Under California cap-and-trade program, North Coast forests turn carbon uptake into cash
They say money doesn't grow on trees, but a nearly 75,000-acre swath of redwood and fir forests blanketing the wildlands of Sonoma and Mendocino counties is generating millions of dollars as it contributes to California's ambitious campaign to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In a reversal of forest profiteering that dates back to the mid-1800s, the trees are making landowners money by staying upright and growing fast on damp coastal hills where vegetation thrives and few humans set foot.
The Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based nonprofit, has since 2008 sold more than $36 million worth of a new forest commodity called carbon credits, also known as carbon offsets, which represent 4 million metric tons of greenhouse gases sequestered, or stored, by forests that in turn must be sustained for 100 years.
The Conservation Fund's forests are among the top two or three producers of forest-based carbon offsets in California's carbon cap-and-trade program, said Chris Kelly, California program director for the group.
More than $2 million in credits have already sold for the former Preservation Ranch, a 19,645-acre property in northwestern Sonoma County that once was the focus of an intense environmental controversy.
Purchased by the fund for $24.5 million in public and private funding in 2013 — in the largest conservation deal by acreage in county history — the ranch, renamed Buckeye Forest, is forever protected against a future that once included a proposed 1,800 acre forest-to-vineyard conversion. Those plans aroused environmentalists' anger and would have eliminated more than 300,000 trees.
Now the redwoods in the remote Buckeye tract, which lies east of Annapolis and stretches from Skaggs Springs Road to the Mendocino County line, are doing what comes naturally by absorbing carbon dioxide, the primary contributor to global warming.
'They are majestic beings,' said Kelly, standing in a redwood grove in the heart of the Buckeye Forest.
Sunlight filtered through the towering trunks on a clear winter day, the redwood duff- carpeted soil still damp and rutted nearby by the foraging marks of wild pigs, which live in these woods along with bears, deer, mountain lions and rare spotted owls.
The grove perfectly illustrated the forest's history, with a few massive, mossy redwood stumps remaining from logging over the second half of the 20th century, when lumber barons took down trees en masse then left the land behind, Kelly said. Ringing each stump were slender redwoods, the progeny of the old-growth giants, standing over 100 feet tall at 45 to 60 years old. They are pre-adolescents of a species that lives 1,000 years or more.
Like the young of most living things, the redwoods are voracious, absorbing carbon and growing at a rate expected to increase the forest's biomass by 3 to 6 percent a year, Kelly said.
According to the fund's calculations — done exactly the same way as timber operators estimating output in board feet of lumber — Buckeye and the organization's other three sprawling North Coast forest tracts will absorb an additional roughly 175,000 metric tons of sequestered carbon a year.
(For an explanation of how cap-and-trade works in California, click here.)
Under California's cap-and-trade program, that results in 175,000 fresh carbon credits, ready for sale to major polluters required by law to offset their greenhouse gas emissions, translating into money in the bank for The Conservation Fund and its partners, including the taxpayer-funded state Coastal Conservancy.
'A young redwood forest is just about the best place on Earth to sequester carbon,' Kelly said.
Carbon credits are not assigned to specific trees or portions of a forest, but rather to the forest as a whole. The protocol set by the state for establishing credits is 'fiendishly complicated,' Kelly acknowledged.
But the Natural Resources Defense Council, a tough-minded environmental group with more than 2 million members and a cadre of hundreds of scientists and lawyers, gives California's program a thumbs up. 'We feel confident it's generating offsets that represent real reductions in greenhouse gas,' said Alex Jackson, an NRDC attorney based in San Francisco.
The effort is important because 15 percent of global emissions are due to deforestation, he said. 'We have to find ways to value carbon sequestration that forests provide to counteract the economic value of cutting forests down.'
With the heyday of timber cutting well past, the Buckeye Forest still faced the latter prospect just three years ago.
CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund that controlled the property, planned to convert up to 1,769 acres of forest and grassland to premium wine grape production and possibly subdivide the ranch in 60 estate parcels. Opponents vowed to fight the proposal, emblematic of Wine Country's encroachment into North Coast forests.