By Luanne McGovern
I recently attended the Forest Carbon Management in Central Appalachia Conference at West Virginia University (WVU). It was an eye-opening and thought-provoking two days of presentations, panel discussions and breakout sessions, all centered on better understanding the emerging field of forest carbon sequestration. A broad range of perspectives were presented, including researchers, academics, landowners, forest product professionals, forest carbon companies and environmental justice advocates.
Forest carbon management is surprisingly complicated, bringing together political, economic, ecological and social factors. In the 2023 West Virginia legislature regular session, there was spirited debate and discussion about how the state should regulate these carbon management programs. While no new legislation was passed, this issue will continue to be critical to West Virginia, one of the most heavily forested states in the nation.
What are Forest Carbon Capture Programs?
There is no more efficient method of carbon capture than photosynthesis. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air and convert it to sugar and oxygen. The carbon in the sugars is then stored in the growing wood. For companies and industries looking to reduce their carbon footprint, investing in forest carbon capture can be one method of carbon offset. Within the US, there are both compliance and voluntary carbon markets, which operate under very different rules. Most forest carbon capture programs are voluntary, so the programs can vary significantly in contract length, requirements and forest owner compensation.
Numerous forest carbon credit (FCC) companies are now in business to be a broker between buyers (companies looking to purchase carbon credits) and sellers (forest owners). These FCC agreements will include:
- Evaluation of the forest size, typically greater than 40 acres
- Evaluation of total carbon capture potential based on the quality of forest timber
- Length of contract, typically 20 to 50 years
- Compensation, typically $10-15 per acre per year
- Restrictions on timbering and requirements for a forest management plan
After signing the contract, the forest owner will receive regular payments but will be restricted from any commercial or large-scale timbering.
Are Forest Carbon Capture Programs Good for Appalachia?
This is where things get even more complicated, depending on where you stand regarding the forest products industry.
Most small family forest owners could benefit from these programs if they don’t intend to timber their land. A forest management plan would be developed, and they could receive a modest payment each year. Unfortunately, if they want to sell their land, pass it on to their children, or need to timber for financial reasons, in most cases, they cannot rescind the contract. Likewise, the forest carbon market could change substantially in the coming years as climate change accelerates. What seemed like a good deal now, may be significantly undervalued in ten to 20 years. Some landowners are already enrolled in the West Virginia Managed Timberland Program, a tax incentive program. Entering into a carbon credit program may violate the requirements of the state-managed timberland program. So, there are many considerations for the landowner before entering into an agreement.
An excellent resource for landowners and others that are interested in forest carbon capture is found on the Forest Owners Carbon and Climate Education’s website (psu.edu).
For the forest products industry, FCC programs cause concern about the availability of feedstocks, longer harvest rotations, and loss of jobs and income. According to the West Virginia Division of Forestry, “The wood industry of West Virginia generates $3.2 billion annually for the state’s economy and provides more than 30,000 jobs. Each of the state’s 55 counties has some segment of the wood industry as an employer. The forest products sector is the largest employer in many of these counties.”
It is estimated that 79% of West Virginia (12.25 million acres) is covered by forest, and about 40% of that land is considered family forest. That is about five million acres of forest that could potentially be covered by FCC programs. The state also has over 2.5 million acres of corporate-owned forests. Bluesource Sustainable Forests Company has acquired over 700,000 acres of forest land in West Virginia and is now the largest private forest land owner in the state. Their stated goal is to manage their land for “long-term carbon sequestration, climate adaptation, and restoration of biodiversity.” (anewclimate.com/bsfc)
For the powers-that-be in Charleston, FCC programs have raised a lot of concern. In the 2023 regular Legislative Session, SB585 and SB739 were introduced and amended in various forms to tax, regulate, stop, and/or delay the ability of landowners to enter into private forest carbon capture contracts. Various arguments were presented throughout the session, for and against these agreements, by multiple stakeholders. Ultimately, the Senate could not concur with the amendments to SB739 passed by the House, and the bill died on the last day. The topic is sure to be resurrected in the 2024 regular session.
One of the most interesting panel discussions during the WVU conference was related to environmental justice and equity. The panel debated topics such as: Who gets the most benefit from FCC programs – the polluter, the broker, or the landowner? Is the carbon market perpetuating the cycle of exploitative extraction industries in Appalachia? What happens to good paying jobs in timber communities when land is placed into these programs? Do FCC programs actually make any real difference in the global carbon balance, or is it a “feel good” exercise? What are the social and economic inequalities between where the carbon emissions are being produced and where the credits are being bought? All excellent questions with no clear answers.
In conclusion, I left the conference with much to think about and many unanswered questions. Indeed, our forests play a major role in mitigating climate change, and FCC programs can help. Private landowners should have the option to enter into these agreements without interference from the state government. But the bigger issues around environmental justice and the true impact of the programs on local communities are harder to parse. The long history of exploitation in the Appalachian region should not be repeated.
A few other resources to learn more about forest carbon capture: