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California and the West

Trust Seeks to Harvest 'Carbon Credits' From Forests

Air: In some places, firms pay to preserve trees' ability to absorb the substance as a way of offsetting pollution created elsewhere. Group wants to bring the idea to California.

October 15, 2000|KATHERINE ELLISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BOONVILLE, Calif. — Steve Snyder has a problem that begins with 80 acres of ancient, towering redwoods. Along with his nine siblings and cousins, he's due within two years to inherit the gorgeous trees, plus 700 more acres near this tiny Mendocino County timber town.

But three of Snyder's kin apparently don't agree that the pending gift is too lovely to lose: He says they want to sell to loggers or developers, hoping to reap as much as $4.6 million, according to one appraisal.

Until recently, Snyder feared that he would have to give up some of the redwoods to buy out those relatives. But last spring, he met Laurie Wayburn and Connie Best, environmentalists who offered intriguing alternatives--including a scheme in which his family might be paid for just letting the redwoods breathe: carbon dioxide in and oxygen out.

This basic labor of forests has become a marketable commodity in various parts of the world where the art of buying "credits" for preserving a tree's carbon-absorbing capacity has attracted industries interested in offsetting pollution that contributes to global warming.

The technique has yet to reach California forests, but Wayburn and Best hope to change that soon.

"California has a big advantage in the carbon trade," Wayburn said. "Redwoods hold the world record for carbon storage: They grow fastest, largest and longest."

Wayburn and Best are co-founders of the Pacific Forest Trust, a group committed to creating financial incentives for landholders to practice conservation. Wayburn is a Harvard graduate in geology and biology, and the daughter of an honored Sierra Club past president; Best is a former soft-drink mogul.

Both big-city transplants--Wayburn, 45, from San Francisco, and Best, 47, from New York--they've settled here, in a valley once thickly covered with forest but now pockmarked with plots in peril.

To them the timing is critical: In California about 77,000 acres of forest were cut down between 1992 and 1997, twice the annual rate of the previous 10 years.

"California has [legislated] some of the toughest forest practices around, but every coastal watershed has salmon species under threat," Best said. "Clearly, regulation hasn't gotten us to where we want to go."

A practice much like carbon trading already goes on in the regulation of sulfur dioxide emissions from older electricity generators. Utilities can satisfy limits imposed by the Clean Air Act by buying credits from more efficient plants.

The carbon-trading concept got a major boost from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the global-warming agreement involving 84 countries and the European Union. The protocol advocates sales of carbon credits. The United States has specifically championed counting "carbon sequestration" from forests.

Some leading environmental groups, however, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, oppose the idea of using forest purchases to excuse pollution elsewhere. They believe it's more important to focus on cutting emissions at their source.

"Where one could go with this is that we'd be protecting more trees but polluting more," said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.

For now, Wayburn and Best have pledged to save Snyder's forest by paying his family for a "conservation easement" that would let them harvest some timber but not the old redwoods. Such easements attach to the deed and bind whoever may purchase the land to similar limits. They can also result in big tax deductions, because the value of the land is usually reassessed when development rights are limited.

Wayburn and Best supervise easements on 15,000 acres of California forest.

Their approach has won admiration from philanthropists who have enriched the trust's coffers. This year, for instance, Pacific Forest got a $5-million grant from the New York-based Surdna Foundation.

But locals such as Boonville resident Bruce Anderson, owner of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, are critical of the trust. He says it "provides tax breaks for the gentry" when stronger measures are needed to slow the destruction of local forests. "Confiscation would be fine with me," he said.

If Wayburn and Best cannot sell carbon credits from Snyder's property, the money to pay for his easement will probably come both from private foundations and federal and state funds set aside to protect threatened forests and salmon. (A stream populated by salmon runs through Snyder's property.)

The women feel confident that they can eventually market the credits, however, as they watch what has been going on in the rest of the world.

Trexler & Associates, a Portland, Ore.-based environmental consulting group, has been involved in about $75 million in sales of carbon credits from forestry investments over the last decade, most of them in developing countries.

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