Small privately or family-owned forestland accounts for the largest share of the U.S. forestland, at 39%. Yet, the majority of these land have difficulty participating in the carbon offset market.
Sara Velazquez and her husband Dan Nelson, who purchased the 55 acres behind their rural Pennsylvania home in 2019, planning to start preserving and resuscitating the hilly forestland. However, the pandemic forced them both out of work.
Just when they worried about how to pay the annual taxes on the land, they found an alternative to logging.
In December 2021, the couple signed a 20-year contract with the nonprofit American Forest Foundation’s Family Forest Carbon Program, which aims to help small-scale landowners with as little as 29 acres access fast-growing “carbon markets.”
Velazquez and Nelson’s forest can absorb and store carbon for at least the next two decades. They can sell credits earned from carbon reduction to help corporations move toward their net-zero targets.
Forest owners like Velazquez and Nelson are at the center of a new generation of carbon offsets.
The US climate bill passed by the U.S. Senate would provide US$450 million to push private landowners toward forest management practices with climate benefits, nonprofit American Forests said.
The bill places a special emphasis on underprivileged communities and family forest owners. If approved by the US House of Representatives, the bill would probably support initiatives like the Family Forest Carbon Program.
“The majority of landowners don’t actually say their number one interest is in timber, but the majority do end up timbering their land,” said Sarah Hall-Bagdonas, senior forestry manager for the Family Forest Carbon Program, which launched in 2020 and also helps landowners come up with a sustainable forest management plan.
“So the voluntary carbon market really provides them with another option besides the timber market,” she said.
The voluntary carbon market more than doubled from 2020 to 2021 to more than US$1 billion, according to the Ecosystem Marketplace research group.
However, for some small landowners, the financial incentive for storing carbon is not enough to prompt harvest reductions. For that to begin to happen, “the price needs to be a lot more than the current price of carbon,” said Jim Hourdequin, chief executive officer and managing director of the Lyme Timber Co— about US$27 to US$55 per tonne, or two to three times today’s price.
There is another case at the other end of Pennsylvania from Wayne County. Raul Chiesa and Janet Sredy own and manage Beckets Run Woodlands. The 110 acres forestland has been in Sredy’s family but long saw poor agricultural and management practices.
The couple has been working to resuscitate the land’s forests since 2017, manage for wildlife and safeguard rare plant species. The work cost them about US$10,000 a year, and they paid the bill with grants, timber harvesting, hunting leases and other earners — now including carbon sequestration.
Chiesa and Sredy are working with NCX, a company that uses satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to calculate carbon-storage potential on small land holdings. It then sells carbon credits, with the revenues going to assist landowners in postponing logging for a year at a time.
Since last year, the company has enrolled nearly 2,500 US landowners who hold more than 4 million acres, with a median size of about 200 to 400 acres per landowner, it said.
“If our societal goal is to mitigate climate change and enable climate storage on land rather than in the atmosphere … we’ll need to enable all of the landowners to participate in the carbon market,” NCX chief sustainability officer Jennifer Jenkins said.
Lengthy sequestration contracts can be obstacles to small landowners participating in carbon storage efforts, but shorter contracts can help drive immediate action to protect forests, she said.
However, critics doubt the strat’gy's effect on the environment.
Chiesa and Sredy has signed with NCX in January, and in December they should receive a little more than US$1,400.
They can then re-enroll, though first the couple plan to compare timber and carbon prices. For now, the process has deepened their appreciation of the property’s trees, and carbon credits feel like a real opportunity to them, said Chiesa.
“This is the business of conservation that is being sustained, supported by a different type of economy ... other than conventional forest products. This is something that’s absolutely new,” he said.