Banking on carbon
Mike Gaudern acknowledges that the whole concept of marketing trees for their ability to draw and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is new to the Oregon woods.
"If you had asked a logger 50 years ago if you could get paid for storing carbon in trees, he would have looked at you funny to say the very least," he said.
Or invited you to a round of fisticuffs for posing a question that obviously poked fun at his mental acuity.
But Gaudern, a forester with the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, believes there is potential for owners of private forestland to market their properties as carbon storage banks and trade carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange, an open market exchange that trades carbon just like any other commodity.
The association began a pilot program called Woodlands Carbon in 2008 in partnership with the national American Forest Foundation, which started a similar project in New York state. Woodlands Carbon is a corporation that collects and trades stored carbon credits from certified family woodland owners in the western United States.
While cautioning that carbon tree farming is not for all forestland owners and will definitely not mean riches for participants, it could provide a long-term revenue source for certified woodlands, said Gaudern, the association's Woodlands Carbon representative.
"We will let others debate about whether or not we (humans) are causing global warming," he said. "What we do know for sure is that a market is developing for carbon storage. And the best way to help family woodland owners in Oregon become involved is through a volunteer, market-based solution."
Eleven nonindustrial private woodland owners in Northern Oregon have signed up for the program, providing several thousand acres for carbon storage. And several small woodland owners in Jackson and Josephine counties are contemplating becoming carbon tree farmers.
"The markets have shown demonstrably that we can put carbon either into a place or not let it go out of a place and then get credit for that," said George McKinley, whose family owns some 600 acres in the Greensprings area. "There is a market opportunity related to those two dynamics."
McKinley, who spent much of his childhood on a tree farm his grandparents owned in Michigan, plans to set aside 200 acres for storing carbon. That acreage, now a plantation, was logged before McKinley bought it.
McKinley has been working on various alternative products on small woodlands for nearly 20 years, including producing custom products from a portable sawmill.
"When the markets are right, it's easy to chase maximum return," he said. "In regard to current markets for carbon, it's just best to know we're doing good by the forest before we get too excited about market bonanzas."
While trading carbon credits is currently on a volunteer basis, McKinley expects there eventually will be a regulated cap-and-trade market in which the federal government puts a cap on the biggest producers of carbon. To stay within that cap, companies who wanted to expand could purchase offsets from carbon banks located on private forestlands, he said.
The Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center in Central Point is helping to educate local forest landowners about the program.
"The promise of a carbon market is that it provides an opportunity for owners to get a financial reward for good forest management without having to harvest trees," said OSU extension forester Max Bennett. "That's the promise. But the markets are fairly immature at this point."
The extension service also can certify local landowners interested in the program, he said, though many are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
"The challenges of this is it's an ever-evolving market, one that is pretty complicated, not easy to understand," he said. "It is all very fluid ... this is not a gold mine."
Over at the Southern Oregon Timber Industry Association, Executive Secretary Dave Schott is watching the growing interest in the carbon storage market.
"People are searching for ways to make money from their trees — the carbon offset program is in vogue right now," he said.
However, the industry long has been involved in carbon storage, he said.
"When you cut a tree into lumber, that carbon is sequestered," he said. "It doesn't decompose. Then you go back and plant trees. And young forests are very good at storing carbon.
"But if you have a forest fire like the Biscuit fire, you have a tremendous release of carbon into the atmosphere," he added, referring to the 2002 fire that burned nearly a half-million acres in southwestern Oregon.
Joseph Vaile, a conservation activist with the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center in Ashland, is optimistic about carbon storage as a commodity. Vaile, who is working with Schott in a collaborative effort to find consensus in managing local public lands, agrees with him that the region's forests do well at storing carbon.
"Recognizing that our forests are important in terms of storing carbon is a step forward," Vaile said. "We need to learn what is the best management regimens for our forests in terms of providing habitat and sequestering carbon.
"It shows an understanding that standing forests have value. We shouldn't be scared to look at this issue."
"For someone to provide offset credits on private land is very good," offered Randi Spivak, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Center for Conservation Science and Policy in Ashland. "There is tremendous pressure to develop those lands. Once those lands are developed, that carbon is released."
At issue is the accountability, she said, noting she supports a regulated market to ensure the system is verifiable and permanent.
"It's so easy to game the system, especially in a volunteer market," she said.
Grants Pass resident Bill Potterf, who owns 80 acres of woodlands in western Jackson County, is skeptical of the whole issue, beginning with global warming. However, he said he is speaking for himself and not for the Jackson-Josephine Small Woodlands Association, of which he is a longtime member.
"I do believe carbon storage is something some woodland owners could capitalize on, and have a small stream of revenue from that," he said, adding that several members are excited about participating in the program.
"I'm not interested in doing that but I am interested in where it could go," he said. "But other than that passing curiosity, I wouldn't be involved."
Gaudern — while quick to observe that some forest owners don't agree with the concept — reiterated the program is being offered for those who want to take advantage of the market.
"If the world wants to address climate change, which it seems like it does, then a volunteer solution like this is preferable," he said. "The whole idea is to design projects for family woodland owners in Oregon. We are looking for alternatives."
There are a little more than 4 million acres of nonindustrial, family-owned small woodlands in Oregon, as well as roughly the same amount of timber industry-owned forestlands in the state, he said.
"It's a good chunk of land," he said. "If you have an average of three tons of carbon per acre per year, that's 20 million tons of atmospheric carbon equivalent stored in Oregon every year."
The statewide association is offering both a short-term contract in which some harvesting would be allowed and a long-term contract of 30 to 50 years, he said.
"It doesn't seem practical on the family level to create contracts for a few hundred years," he said. "The world is dynamic. The forests are dynamic."
Hence his comment that an Oregon logger half a century ago wouldn't have appreciated a question about storing carbon.
"We need to be flexible," he said. "We can grow any ecosystem society wants us to do. But the constant always has to be the right economics. It has to be economically feasible."