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Family forest owners get money to sequester CO2

CHRIS (LEFT) AND Tim Johnson of Lincoln are among 13 forest owners in the state to enroll in the Family Forest Carbon Program, which compensates family forest owners for implementing forestry practices that increase carbon sequestration on their land. Independent photo/Marin Howell

LINCOLN — For more than two decades, Chris Johnson and his family have stewarded around 450 acres of forestland in Lincoln, eating from the property’s apple trees in the fall, harvesting timber for the winter and collecting sap for the family’s organic maple syrup operation in the spring. 

In Vermont, there are 40,000 family forest owners, like Johnson — landowners with more than 10 acres of forestland. 

Johnson is also part of a smaller subset. He’s one of only 13 Vermont forest owners enrolled in the Family Forest Carbon Program since it expanded into the state this past July. 

The project, developed by the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy, compensates eligible forest owners for implementing management practices that increase the amount of carbon sequestered and stored on their land. 

“It was kind of a no brainer,” Johnson said of joining the program. “We had no plans to develop the land or build any structures, so we don’t feel constrained because of that.”

 The Family Forest Carbon Program is intended to help family forest owners like Johnson access carbon markets. Traditionally, these markets have been accessible to landholders with several thousand acres. High upfront costs and long contract lengths have largely excluded forest owners with less acreage.

Through the Family Forest Carbon Program, landowners with at least 30 acres of forestland are offered annual payments to manage their land with climate-friendly practices. 

“(American Forest Foundation’s) hope is to provide landowners with a guaranteed financial income from their forest and personalized technical support every step of the way so that they can care for their woods for generations, creating a healthy environment for themselves and for the planet,” Richard Campbell, the national director of landowner engagement for the Family Forest Carbon Program, told the Independent.

Participating landowners receive consulting services from FFCP foresters and help developing a customized forest management plan if needed. 

Carbon that’s sequestered by participating properties is measured, verified and compared with that of similar parcels outside of the program. The difference between the two is what’s used to gauge the carbon benefit of the program, and what is then sold in the form of verified carbon credits. 

Enrolled landowners enter a 20-year agreement to adhere to one of two categories of the program, aimed at either actively managing forests with a focus on increasing carbon sequestration, or letting trees go mostly untouched for the length of the contract period. 

A GOOD FIT

Johnson was one of several Addison County landowners who worked with the Vermont Family Forests (VFF) foundation to enroll in the program as part of a pilot test when the project was extended into Vermont this past summer. 

VFF is a Bristol nonprofit offering conservation consulting to local forest owners, and it works to foster mutually beneficial relationships between people and forests. 

David Brynn, executive director of VFF, has been working with Johnson since the forest owner and his wife Carol Boyd joined the network in 1996. 

Brynn said the property and Johnson’s current practices seemed well suited for the Family Forest Carbon Program. 

“Chris’s forest just seemed to be exemplary. He’s worked on it for many years, he’s passionate about it, he was one of the originals to join VFF,” Brynn said. “They’ve put in a lot of expanding their access system, and doing some really light thinning in their woods, and just seemed really well fit.”

Johnson’s property is enrolled in the “Enhance Your Woodland” category of the program, intended for forest owners that want to harvest some trees on their property, with some restrictions.

Those enrolled in the Enhance Your Woodland category receive $200 per acre over the 20-year contract period. So, a forest owner with 50 acres would receive a total of $10,000, or $500 each year. 

Johnson said the family developed a forestry plan for their enrolled land but hasn’t had to change how they manage the 320 acres they’ve enrolled in the program. 

Johnson works with his son Tim to manage the family’s forest and maple operation. 

“We didn’t have to make any changes, which was huge,” he said. “The nice thing is they allowed us to continue the maple sugaring without any changes, so that was huge. They didn’t put any restrictions on that.” 

CONSIDER COMPATIBILITY

For those interested in the Family Forest Carbon Program, Brynn said there are a few things to consider. He noted many Vermont forest owners are enrolled in the state’s Current Use program, which taxes landowners based on the value of their undeveloped land, rather than on its marketplace value. 

“Current Use has its own standards and it’s important to be cognizant of the fact that when enrolled in (the Family Forest Carbon Program) they have to meet FFCP standards and the Current Use standards, and these vary from parcel to parcel,” Brynn said. 

“On a stand-by-stand basis, landowners should really look at their standards and see if this is a good fit. It’s a 20-year commitment and just to really have people ponder the fine print of what they’re signing on to and making sure what they’re proposing to do with FFCP is really compatible with their obligations through the Current Use program.” 

Keith Thompson, private lands program manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, echoed Brynn’s sentiment. 

“The Family Forest Carbon program can be compatible with enrollment in Use Value Appraisal, but not always,” he told the Independent. “Landowners should work closely with their consulting forester to consider how to take care of their forests and what landowner programs will work well for them.”

Thompson also noted there are other things to consider when focusing solely on carbon management. 

“Forests are extremely valuable for the role they play in carbon storage and sequestration.  But forests are susceptible to climate change and in some cases, maximizing carbon storage may reduce opportunities to help forests adapt and be resilient to climate change, risking many other benefits forests provide,” he said. 

PROGRAM BENEFITS

While it’s just one of multiple ways of increasing forest resiliency, Brynn said he’s excited to see the Family Forest Carbon Program directing attention to forestry practices that maximize carbon sequestration. 

“It raises consciousness about the value of carbon in forests and the value of ecosystem conservation practices that help sequester and store more forest carbon,” he said. “These are all really good things for diminishing atmospheric carbon concentrations and enhancing water quality, improving wildlife habitat and really making our forests more resilient.”

Back in Lincoln, Johnson also feels positively about the program. 

“I think the program helps offer additionality to the Current Use protections of the property. It puts another layer of protection on the forest,” he said. “In short, I’d say that anyone with a considerable amount of acreage should give this program some consideration.”  

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