Forests for a Cooler Future–Land&People

Beneath a mottled November sky, Brett Hortman pilots his U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) pickup through the thick bottomland forests of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Louisiana. Seven varieties of oaks crowd the roadside, along with gums, pecans, ash, cottonwood, pawpaw, elm, sugarberry, and persimmon. Bald cypress and maples blaze with fall color, and yellow leaves drift from the willows like light snow. Black fields of water—tributaries of the Tensas River—stretch back into the forest.

An armadillo darts in front of the truck and skitters away into the confusion of sedges, smilax, and other vines that line the road. From time to time a snowy egret or an immense great blue heron steps with dignified mien from behind a cypress and takes off, somehow navigating its six-foot wingspan through the crowded trees.

Hortman is the manager of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. (The name is pronounced "TEN-saw," similar to Arkansas.) With him in the pickup are Ken Clough, a real estate specialist for the USFWS, and Don Morrow, a Trust for Public Land project manager and avid birdwatcher, who scans the sky for birds on the wing. One in particular has been much on the minds of everyone around the Tensas refuge lately. These dense Louisiana woodlands were once inhabited by the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large, charismatic bird long thought to be extinct. A reported sighting of an ivorybill in nearby Arkansas in 2006 has raised the hopes of birders throughout the species' swampy Southeast habitat.

For my part, I have come to the Tensas River valley not to look for a possibly extinct woodpecker (although the bird figures in this story) but to visit a forest in the making on 11,000 acres of land that Clough and Morrow, working together, are helping to add to the refuge.

Suddenly the vine-festooned trees give way to a spreading weed-choked field, the legacy of a lost conservation battle. During the 1930s and 1940s, in one of the highest-profile preservation efforts of that era, conservation groups worked hard to protect the old-growth forests that once grew here—largely to save one of the last known ivorybill nesting areas. Instead, the land was clear-cut and planted with cotton, soybeans, and other crops for more than a half century. Climbing out of the truck, we walk out through the field, gluey muck from recent rains accumulating on our shoes. Johnson grass, pink smartweed, and goldenrod moved into these empty fields as soon as the farmers left. And we find, dwarfed by the weeds, tiny hardwood seedlings planted about 12 feet apart—the beginnings of a restored forest.

Trees for A Cooler Climate

Restoring an ancient forest is important work, but the real story here is how the land was paid for and the larger mission of this forest. The conservation effort was completed largely with federal funds, secured through the aid of the Louisiana congressional delegation and the USFWS. But the project would have been impossible without an investment from two electric utilities seeking credits for the carbon dioxide (CO2) these seedlings will absorb as they grow—a process known as "carbon sequestration." CO2 is one of the "greenhouse gases" implicated in the environmental crisis of global warming.

Recently many companies and consumers have been looking for ways to offset their "carbon footprint," the amount of carbon they generate through air and car travel, home or office utilities, or industrial production. Some carbon producers, including electric utilities, have been experimenting with "carbon offsets" for more than a decade. Offsets can take the form of forestry projects, like this one at Tensas. Other ways of offsetting carbon generation include support for renewable energy generation, such as wind or solar energy, or for improvement in energy efficiency, such as modifications to buildings or the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Forests play an important role in the world's carbon cycle because carbon is a key building block of trees. Trees not only absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, they release it when they are harvested, burned, or destroyed by natural disaster. In fact, the ongoing destruction of tropical forests is a major contributor to global warming, generating more than twice the carbon produced by all the world's cars and trucks, says Toby Janson-Smith, director of Climate, Community and Biodiversity Alliance, a group of companies and nonprofits creating standards for carbon forestry projects. "First we need to address ongoing deforestation," Janson-Smith says. "On top of that we have to restore the forests we've lost."

Reforestation, improvements in forest management, and reduction of deforestation are among the methods of reducing atmospheric CO2 listed by the Intergovern-mental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program to assess global climate change and ways it might be mitigated.

Utility companies have been participating in forestry carbon sequestration projects for more than a decade, says Gary Kaster, president of Ohio-based Carbon Project Services, an independent consulting company that oversees the implementation of carbon sequestration projects for utilities. According to evaluation methods developed by Winrock International, a nonprofit that is considered a leader in carbon accounting, the trees being replanted at the Tensas Refuge will sequester more than 3.8 million tons of carbon from atmospheric CO2 over the next 100 years. That would be like taking 626,000 passenger cars and light trucks off the road for a year.

For this carbon to be permanently sequestered, the forests would have to remain intact. Also, because trees grow slowly, it can take decades to fully realize the benefits of such projects. But most authorities see forestry projects as an important tool for reducing CO2, as part of a diversified portfolio of carbon offsets that also includes energy conservation, alternative energy production, and greener building techniques.

