hartman learned about a program that could help them more sustainably manage their land and provide a little income to help them do it, she signed up to learn more.
It’s called the Family Forest Carbon Program and was developed by the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy to provide landowners with resources to create more carbon storage on their land through growing healthy trees.
Under the program, landowners agree to a 20-year contract. They receive money upfront for enrolling and additional funds each year. Some of that money comes from the sale of carbon credits to companies that voluntarily purchase them. One credit represents one metric tonne of planet-warming CO2 sequestered. That’s like the emissions from burning a thousand pounds of coal.
Landowners like Louise Hartman also get education and assistance on managing their land to maximize the carbon they store.
“They develop a plan for your property,” Hartman says. “So I know each year what’s got to be done, what’s got to get checked up on. I know exactly how many trees I have. I know what type of trees I have.”
The planning is free of charge for enrolled properties. Hartman signed up for the pilot program about three years ago.
Now, about 350 landowners are enrolled – 203 of those in Pennsylvania. To be eligible, landowners must have at least 30 acres of forest.
Sarah Hall, national director of forestry for the program, said the forest also has to be merchantable – meaning the trees have to be suitable to sell as timber.
“This program is all about creating additional carbon,” Hall said. “So if it’s not harvestable, meaning that it does not have enough merchantable timber, it’s not eligible because then the carbon that we’re producing and thus the carbon credit we’re producing would have existed had our program not existed.”
Hall said the program can help extend the time between harvests and prioritize slower-growing hardwood trees that could be turned into a wood product at some time in the future. That’s the ultimate carbon sink. Even if the tree is timbered, the carbon is still stored in something like a piece of furniture.
How the carbon is measured
Ten plots on Louise Hartman’s forested land are being monitored for how much carbon they can store. Hall said all of the trees 26.5 feet from each plot’s center are measured and evaluated.
The program compares how much carbon is being sequestered and stored on these 10 plots to 10 Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program plots already monitored by the US Forest Service.
“So we can actually see the difference in the carbon that is being sequestered and stored on our enrolled properties versus ten similar unenrolled properties,” Hall said.
The carbon credits are earned on the basis of that difference. Observing the difference between a control plot and an enrolled property is what’s known as a dynamic baseline.
The program’s methodology was approved last year by Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard Program, a widely used greenhouse gas crediting program. It’s different from the more commonly used “static baseline” that estimates carbon storage based on historical and other data.
The carbon sequestered on the monitored plots on Hartman’s property and on a percentage of other enrolled properties stands in for the carbon sequestered across the whole program. Hall said their methodology allows the program to sell credits on behalf of smaller-scale, family forest owners because it’s cost-effective to calculate the carbon on a landscape scale instead of a per-property scale.
Fans and critics
Andrew Dempsey, senior manager of sustainability at outdoor retailer REI, said the company signed on to purchase 20,000 credits a year from the Family Forest Carbon program for five years into the future as part of its carbon neutrality commitment.
He calls the program’s method for carbon accounting progressive and says it sets a good standard for the industry.
“They’re basically starting at zero on day one from a carbon perspective and only accounting for carbon that’s additive after day one,” Dempsey said. “That is a direct result of the improved forest management practices that are being implemented on the land.”
But Danny Cullenward has concerns about the program. He is an energy economist, lawyer, and fellow at the Institute for Carbon Removal Law and Policy at American University.
Cullenward and colleagues have spent a lot of time evaluating carbon credit programs. The dynamic baseline that compares forest plots for the amount of carbon stored has some advantages over a “static” baseline that doesn’t, he said. But that doesn’t mean it’s foolproof.
One sticking point for Cullenward is how good a proxy those federally monitored plots – the ones in the FIA database – are for the ones enrolled in the Family Forest Carbon program. He said on average, the FIA database samples forests that are not representative of the kinds of small family forests that might enroll in the program.
“The idea that you’re going to choose 10 plots in this database, a database comprised of active, commercially managed timberlands, and say that is equivalent to or likely to be similar to what a small forest landowner experiences in a place like Pennsylvania or Ohio or Wisconsin. I think that’s extremely suspect,” Cullenward said.
He appreciates that the program is giving landowners an incentive to sustainably manage their forests, but said it could overestimate the amount of carbon stored.
“The problem is when they want to sell a credit that gives somebody else the right to pollute, and it puts CO2 into the atmosphere,” Cullenward said. “Twenty percent of the CO2 you put in the atmosphere is there 10,000 years later. It’s a forever problem.”
Lynn Riley, climate science senior manager at the American Forest Foundation, said they are confident that the control plots from the FIA database are a good comparison for what would have happened on their enrolled properties if they weren’t part of the program.
She said they are still piloting the program and looking for ways to improve it.
The crux of the program
Sarah Hall, the forester for the program, acknowledged that there are skeptics of carbon markets in general, but said this program is just one tool to slow down climate change.
“It’s not the end all, be all. It will not solve climate change,” she said. “But it’s a piece of the puzzle in helping to mitigate climate change.”
As for landowner Louise Hartman, she said she would likely sign up to continue with the program for another 20 years when her contract is up because they’ve done everything they promised her and her family.
She is concerned about climate change and wants to keep her land whole to pass it on to the next generation.
“You know, like they say, take your change at the end of the day and throw it in a jar, and at the end of a year, you’d be surprised at how much you have?” Hartman asked. “Well, that’s what it’s like to me to do this. I’m contributing to helping the planet heal, to helping our species to be able to survive,”
The Family Forest Carbon program is open to landowners in nine states, with plans to expand later this year.