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Carbon for Conservation: Avoided Conversion of our Forests

Published: October 14, 2014 by Editorial Team

The U.N. Climate Summit held in New York in September, brought attention to ongoing deforestation around the world and a pledge by global leaders to put an end to this grim decline—a loss of 360,000 hectares of natural forests per year, by 2030. The New York Declaration on Forests affirmed commitments to reverse this loss, to eliminate deforestation from supply chains for industry, to improve monitoring, uphold indigenous rights, and to provide international support for tropical forests, where deforestation is the highest.

Although temperate forests are not generally experiencing net loss, much was cleared earlier this century, creating challenges for forests in the United States. There are a lot of expectations for what our forests should deliver. We rely on them for clean water and air, for wildlife habitat, for timber and other forest products, as open places to hike, play, and get away. However, with predictions by the U.S. Census Bureau that the nation’s population will grow to 400 million by 2051 and reach over 420 million by 2060, pressure on forests seems likely to continue to grow.

Population growth rates, and pressure to develop forests for residential, agricultural, or other use, are often especially high in private lands near national forests. Development and forest fragmentation of this type can place important forest reserves at risk. Fragmentation decreases the connectivity of natural areas needed by birds and other animals, increases pollution, and impacts aesthetics. The carbon market includes protocols that generate carbon offsets through protection of forests facing high risks of conversion; offsets can provide important financial support for individuals, land trusts, and others interested in protecting forests for the future.

An Avoided Conversion Project, sometimes called a Forest Conservation Project, involves preventing the loss of forest (to a non-forest use) by permanently dedicating land to continuous forest cover and maintaining or increasing stocking levels. The forest is permanently conserved through the creation of a conservation easement or transfer to public ownership. In order to qualify for the carbon market, the land owner must demonstrate a significant threat of conversion of project land to a non-forest land use through an appraisal that identifies that the highest-value, and legally permissible, use of the land is not as forest. The baseline, which establishes how many offsets may be generated, is determined largely by the likely impacts of conversion of the forest to the alternate use expected in the project’s absence.

Under the Climate Action Reserve (CAR)’s Forest Project Protocol, for example, a forest that is expected to be converted to agricultural use is assumed to lose 90% of carbon stored in trees, with this loss spread over 10 years. Forest that would be converted to a golf course is assumed to lose 80% of its stored carbon over 10 years, while loss expected due to residential development would depend on how many parcels would be developed in the forest. To ensure offset estimates are conservative, the baseline is adjusted based on conversion risk, with lower deductions for areas where the appraised value as forest is much lower than the highest value use. The project may include some timber harvest or other development depending on easement terms, as long as carbon stocks do not decline—though this will decrease offset volume. Avoided Conversion projects on well-stocked forests can generate a large volume of offsets per acre, which may make carbon projects feasible even in smaller forests.

California’s Cap-and-Trade Program includes approved offsets generated by Avoided Conversion forestry projects—projects developed by early adopters and offsets verified under the CAR Forest Project Protocol—and from its own Compliance Offset Protocol U.S. Forest Offset Protocol. The protocols are very similar, though there are some differences: CAR permits developers to include offsets from preservation of carbon-rich forest soils, is open to projects in Alaska and Hawaii, and provides a longer time to meet native species criteria requirement, however, both protocols provide a path to carbon revenues for supporting forest conservation.

There are already several success stories of carbon markets supporting conservation of private forests near important federal forests and wildlife areas. In coastal North Carolina, three avoided forest conversion projects, the Noles North and Noles South Forest Conservation Projects and the Pungo River Forest Conservation Project together conserve 1,730 acres of forest in the tidewater region. The properties are protected and will continue to be managed to allow natural development in perpetuity through Conservation Easements with the USDA Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). The WRP helps private landowners restore, protect and enhance wetlands and wildlife habitat on their lands; ultimately improving watershed health, the vitality of agricultural lands, and aesthetics and economies of local communities.

The Noles and Pungo forests are mixed-age, native species of pine and bottomland hardwoods. The land was originally ditched and drained for clearing over 40 years ago and subsequently allowed to naturally regenerate as forest. The current landscape remains crossed by multiple drainage canals that can be drained simply by removing flashboard risers. No regulations prevent or require permits to drain and clear the land for conversion to agriculture. In the absence of the projects, canals would have been drained, the water table lowered, and the forest cleared for conversion to agriculture, similar to neighboring properties. Instead, thanks to the combined incentives of carbon markets and the WRP, the natural water table is maintained, and forests of maple, bay, pine, and gums will continue to grow and sequester carbon through natural forest development, while providing important habitat for wildlife for years to come.

The projects provide additional environmental benefits in the form of wetland conservation and habitat protection near the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, an important area for migratory waterfowl, raptors, black bears and the endangered red wolf. Found in the southeastern Atlantic coastal plain, pocosins are nutrient-poor, forested wetlands that evolved over the past 10,000 years due to blocked drainage and peat accumulation. These densely vegetated peat wetlands provide especially valuable habitat and food for wintering birds. Pocosins in the coastal plain stabilize estuaries by controlling the rate of freshwater flow, thereby regulating salinity. Most of North Carolina’s $60M plus commercial fishing industry depends on this estuarine regime.

Our forests need more such success stories. Land trusts, private land owners, and others interested in conservation should consider the carbon market as a path to achieve their goals.