Saving the Forest For the Climate and Other Reasons

Have you noticed how carbon "offsetting" or trading is becoming mainstream, with stories making it into the mass media? States like California , and even cities like Boulder CO, USA are designing programs which may interact with carbon offsetting. In Europe, the focus is on how to ensure that continent-wide systems for carbon trading or "offsetting" perform well. The culture of forest ownership is also in a period of rapid change, independent of carbon management initiatives. Because trees are where we want much of that 'offset carbon' to go, and to stay for many decades, we need to keep our TreeHugging eyes on forest stewardship. Seeing the forest for the carbon, right? Using North America as our example, we refer you to Lloyd's recent post which documents a recent downside of forest change: accelerated clearing of the Boreal Forests to make non-recyclable butt wipe. (A bit of hyperbole, but true on it's face!) On the positive side, forests in the "lower-50" have been overall on the mend, not so much by modern intent but due to long term shifts in land ownership and markets. Mostly the recovery of US forests is a matter of land having been divided into plots so small is it increasingly less cost effective to harvest in industrial quantities, while populations concentrate in urban centers.Brief background:- After an intensive period of logging spanning roughly the 1890's to 1920, huge swaths of forestland in the Midwest and Northeastern US states were abandoned to fire and unsustainable farming practices. In the decades that followed, much of this formerly forested land could be had for the paying of back taxes. During and after this era, US-based forest product companies aquired vast tracts of forest land to support their supply chains. To their credit, some engaged in wide scale replanting.

By the 1990's, and in the face of increased global competition, much of the forest product industry moved away from the US Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and Northeastern states, focusing upon the verdant Southeastern US, with the Canadian Boreal band serving as a second supply frontier.

The Present:- The most recent upheaval in North American forest lands involves those same companies selling their forestland holdings, in total, to Real Estate Investment Trusts or "REIT's." Liquidation for the sake of the balance sheet. Fortunately, some of the sold lands were taken into conservancy, but there's far more land that went on the block than could ever be purchased or leased for conservation purposes. The upshot is that, on many millions of acres, premium lots have been, or will be, ultimately sold as small recreational plots (some of which will host homes of designs much admired by our readers). Some portion of the land will be held by the REITs, for who knows what purpose or for how long?

Going Forward:- Let's return to the carbon off-setting ideas of our opening paragraph. How can bottom-line focused real estate "trusts," whose managers may not have signaled their forest stewardship intent, be expected to help sustain forest resources and thus balance the planet's carbon budget favorably, for the long term? The answer is, they must be given a strong incentive if we expect them to manage forests with climate objectives in the mix. The corollary question is: how would those who buy smaller parcels from the trusts, as well as the heirs of those small parcel holders, also maintain carbon sequestration efficacy? (Trees can outlive people.)

We think we have a seedling of an answer. The sprout involves designing state and local ordinances that provide direct tax incentives, derivative of models such as the forest crop tax law administered by the state of Wisconsin. Fortunately, to reach seedling status, this idea would not involve the US Federal government, which seems primarily focused on how to get more wood cut, period.

The forest crop tax law derivative approach offers the option of allowing city-dwellers to own land and receive a tax advantage for sequestering carbon, while not neccessarily disrupting the generation-spanning access traditions of local hunters, hikers, boaters, and fishermen. TreeHuggers need not be the enemies of local people, regardless of respective beliefs about climate science. And, tax incentives for forest land owners can have benefits beyond those originally envisioned in forest land tax laws created a generation ago.