The Forest Through the Trees

An unlikely coalition of landowners, environmentalists and industry is teaming up to fight global warming -- one sapling at a time.


If all goes according to plans, this week tree planters will stride onto 580 acres of open pastureland adjacent to the Red River northwest of Natchitoches. In their canvas sacks will be water oak, willow oak, sweetgum and hackberry saplings, all trees native to the bottomland hardwood forests that once shaded the length of the river valley.

For the next hundred years, the young trees are guaranteed to grow untroubled by the saws of foresters. "It's pretty neat to see this stuff reforested," says Keith Ouchley, director of the Nature Conservancy of Louisiana and the project's overseer. "You need to have a long-term vision to be able to imagine that in half a century, a forest will be standing there."

While a mature forest will benefit both human neighbors and wildlife residents in all the traditional ways, these trees have another purpose. As the oaks and hackberries grow, they'll absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their plant tissue. This process reduces the atmosphere's overall concentration of carbon dioxide, which is the primary cause of the greenhouse effect. In doing what comes naturally, trees have become the newest tool in the fight against global warming.

These 580 acres will be tended to by the Nature Conservancy, which will manage the tree planting and monitor the forest's growth. The funds to buy the land and the saplings were provided by a new entity called PowerTree Carbon Company, LLC, a consortium of 25 power companies that have banded together to take voluntary steps to reduce their contributions to global warming. The money wasn't a no-strings-attached donation: in return for their largesse, the companies retain the "carbon credits" the trees produce over the next 100 years. The companies will count every ton of carbon dioxide the forest absorbs as an offset against the tons their smokestacks release into the air.

"Our work with the Nature Conservancy is part of a new initiative in response to President Bush's challenge to industry to take voluntary action to reduce greenhouse gases," says Gary Kaster, the president of PowerTree Carbon Company, LLC and an eco-assets manager for American Electric Power, the largest electric utility company in the United States. But the consortium's involvement also shows foresight and contingency planning, says Ouchley. "There are no federal regulations right now that say power generators have to regulate their carbon dioxide, but a lot of these companies are seeing the handwriting on the wall," he says. "Sooner or later, carbon dioxide is going to be regulated, and they want to be ahead of the curve and be ready for it."

THE IDEA OF CARBON CREDITS over the last decade, as scientists confirmed that the effects of human-caused climate change are already being felt, and business and political leaders began discussing ways to address the growing problem. They focused on decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for climate change and a byproduct of burning fossil fuels like coal and oil.

Electric companies receive the most scrutiny, as their carbon dioxide emissions constitute about 40 percent of the nation's total emissions. Kaster stresses that the companies are working on improving efficiency within their power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and are researching new technologies. American Electric Power has also committed to building a "clean coal" power plant by 2010, which would use new technology to drastically reduce emissions. "There are technologies out there," says Kaster. "They're just not ready today."

In the meantime, the power companies have turned to reforestation -- also known as "terrestrial carbon sequestration" -- as projects they can embark on immediately, without a decade of engineering research. "I don't want to imply that we think we're going to be able to plant trees and solve this problem," says Kaster. "But for some utilities, that can be part of a company's portfolio of what that company can do to meet any mandate or regulations that come down the road."

The scale of the problem dwarfs the efforts made by the utilities to date. PowerTree Carbon Company, LLC has funded six projects in Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas, covering 3,609 acres with trees. Over the next century, the trees are projected to remove more than 1.6 million tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Currently, American Electric Power releases at least 170 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year. Still, Kaster says, voluntary reforestation can be one tool among many that companies can use to reduce their impact. "We're making these investments in trees to demonstrate to the world with hard currency that [reforestation] can be part of the solution," he says. "We're not just giving you rhetoric, we're putting these projects on the ground and making an investment."

The lower Mississippi River valley, which stretches from southern Illinois down to the Gulf of Mexico, turns out to be the ideal place for that investment. Four hundred years ago, the area was one vast canopy of trees. "There were 24 million acres of forest in the lower Mississippi River valley at the time the Europeans came over," says Ouchley. "It was once the largest temperate floodplain forest on the face of the earth. But about 80 percent of the river valley forest has been cleared, primarily for agriculture."

Much of the forest remained intact until the mid-20th century, when word of a new cash crop swept through the South: soybeans. Unlike cotton, soybeans could be grown in less than ideal soil conditions, and the crop's price climbed from the 1930s until the 1970s. Throughout those years, farmers cleared the swampy forests along the rivers and bayous, and planted rows of soybeans in the flood-prone land.

"They did OK for a while," says Ouchley, "but then the price of soybeans declined. And then they realized that they couldn't get very good crops out of the soil anyway, because it was so wet." Some farmers struggled on, while others let the grass grow on the fields and turned their cows out to pasture. Now, however, they have another option, and a novel way to make that land economically productive. "There's a lot of opportunity right now to convert these marginal agricultural lands back into forests," says Ouchley.

