"Farming" Carbon to Help Wildlife

Projects to fight global warming by planting forests on croplands have provided a new pool of money for habitat restoration

  • Paul Tolmé
  • Dec 01, 2009
Laudies Brantley has spent his life farming the alluvial soils of eastern Arkansas, eking a living from cotton, corn and soybeans. Some years, bad weather and low commodity prices eat up all his profits. “The first thing you learn in farm school is how to cry and survive hard times,” he says. Now, at age 60, Brantley is about to start farming a new crop he hopes will improve his financial stability: carbon dioxide. By enrolling in a program called GreenTrees—which promotes the storage, or sequestration, of carbon in new forests—he and other farmers across the Lower Mississippi River Valley will be paid to convert their croplands to woodlands.

“We call ’em carbon farmers,” says Chandler Van Voorhis of C21, LLC, the principal architect of the project. Its goal is to restore a large swath of the vast bottomland hardwood forest that once stretched from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Only 20 percent of this critical wildlife habitat remains—the rest has been cleared for agriculture.

Thanks to a growing global market for carbon credits—which individuals and businesses buy to offset greenhouse gas emissions—GreenTrees aims to raise up to $1 billion to replant 1 million acres. If all goes as planned, it will become the nation’s largest forest restoration project to sequester carbon.

The initiative is part of an expanding movement to use carbon credits to finance domestic habitat restoration. “Carbon sequestration projects can have great benefits for biodiversity,” says Eric Palola, senior director of NWF’s Forests for Wildlife Program and a technical advisor to GreenTrees.

Launched in 2008, GreenTrees enrolled owners of 2,500 acres in eastern Arkansas last winter. Participants get a one-time fee of $350 for each acre planted with 302 fast-growing cottonwoods and 302 slow-growing hardwoods. (They can simultaneously receive additional payments from federal and nongovernment conservation programs and are allowed to harvest moderate amounts of timber in the future.) The project has multiple benefits. Birds and other wildlife will get improved forest habitat. Less soil will be washed into the Gulf of Mexico. And 1 million acres of trees would sequester carbon equal to the emissions of three coal power plants over 15 years. Van Voorhis acknowledges that his goal of a million acres is ambitious, but the climate crisis requires big ideas, he says. “You can’t bring a teacup to put out a fire.”

Conservation groups are also tapping the carbon market. When a landowner decided to sell 11,000 acres along Louisiana’s Tensas River in 2003, the Trust for Public Lands saw an opportunity to restore habitat for the threatened Louisiana black bear. But the cost of buying, reforesting and adding the land to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge was steep. By turning the effort into a carbon sequestration project and selling the offsets, the trust expects to raise $8 million for the $19 million effort. With offsets provided to individuals and businesses by Carbonfund.org (www.carbonfund.org), workers are planting more than 20 tree species, including sycamore, cypress, elm, persimmon, sweet gum and dogwood. The trees will sequester 3 million tons of carbon over the next 100 years—and create a continuous forested corridor for bears. Says Don Morrow, director of southeastern projects for the trust, “This project is a win for bears and for the climate.”

Out West, Indian tribes are experimenting with carbon sequestration. In Idaho, young ponderosa pines rise from a prairie where the Nez Perce are restoring 3,300 acres of forest cleared for agriculture a century ago and selling carbon credits through a carbon broker to the Chicago Climate Exchange. The project will create habitat for deer, elk, bears, wild turkeys and pheasants, and will benefit trout and salmon by reducing sediment runoff into the Clearwater River. “There is also a social component to this,” says tribal forester Brian Kummet. “We’re creating jobs for tribal members to replant and take care of the trees.”

To promote the strategy elsewhere, NWF organized a meeting on the Nez Perce reservation last summer that was attended by representatives of a dozen other tribes. Tribal groups that have undertaken or are exploring sequestration projects include the Confederate Salish and Kootenai tribes of Montana, the Lummi Tribe of Washington, Wisconsin’s Forest County Potawatomi and a landowner’s association with the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in Montana. “Selling carbon sequestration credits is an opportunity for tribes to restore their homelands and cultural traditions as well as protect wildlife,” says Garrit Voggesser, senior manager for NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program and an organizer of the meeting.

But so-called land-based sequestration projects also have critics. Some believe money would be better spent on renewable energy and proven technologies such as landfill gas capture. “People worry that if you invest in forest offsets you are letting polluters off the hook,” says Joanna Durbin, executive director of the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance. “But if you exclude forest carbon projects you are missing a huge opportunity.”

Durbin’s group certifies forest sequestration projects to ensure they meet high standards. To win the group’s coveted seal of approval, projects must set aside a portion of their carbon credits to pay for replanting should fire or natural disaster strike. Projects must also protect biodiversity and promote sustainable local economies. The alliance has certified six international projects, and the Tensas River effort could be the first U.S. project to win the group’s certification.

Meanwhile, the global market is booming for voluntary carbon offsets (as opposed to those required by the Kyoto Protocol and regulations in the European Union and some U.S. states). Sales totaled $91 million in 2006, according to State of the Voluntary Carbon Markets 2007, a report by Ecosystem Marketplace and New Carbon Finance. The market could explode if the United States implements a “cap and trade” law that caps the amount of carbon dioxide polluters can emit and requires them to buy credits for overages. While the European Union for now excludes forest sequestration from its regulated carbon market, NWF is lobbying for forest projects to be allowed in any future U.S. law. “We’re at a tipping point, and we need to look at all cost-effective solutions, including forest sequestration,” says Palola.

That’s good news for struggling farmers like Brantley, who has enrolled 300 acres in GreenTrees. His great-grandfather began farming the Arkansas floodplains in 1910, wielding an axe to clear trees. Now Brantley hopes to help restore the forest and its wildlife by farming carbon. “It’s come full circle,” he says. “Hopefully our grandchildren will reap the benefits of this.”

Paul Tolmé wrote about the threats facing insect-eating birds in the April/May 2009 issue of National Wildlife .

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