Forests for All Reasons

Carbon sequestration is only one benefit of forest conservation in a world changed by global warming. Other rewards include healthy watersheds, stable soils, aesthetic beauty, resource protection, wildlife habitat, opportunities for recreation, jobs in forestry management, and the maintenance and restoration of wildlife corridors so animals can migrate to new habitats as ecosystems change in a warming world.

And conservationists welcome the added funding carbon projects bring to forest preservation efforts. "Investments by industry in carbon offsets provide a great boost to these kinds of forestry conservation projects," says TPL's Don Morrow. "The recognition that forests can absorb carbon and may help reduce climate change is just another in a long list of great reasons to preserve and restore forests."

To this day, the land recently added to the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge is known as "the Singer Tract," for the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which in the 1930s thought it might harvest the old-growth forests to make sewing machine cabinets. But conservationists were already calling attention to the value of these soggy bottomlands as wildlife habitat, particularly for the fast-disappearing ivory-billed woodpecker, a showy but reclusive swamp-lover that nested only in the southeastern U.S. and Cuba. Under pressure from conservation groups to preserve the land, the company sidestepped the controversy by selling it to the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company, which soon began harvesting the precious hardwoods for World War II shipping crates. In the 1940s, even as the cut raged across the Singer Tract, ornithologists and conservationists begged in vain for Chicago Mill to preserve the ivorybill's last known nesting trees.

Renewed hope for the ivorybill's recovery is clearly one reason to restore the bottomland hardwood habitat along the Tensas River. But there are plenty of others, including protecting habitat for the threatened Louisiana black bear and improving water quality in the lower Mississippi River watershed.

In 2002, Chicago Mill, which had leased the Singer Tract to farmers, offered to sell it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. At the request of USFWS managers, TPL stepped in to structure a transaction that would let USFWS acquire the land as federal funding became available. But the holding period would require additional funds, and Don Morrow turned to the sale of carbon credits to make up the difference. Two electric utilities (Entergy and Detroit Edison) are paying to help reforest 4,260 of the nearly 11,000 acres. TPL is still looking for a purchaser to finance the reforestation of 4,400 replantable acres.

Carbon Credits for Conservation

One goal of the companies is to prepare for the day when the purchase of carbon credits might be part of a mandatory system of carbon regulation. Since 2005, nearly 170 countries and government entities have adopted the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which establishes a cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gases. Under such a system, a company could exchange credits for the right to emit CO2 or could trade or sell the credits. While the U.S. has not signed the Kyoto Protocol, many observers believe that it is only a matter of time before CO2 pollution is regulated in a standardized way across the nation. Until then, some companies must adhere to mandatory regulations in their states or regions, while other companies experiment with voluntary carbon offsets, often reporting them under a U.S. Department of Energy program known as 1605(b).

"One way to demonstrate that it is viable and cost effective is to learn by doing," says Gary Kaster of Carbon Project Services—"to invest in projects and go through the hard knocks of learning what works and what doesn't."

Many industry executives would welcome a more predictable regulatory environment, says Jeff Williams, manager of corporate environmental initiatives for Entergy. "It would give us certainty about future investments," he says. Williams goes on to say that Entergy, which sells power in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas, has a lot of reasons besides the credits to work to reduce CO2. "Look at our territory and the possible impact of future climate change—the rising sea levels, more intense storms, loss of coastal wetlands that buffer those storms. Those create a risk to the sustainability of our marketplace. We believe in taking action."

Under their agreement with the USFWS, the companies gain the right to claim credit for the carbon sequestered by the Singer tract's growing trees as they mature over the next hundred years. But all forestry decisions are up to the USFWS. "We said, you can claim any carbon when there's a market, but all we agree to do is what we'd do anyway: manage the property in its natural state," says USFWS realty specialist Ken Clough. "We can thin the trees when they mature. If beetles get into the trees, we can reduce the canopy cover. Whatever the forest management plan calls for, we are free to do that."

Whether carbon sequestration funding will be a permanent part of conservation's future, time will tell. Meanwhile, the projects are unambiguous wins for habitat, biodiversity, recreation, and water quality. Maybe someday the ivory-billed woodpecker will again nest in the Singer tract, and a place that had become synonymous with species extinction and unthinking disregard for the environment will become part of a more inspiring story of habitat recovery and our own species' early efforts to combat global warming.

Erica Gies is a freelance environmental reporter based in San Francisco. She has written for Grist, Wired News, SF Gate, E/The Environmental Magazine, AlterNet, the Utne Reader, Terrain, and Earth Island Journal.