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Smaller Trees Stump Nature Conservancy's Carbon Project

A man sitting in the woods.
John Dillon
/
VPR

The Nature Conservancy says its innovative plan to use a Vermont forest to help reduce greenhouse gas pollution in California did not turn out as hoped after a timber inventory showed the project was not economically feasible.

The Vermont chapter of the conservancy had hoped to enroll its 5,400-acre piece of northern Franklin County into a California market aimed at reducing greenhouse gas pollution. Essentially, companies in California can buy carbon credits to count toward the carbon dioxide they’re mandated to reduce.

But after foresters measured the trees on Burnt Mountain last summer, they had some disappointing news.

Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives for The Nature Conservancy in Vermont, spearheaded the project, and he said the money that would be generated fell below expectations.

“What we found was that there just wasn't enough carbon there above the regional average to make a financially viable project,” Shallow said.

The carbon credits that are traded are based on how much the trees store if the forest is left as "forever wild," versus what would be stored if the forest was conventionally managed with periodic timber harvesting like other woodlands in the area.

Shallow said the conservancy had hoped the income generated by the sale of the credits would cover the cost of the inventory, the marketing of the credits and the monitoring of the project for a century, as well as provide additional funds for ongoing conservation programs.

But according to Shallow, the inventory this summer showed the trees were smaller and not growing as robustly as anticipated.

"And all that added up to less carbon on the property above the regional baseline than what we thought was there," he said.

"We entered into this knowing we had some things to figure out and learn. And what we're learning is that even at 5,000 acres, it’s going to be hard to have a compliance project in the state of Vermont." — Jim Shallow, The Nature Conservancy in Vermont

Shallow said the Vermont chapter took on the project in part as an experiment; it will now share what it learned with other organizations looking at similar carbon storage plans.

"That's our role and we will share those learnings with other people as much as we can and we will learn from them and move forward to find how can we make these projects work for other Vermont landowners," he said. "We entered into this knowing we had some things to figure out and learn. And what we're learning is that even at 5,000 acres, it's going to be hard to have a compliance project in the state of Vermont.”

Shallow said the project was still worth doing, and the conservancy now plans to enroll the land in a separate market in which companies or individuals voluntarily buy carbon offsets.

But, he said, enrolling the Burnt Mountain land into the voluntary market will bring in less money – about $400,000 less – than what the conservancy had anticipated from the regulated compliance market.

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