In a sign that they are seeing the forest for the trees, conservation groups, large timber corporations and everyone in between have joined forces to present Congress with a consensus platform for including private forest lands in national climate legislation.
The issue has been a knotty one: Cutting down domestic forests, which every year soak up 10 percent of U.S. fossil fuel emissions, could mean disaster for both climate and wildlife. The flip side of the coin is that managing them well would mean major greenhouse gas benefits.
"We need new markets to make that happen," said Robert Bonnie, vice president for land conservation and wildlife at the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the Forest-Climate Working Group members.
Almost two-thirds of U.S. forest land is owned by about 10 million private owners. The platform discusses how to maximize their climate benefits by allowing forest owners to get paid for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions within future federal cap-and-trade climate legislation, which would require major fossil-fuel burners to either reduce their own emissions or purchase carbon credits.
The 30-member coalition, which also includes timber giant Plum Creek and Defenders of Wildlife, has been discussing its platform with key Senate committees that will have a hand in shaping legislation this year.
"In the end, it was too important not to agree on core principles," said Drue DeBerry, senior vice president of conservation for the American Forest Foundation, who a year ago began working to make the groups come together.
With the forestry industry focused on project economics and conservation groups angling for environmental integrity, "it was definitely a struggle," said DeBerry.
Keeping forests at work
Planting new forests, reforestation and forest management programs could all be fodder for sequestering carbon dioxide and creating carbon offsets, the platform says. But offsets are also a complicated accounting project -- making sure the savings are real and not just a figment of paperwork can be a controversial challenge.
The coalition agreed that forest carbon offsets needed to be established from quantifiable baselines, to make sure they are "additional" and not actions the forest owner would have taken anyway.
Projects would also need to remove or sequester carbon from the atmosphere for 100 years, the platform says. If a tree is planted and then harvested for paper pulp or burned in a wildfire 10 years later, for example, those carbon savings could be lost.
Lastly, the offsets need to be quantifiable, verifiable by third parties, sustainable and have mechanisms to account for carbon "leakage."
"A marketplace wants to have good information," said Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners. "Everyone knows what a bushel of corn is. It's important for everybody to know what a unit of carbon is."
With all of these requirements, the transaction and compliance costs could be high.
"There's a dynamic tension between the environmental integrity and being able to go to scale with these projects," said DeBerry, warning against establishing so many burdens that no one participates.
The forestry and landowner community, for its part, wanted to make sure that offset projects would be flexible. A utility could, for example, sign a 10-, 20- or 30-year contract with a landowner to sequester a certain amount of carbon. Once the term is up, the utility would either have to renew it or replace those carbon credits elsewhere.
The platform also advocates for key climate change adaptation funding and incentives outside of the carbon market that would allow small owners to help reduce climate warming without the burdens of an offset project.
The devil will be in the details
The challenge, said Tenny, will be fleshing out the specifics of their proposal. Defining how much carbon is stored in a forest, and when it is there, is a difficult prospect.
A wooden chair, for example, still stores carbon, even though it's been logged. And when forests are producing solid wood products, the trees are allowed to grow longer and soak up more carbon than they would if they were grown for paper. But, still, at some point, the chair probably goes to the landfill to decay and release its carbon. The offset amount lies somewhere between the seed and the landfill.
Another proposal to award offsets simply for not cutting down forests, or "avoided deforestation," presents other challenges. "We want to structure rules to reward landowners that are going to keep those forests as forests, but you can't just be handing out offsets to all forest landowners," said Bonnie.
Jim Wyerman, vice president for communications at the American Forest Foundation, said that family forest owners are struggling to hold onto their forests as the price of timber drops and competition rises, along with the owners' average age of 59.
The fear among many in the environmental community is that unless something is done to provide incentives to private landowners, many of those acres -- habitat, carbon stores and all -- could be lost unless they continue to be productively managed. "Those of us who are passionate within the conservation community feel like we have to get this right," said DeBerry.