How do we protect the future of family forests?

2013-12-20 Ashley Bach

One unavoidable truth in the timber business is that our country's small forest landowners are getting older. According to the U.S. Forest Service, 20 percent of U.S. family forestland is owned by people 75 years and older. Another 30 percent of family forests are owned by people between 55 and 65.

There is already a movement afoot to attract young people to an industry that is looking for a new generation of leaders fluent not just in forest management but skills like social media and speaking Chinese.

But in the meantime, what do our aging small forest landowners do with their land? The Forest Service has material online to help landowners transfer forests to their descendants. But some landowners may have more immediate financial concerns.

One group thinks it's come up with a solution. A new program from the Pinchot Institute for Conservation is designed to pay for aging forest landowners' medical bills in exchange for those landowners conserving their forests.

Under the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative, currently in the pilot stage in Oregon, landowners sell the "carbon credits" from their trees to large healthcare companies looking to reduce their carbon footprint. The landowners agree to conserve their forests for a set amount of time, and in exchange, they get some money to pay for medical expenses.

Can a program like this work? The Pinchot Institute is a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, so building trust with the forest owners could be an issue. Though Pinchot, unlike many of its peers, has a reputation for working in a cooperative way with the forest industry.   

One thing that could help is the program's flexible approach.

In California, where a new cap and trade law is just kicking off this year, forest carbon offsets require a 100-year commitment to preserving trees. The Pinchot Institute is hoping for a more flexible arrangement.

“Most owners outside of conservation landowners aren’t going to be able to enter that sort of deal and encumber their unborn children with those sorts of restrictions,” said (Brian Kittler of the Pinchot Institute). “We’re trying to keep more carbon on the land. How do we do that? Putting land off limits is one way, but a different style of management, longer rotations, that’s going to work better for family forestland owners like we have in Columbia County, (Ore.)”

(Scappoose forest owner Scott Russell) isn’t interested in signing up for a 100-year restriction on cutting trees on his forestland. His management plan (under the Pinchot program) relies on selectively cutting some trees on an ongoing basis – a practice known as thinning.

“We can cut a certain amount and keep it really healthy,” he said. “I really don’t do much clear-cutting. Usually it’s thinning. Part of the idea is this place pays for itself, too. That’s part of having the next generation interested in it.”

While flexible, the Pinchot program is also not designed to give forest owners a huge windfall, just enough to help them with medical expenses. Paul Nys, an Oregon forest owner profiled in this Associated Press story this week, has about 500 acres, for which he and his wife would receive an up-front payment and then about $1,000 a year.

Through a system established by the initiative, the carbon would be bundled and sold to health care companies, and Nys will pocket dollars based on the 20-year carbon-absorbing capacity of his trees. That could start at more than $5,000 as an up-front payment for the first five years of the deal, and continue to generate about $1,000 to Nys for the rest of the life of the contract.

The transaction is a delicate balance. Stories abound of carbon-credit scams, from nonexistent forests in the Philippines to schemes to defraud tribes in the Amazon, so the project’s leaders are cautious when introducing timber owners to the concept.

But in the Oregon initiative, proponents say, everyone benefits. Corporations lower their carbon footprint, landowners get money for health care and the environment benefits from healthy trees.

“Everybody tells us they’re doing a social good,” said Catherine Mater, who conceived of the Pinchot initiative... “Everybody makes the claim, but no one’s able to show us the social value. We can.”

Mater (lives in Corvallis, Ore. and) is a senior fellow at the Pinchot Institute...where researchers identified the chief reason landowners wanted to sell: their health care bills.

“Their biggest fear wasn’t taxes, it wasn’t development,” said the institute’s Brian Kittler. “It was their fear of not being able to afford their health care costs.”

Under the plan, forest owners would even have an ATM card of sorts, called an "ATreeM" card, to pay for their medical expenses.

To (forest owner Paul Nys), the carbon credits represent the possibility of financial freedom. His children and grandchildren wouldn’t be burdened by the bills for his health care, while the forest he’s cultivated for a quarter-century is ensured to stand for decades, if not longer.

“It’s a trust and an investment,” Nys said. “It’s what I’m leaving to everyone who comes after.”