THE ELECTRIC COMPANIES, working alone or together, have three options for obtaining carbon credits. They can plant trees on land they own themselves, as Entergy is demonstrating: the company has committed to reforesting the 23,000 acres of land it owns throughout the Mississippi Delta. In the second option, the one chosen by PowerTree Carbon Company, LLC, the companies finance tree-planting projects overseen by nonprofit groups or a government agency. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has been most active in this fashion, working with power companies to reforest 60,000 acres on wildlife refuges in the lower Mississippi River valley.

The third and newest possibility is to work with private landowners who want to reforest their open acreage, letting them retain ownership of the land but buying up the carbon credits. With that outcome in mind, Mississippi entrepreneur James Cummins launched The Carbon Fund, a new business dedicated to managing reforestation efforts on private lands and marketing the resulting credits to power companies.

"We view this as a positive incentive to restore much of the lands that need to be restored, from Illinois to New Orleans," says Cummins, the company's chief executive. "These projects would do some good work in terms of sequestering carbon, but they also have a lot of side benefits. They would assist private landowners financially, and also work towards restoring vital habitats."

John Phillips has farmed land in Louisiana and Mississippi for 25 years. Although reforestation would change both the landscape and a way of life, Phillips is eager to work with The Carbon Fund. "Sequestering carbon is hopefully going to be an opportunity for private landowners to take environmentally sensitive land out of row crop production," says Phillips, "to take this land that probably never should have been cleared and shouldn't be farmed, and put it back in its best use. There's a whole gamut of benefits that go along with taking land out of tillage and putting it back in hardwood forests -- there's carbon sequestration, we're getting cleaner air, we're getting cleaner water, we're getting a reduction in [topsoil] loss."

There's also the potential of an additional revenue stream if The Carbon Fund can interest a power company in buying the carbon credits that Phillips' land could produce. Phillips has not yet begun any large-scale reforestation on his land; until the carbon credit market matures, it's simply not prudent, he says. "At the end of the day, the revenue stream has got to support the land cost. Frankly, that's the problem right now. There aren't enough buyers in the market right now that are willing to pay enough for carbon sequestration rights to make the dollars work as far as land cost."

Should the federal government decide to create mandatory carbon dioxide regulations, however, the numbers of buyers in the market would immediately skyrocket. In the short term, that doesn't seem likely: President George W. Bush has staunchly opposed regulating carbon dioxide, and under his guidance the Environmental Protection Agency declared that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant and therefore can't be regulated under the Clean Air Act.

But pressure is mounting for the federal government to act. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that officially takes effect Feb. 16, commits 132 nations to the first mandatory reductions of greenhouse gases. Those nations were less than delighted when Bush reversed President Bill Clinton's policy and flatly rejected the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. European nations continue to urge the United States to step back into the fold.

Domestically, legislation to cut carbon dioxide emissions surfaces in Congress each year, although the bills can't garner enough votes to pass. Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman sponsored the most popular bill, the Climate Stewardship Act, which proposes a system of regulation that would encourage power companies to offset their emissions with reforestation projects ("What We Know," June 22, 2004). On yet another front, eight state attorneys general have sued the five largest power companies in the United States, alleging that their carbon dioxide emissions constitute a public nuisance. A win by the attorneys general -- or an out-of-court settlement -- would likely mandate more reforestation projects as well as direct emission reductions.

Meanwhile, Louisiana is off to a fast start with carbon sequestration. Both nonprofit groups and entrepreneurs expect to pursue more projects within the state in the coming years, whether or not mandatory carbon dioxide limits become a reality. Louisiana's hunters, hikers and nature lovers will reap the rewards of the reforestation projects, as those lands managed by nonprofit groups are often transformed into wildlife refuges and parks. The Red River National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's newest refuge, is a prime example: It received a jumpstart in 2002 when Entergy worked with the nonprofit Conservation Fund to purchase and plant trees on the first 600 acres.

Conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the Nature Conservancy have eagerly cooperated on similar projects. New forests provide migratory songbirds trees to roost in and increase the range of the Louisiana black bear, which the federal government has classified as a species threatened by extinction.

The entrepreneurial Carbon Fund has a phrase to explain why so many different constituencies have coalesced around carbon sequestration projects in the lower Mississippi River Valley: enlightened self-interest. In this rare situation, private landowners, environmentalists, government agencies and industry all agree on the best use for the land -- and they've learned to cooperate.

"[The power companies] are getting something out of this," says Ouchley of the Nature Conservancy. "They're getting the right to offset their carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, they're doing something very beneficial to restore wildlife habitat. It's a win-win situation."


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