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Thanks to a grant from NASA, Sonoma County will soon have $1.2 million worth of high-detail information about its forests, including how those forests can help the county fight climate change.

Specifically, the state-of-the-art maps will show how much carbon Sonoma County's forests can hold. They come as local governments and conservation agencies are eyeing open space not just for recreation and habitat conservation, but also for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"When we think about preserving land, the first thing we think about is maintaining a quality of life," said County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. "But we also have to look at how we'll preserve land for generations to come. Instrumental in that is greenhouse gas emissions."

Sonoma County has set a goal of knocking back its 2015 emissions to 25 percent below 1990 levels. One way to keep emissions down is to preserve land, Zane said. Doing so limits development, but it also saves trees, which sponge carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas — from the atmosphere.

"There's a natural connection between land conservation and reducing greenhouse gas," said Tom Robinson, a conservation planner for the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District.

The county recently purchased land, including parts of the future Mark West Creek Regional Park and Open Space Preserve, with carbon storage in mind.

Financial incentives for conserving carbon through open space are growing, too. California's cap-and-trade program got underway in 2012, and Sonoma County hopes it will be able to participate, selling off carbon credits earned by planting or preserving forests.

For that reason, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors <NO1>has said it <NO>wants to know what carbon resources exist in the county, Zane said.

<NO1>Currently, <NO>As part of the NASA grant, airplanes are flying over Sonoma County to gather that information. They're scanning the landscape with high-tech, light-sensing technology that will gather data about topography, the height and density of trees, and man-made structures like roofs and sidewalks.

The open space district, along with the Sonoma County Water Agency, will use the information in a comprehensive map they're making of the county's ecosystems and terrain. They plan to use that map, which also includes detailed information on the county's ecosystems gathered from about 800 plots, to see what land is most important to preserve.

Robinson said the open space district — largely funded by a countywide tax — is constantly trying to choose what land is most important to preserve with its finite budget.

"We want to protect the forests and woodlands of Sonoma County," he said. "But we can't protect them all, so we need to identify areas that are providing more services for the community."

The map will also help the water agency plan for floods, wildfires and droughts, said Jay Jasperse, a chief engineer with the agency.

The agencies had already started work on that broader project, called Sonoma Veg Map, when they were approached by professors at the University of Maryland who specialize in figuring out how much carbon is stored in forests. The professors were applying for a grant from NASA to develop new mapping tools, and they wanted to use Sonoma County as a test case because of its diverse ecosystems, Robinson said.

The idea is for those tools, once developed, to be used to map forests not just in Sonoma County but around the world.

"We'll not only be reducing our greenhouse gas emissions," Zane said. "Hopefully, we'll provide a blueprint for other counties and regions to duplicate."

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com.