The Biden administration’s climate goals are bringing attention to the role of forests in storing carbon and the need to offer incentives to private forest owners to manage their trees sustainably.

“Climate-smart forestry policies offer both tools to reduce carbon pollution and an important opportunity to develop new revenue streams for family foresters,” Senate Ag Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said as she opened a hearing in May about opportunities for federal, state and privately owned forestlands to address climate change.

Stabenow has introduced the Rural Forest Markets Act, which would call on USDA to guarantee investments in private forest carbon market programs. The bill has been read twice and sent to the full committee which, according to spokesman Patrick Delaney, is "looking for every opportunity to move the legislation forward."

Kedren Dillard, whose family owns about 100 acres of forest land in Virginia, said the bill would help people with small forests who either can’t afford or aren’t eligible for carbon markets aimed at large landholders. Those markets typically calculate carbon sequestration from changed management practices that owners invest in and then sell carbon credits, sharing the resulting profit with the forest owner. The process can stretch across many years.

 “We can do much more with our forests if we empower family forest owners, including African American owners like me, with the right tools and policy support,” she said. The Rural Forest Markets Act intends to make carbon markets accessible to family forest owners by spurring private investment in the program, which is then used to incentivize property owners to enroll. Dillard represents the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Program and sits on the board of the American Forest Foundation (AFF), which offers a carbon market for small forests (typically under 1,000 acres).

Kedren Dillard, private forestland owner.

“Most families simply do not have the resources for upfront expenses and the ability to wait years for a return,” Dillard said.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the agriculture committee’s ranking member, said climate-smart forest management has the potential to benefit the environment, public and private forests, the wood products industry and rural economies. But, he cautioned, “as Congress and the administration consider strategies to promote voluntary participation in combating climate change, we must avoid policies that take forest land out of production or that deter sound management practices.”

For timber companies, sustainable management means reforesting at the same rate as harvesting, which is how Jamestown LP operates, according to Troy Harris, managing director of timberland for the Atlanta-based company that owns forestland throughout the eastern United States. Harris, who also testified at the ag committee hearing, serves on the board of the National Alliance of Forest Owners.

“Forests are the optimal land use for maximizing carbon storage,” he told the committee, encouraging members to take action to further expand sustainable building. In his written testimony, he called for using the tax code to “incentivize increased forest carbon sequestration and storage,” adding USDA could “support voluntary carbon registries and updated protocols that maintain rigor while removing barriers to entry.”

The Growing Climate Solutions Act would establish technical assistance and third-party verification for carbon (and other ecosystem services) markets to make the markets more accessible to farmers, ranchers and private forest landowners. Technical assistance can be something forest owners really need as they consider changing their management practices to achieve climate goals. Under the Act, “USDA will be the one-stop-shop for all carbon market resources,” says Natalie Alex, policy manager at the AFF.

She adds that a loan or bond guarantee from USDA, called for in the Rural Forest Markets Act, would reduce the risk for investors who want to participate in the AFF Family Forest Carbon Program but may not see returns for decades. “In case we can’t sell the carbon on the market, they still get their return on investment,” Alex says. But the Congressional Budget Office gave the bill a score of zero, suggesting it doesn’t expect USDA would have to pay out much, if anything, and AFF already has signed contracts from companies ready to buy carbon as soon as it’s available.

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As for public forests, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee about her agency's FY22 budget, said the country’s public forests are facing longer and more intense wildfire seasons, drought, invasive species and attacks from insects and disease. Still, she said the Forest Service “stands ready to meet these challenges and advance the Administration’s climate goals.”

As an example, she said the Forest Service is increasing carbon sequestration through reforestation by “planting the right species, in the right place, under the right conditions, so forests will remain healthy over time.” But, she added, the current plans call for reforestation of 1.3 million acres of National Forest System land, accounting for only one-third of the need.

Still, increased attention to trees’ carbon-sequestering prowess and searing images of wildfires whipping through public and private lands have raised the national profile of forests.

“We’re starting to see this energy around forests and climate change,” said Elizabeth Greener, AFF’s communications director, adding that it’s “wonderful to see them brought to the forefront.”

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