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Measuring the Carbon for the Trees: New Tool will Quantify the Carbon Value of Forest Protection

Image Credit: Jerry Monkman

The good news: Forests are carbon workhorses, capturing 15 percent of US emissions each year and storing 35 years’ worth of US emissions. The challenge: The rate of forested lands lost to residential, industrial, and commercial development is almost one million acres per year, which results in the release of about 14 million metric tons of carbon and eliminates the future carbon capture potential offered by these forests.

Without forest protection, we cannot meet critical climate targets and reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We must be able to accurately locate high-carbon forests and understand the risk of forest loss. By updating and improving data, we can protect and manage forested lands to optimize their ability to capture and sequester carbon, while protecting biodiversity—today, tomorrow, and into the future.

A suite of new and updated tools to be released in early 2024 will help land trusts, municipalities, land managers, and policy makers better integrate forest protection into their efforts to capture and sequester carbon and avoid future emissions.

In early 2024, new mapping resources will be made available to help conservation organizations, government agencies, and landowners measure the avoided emissions possible through forest protection at the parcel level; identify high-carbon forests to target for protection; and leverage land protection agreements to integrate climate-smart forest management.

“Forests are a critical climate solution,” says Abigail Weinberg, Open Space Institute’s (OSI) Senior Director of Conservation Science and Planning. “Land trusts, state and federal agencies, and other conservation organizations protect more than four million acres every year. That work can be targeted to protect at-risk, high-carbon forests, and these updated tools will help us get there.”

Chris Williams, director of the environmental sciences program at Clark University and author of the NFCMS data notes, “These new tools will connect people working on forest protection on the ground with updated, powerful data to help them make decisions. The community leading this critical work needs to have the latest information at their fingertips so that we can take action to address climate change.”

Until now, available data and software has allowed granular assessments of forest carbon, but was limited by out-of-date estimates of forest cover, state-level restrictions, or was lacking future forest carbon estimates, including likelihood of forest conversion to development.

That is why OSI was funded by the USDA to lead a major upgrade to National Forest Carbon Monitoring System (NFCMS) data developed by researchers at Clark University. The updated information will allow for better identification of at-risk high-carbon forests for the continental U.S., including projections of permanent forest cover loss, and estimates of avoided emissions from land protection.

The information will be made available through a free, web-based platform that will allow practitioners to strategically pinpoint where they can protect land with the greatest carbon emission benefits. Additionally, the information provided through the software will incorporate other benefits delivered by forest conservation, such as safeguarding biodiversity and water quality, as well as helping practitioners evaluate how to help wildlife adapt to a changing climate. OSI and partners plan to provide technical assistance to users, helping them retrieve information in useful formats.

“The updated data and tools will help us better understand the carbon sequestration benefits of our Forest Legacy conservation projects,” notes Claire Harper, USDA Forest Legacy Program manager. “The updates will ensure our state and land trust partners have the data and resources to conserve and manage forestlands for multiple public benefits including carbon.”

Beyond parcel identification, this data has the potential to support conservation organizations in securing climate smart management agreements with landowners at the moment of protection.

“Maximizing climate benefits from forest protection is a long game that begins when parcels are identified, through the moment of acquisition when management agreements are made, and into the future as these forests are managed to store and capture carbon,” said Taj Schottland, Associate Climate Director at the Trust for Public Land. “These new and updated tools from OSI, TPL, and TNC will help practitioners every step of the way, in addition to supporting agencies in their efforts to meet new climate goals.”

OSI has piloted this approach through its Appalachian Landscape Protection Fund (ALPF), which provides funding for protecting lands for carbon mitigation and ecological resilience. By working with conservation organizations across the east, OSI has been able to develop guidance on easement terms that ensure good management of high-carbon lands over time. The $18 million fund provides capital grants aimed at protecting high-carbon and climate resilient lands along the vast Appalachian Range, which captures more than 60 percent of the total carbon pollution absorbed by US forests.

Weinberg explains that the ALPF functions as an incubator for other state and federal programs that are working toward achieving climate goals. “The projects funded by ALPF are some of the first conservation deals that included explicit protection for forest carbon and ecological resilience,” she says. “Working with our partners, we can use the ALPF to test out new ideas and get them implemented on the ground. Then we leverage and share that knowledge so that others can most effectively target land conservation and management.”

OSI project partners on the NFCMS update include Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, Land Trust Alliance, American Forests, Dr. Christopher Williams of Clark University, and the USDA Forest Service Forest Legacy Program. Additional support provided by Jane’s Trust Foundation and individual contributors. The ALPF is supported by the Doris Duke Foundation, Jane’s Trust Foundation, and individual donors.

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