Op-Ed: Our forests, our future: can Vermont landowners sell carbon offsets?

The Vermont Land Trust has a long history of conserving Vermont’s most productive working lands. As VLT’s president, I’m proud of that track record, but I’m also concerned about our farm and forest economy. These lands and the industries that rely on them are facing real challenges today, with bigger challenges on the horizon.

With around 60 percent of Vermont’s forestland owned by people over the age of 55, transfers of land will be happening at an unprecedented pace in the years ahead. There is a real risk that this will result in the breaking up of forestland into smaller and smaller parcels, which will jeopardize the sugaring, timber, and recreation industries, while also negatively impacting wildlife and water quality. And then there is climate change – something expected to have significant effects on people, plants, animals, and infrastructure.

In my work, people will often share with me the deep connections they feel to the places they love, and their desire for their children and grandchildren to have the same connection. Often they talk about experiences such as walking in a beloved forest, sugaring, hunting, fishing, farming, managing a family woodlot, or simply admiring the beauty of our hills and valleys.

The Vermont Land Trust has the opportunity, and I think the responsibility, to do our part to keep Vermont’s forests intact and viable, for today and for future generations. That’s why we are continuing to conserve important forestland with conservation easements that prevent the breaking up of parcels, while also keeping the land in private ownership and available for logging and sugaring.

And we are also looking at ways to make the economics of forestland ownership better for landowners. One example of this is the sale of forest carbon offsets, which has the potential to bring new revenue to landowners, supplementing what can be earned from timber and other forest products.

Vermont’s trees benefit us all by storing carbon and reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We think landowners can be paid more for doing what they already do: managing forests exceptionally well.

That’s why – with the backing of the High Meadows Fund and the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board – the Vermont Land Trust commissioned a study on whether Vermonters could incorporate the sale of carbon offsets in their forest management plans. The study was completed by the University of Vermont’s Carbon Dynamics Lab and carbon consultant, Spatial Informatics Group. It can be viewed at www.vlt.org/carbon-report.

One of the most significant findings is that it is now possible to group forest properties together so that the administrative costs can be shared. At the right scale, this could supplement other forest income and help support continued good forest stewardship.

The study was a first step. We are now exploring what role we can play in aggregating private forestland for participation in carbon offset programs. We want to move beyond the research to get something done on the ground. The Vermont Land Trust plans to begin a demonstration project later this year.

It is no surprise that forestland, when cared for, takes care of us in return. The science is clear: by maintaining intact, healthy forests and the headwaters they contain, we help mitigate the impact of floodwaters and improve water quality, while also reducing the toll from climate change on our landscape and our communities. If we act now to protect key forest blocks, we can make a difference on these important issues. And future Vermonters will look back with gratitude for our effort, as they live surrounded by a healthy forest. It’s what inspires us all to keep trying new things and finding new ways to work toward this goal.

  Written by Nick Richardson, president of the Vermont Land Trust.

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