Living on Credit

Forest landowners are beginning to turn carbon to cash.

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As Arctic ice thins, sea levels rise and glaciers recede, Ken Faulk takes stock of his trees in the Oregon Coast Range. Last summer, he began measuring his stands of Douglas fir and white oak by pounding plastic pipes into the ground to mark the centers of circles nearly 30 feet across.

Working steadily in the soft twilight under the forest canopy, he recorded the height and diameter of every tree in each circle. It took him five days to cover 40 acres, but Faulk didn’t mind. He regards trees with the experienced eye of a man who loves the woods. “I saw old friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, trees I remembered, that I had taken an interest in. It was of value to me for that alone,” he says.

He sent his data to Oregon State University forest modeler Greg Latta, who analyzes carbon offset policies for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Latta calculated that Faulk’s Douglas firs, planted in 1980 by a previous owner, were growing fast enough to absorb more than five tons of carbon per acre annually, an amount equivalent to that generated by a car driving more than 35,000 miles.

Faulk’s forest isn’t unusual. The process, known as carbon sequestration, occurs everywhere that plants grow. As they absorb carbon dioxide from the air during photosynthesis, trees store part of that carbon in branches, stems and roots. Not all species are alike. The oaks come in a poor second to the firs, and on Faulk’s land, they absorb only about one ton per acre.

An OSU College of Forestry alumnus and the son of a Tacoma millworker, Faulk has seen the woods from every angle—independent logging contractor, Weyerhaeuser forester, Oregon Department of Forestry inspector and now president of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association. The nonprofit organization’s 3,000 members own about 16 percent of Oregon’s 30.5 million forested acres. With help from OSU Extension, the American Forest Foundation and other organizations, OSWA has created a company, Woodlands Carbon of Salem, Oregon, to create access to carbon sequestration markets.

By the end of December, Woodlands Carbon had signed up 11 landowners who agreed, like Faulk, to tally the tons of carbon being sequestered by their woodlands. More importantly, according to OSWA’ s Mike Gaudern, it had assembled nearly 20,000 tons of carbon credits and was seeking buyers for them. Unlike with other commodities—two-by-fours or bags of wheat—you can’t take a ton of carbon home and put it in the garage. But by paying landowners to lock carbon away in the woods for a period of time, buyers can offset their own carbon emissions.

The hope is that carbon credits can provide a boost to financially struggling landowners who are facing growing pressure to convert their lands to other uses. If Gaudern and Faulk succeed, they won’t be the first. Such deals have already been struck in California, Michigan and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

An Appetite for Carbon

Oregon has long been the nation’s mother lode for softwood lumber, but if carbon sequestration is the goal, Faulk and other forest landowners are in the right place. OSU researchers have determined that forests here are among the best in the world for absorbing carbon dioxide, the gas linked to global warming. Old-growth stands in the Coast Range and west side of the Cascades store as much or more carbon than tropical rain forests, according to studies by OSU forest scientists Mark Harmon, Beverly Law and their students. Moreover, Law and her team have found that there is enough capacity to theoretically double the amount of carbon currently stored in forests stretching from San Francisco to the Columbia River.

“Many of the mature and old forests are on public lands, so they are uniquely positioned to act as carbon reserves,” Law told a U.S. Senate subcommittee chaired by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden last November.

To Faulk, more capacity for carbon means opportunity. “Scientists are telling us we need to draw the carbon dioxide level down as quickly as we can,” he says. “And that’s what we’re aiming to do here. Whether we can find some buyers who will accept that concept is our next challenge.”