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News / Northwest

Log it or leave it: Oregon county ponders new way to cash in on trees

By Grant Stringer, Columbia Insight
Published: September 17, 2023, 4:16pm
2 Photos
Standing by: Climate change may be changing the way officials decide to do business at the Hood River County tree farm. (Photo by Jurgen A.
Standing by: Climate change may be changing the way officials decide to do business at the Hood River County tree farm. (Photo by Jurgen A. Hess) Photo Gallery

Like many rural Oregon counties, Hood River County has for decades relied on logging to help pay for county services.

But officials may have found a new way to value the county’s cash-cow 30,000-acre tree farm—selling carbon stored in the stands of fir and pine on the $2 billion voluntary carbon market.

This month, county commissioners are considering a draft plan for a carbon-offset project put together by County Forestry Director Doug Thiesies and the Portland-based nonprofit The Climate Trust.

The plan would span 40 years and would be large by Pacific Northwest standards. Thiesies has been working behind the scenes on the idea for years.

Commissioners plan to hold a public hearing in October and could vote on the project that day.

If the idea becomes reality, companies could buy carbon-storage credits from Hood River County. The credits would allow them to “count” the carbon stored in Hood River County’s tree farm as progress toward their own climate goals.

Meanwhile, the companies would be free to keep releasing carbon emissions as part of their normal operations without penalty.

Buyers in this market are varied but include tech giants such as Amazon and Microsoft, oil producers Shell and Chevron and smaller firms and individuals that want to claim credit for forest conservation while continuing to burn fossil fuels.

The county estimates it could earn $24 million from the project. But that estimate would likely change with an official inventory of the greenhouse gas stored in the tree farm. That inventory hasn’t yet been conducted.

Cashing in on carbon

Forest conservation has become a common way to generate carbon offsets for sale because trees take carbon from the atmosphere and store it.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says protecting and replanting trees are low-cost strategies that will be crucial to averting a climate catastrophe under the 2015 Paris Accords.

Supporters of the carbon market say offsets are an important way to cut carbon emissions now while companies prepare to make lasting cuts down the road.

Pacific Northwest forests have enormous potential to store carbon, and state governments in California, Oregon and Washington are all driving land-based carbon sequestration schemes in different ways.

But storing and selling carbon has had mixed success in the region, in part due to wildfires that immediately release carbon and wipe out the source of marketable carbon storage.

Plus, the carbon-worth of an offset can depend on tricky assumptions and accounting, which are at play in the county’s plans.

In an Aug. 21 meeting, Hood River County Administrator Jeff Hecksel said the project is a “no-brainer” and recommended that commissioners approve it.

County Commissioner Les Perkins, whose district includes much of the tree farm, did not respond to requests for comment from Columbia Insight.

How the HR County plan would work

The Hood River County carbon project would encompass nearly all of the tree farm, which is scattered across the Cascade Range foothills in the northern Oregon county.

The tree farm includes Douglas fir-dominant forests on the county’s wetter, western flank, as well as more arid forests in the east. Part of the tree farm is Post Canyon, a popular mountain biking hub.

In carbon markets, an owner of timber land can create carbon offsets by planting trees, logging slower or agreeing not to log at all for decades.

In one early offset project, a Washington nonprofit conserved 520 acres of timber land near Mt. Rainier. Microsoft bought the credits, worth 37,000 tons of carbon, that would have been released into the atmosphere if the land was industrially logged, according to the Seattle Times.

On its tree farm, Hood River County harvests about 9.5 million board feet of timber each year. Logging earns about $4 million annually for the county budget.

The proposed carbon-offset project wouldn’t require the county to log any less.

But Thiesies says the tree farm qualifies as a carbon sink because the county cuts trees more slowly than most modern timber companies do.

Hood River grows its trees for 90 years on average, Thiesies says, compared to the typical 30- or 40-year rotation in the region.

Investors value this kind of management because it stores more carbon than quick harvests and clear-cutting, says Paula Swedeen, an endangered species biologist, carbon market expert and lobbyist for the Washington nonprofit Conservation Northwest.

If commissioners approve the project, it would be registered with the American Carbon Registry, an offset certifier that sets project standards.

The Climate Trust would manage Hood River’s project and sell the carbon to buyers who want to offset their own carbon-heavy activities.

The county would pay the trust 5% of the project’s net revenue.

The county’s windfall would depend on the price of a carbon credit, which fluctuates.

But the carbon-offset market is on shaky ground.

Prices are plunging after studies have shown some offset projects don’t actually deliver carbon benefits.

The voluntary market shrunk for the first time ever this year. The Guardian reported that credits worth about 1 billion tons of carbon could be worthless because buyers may not trust their value.

However, Morgan Stanley Research estimates that the $2 billion market will balloon to $100 billion by 2030.

Pasay cited research by a UK-based analyst that found offset buyers invest more in their own climate targets than companies not participating in the market.

Thiesies says the timing is right because the county is reaping the benefit of harvesting the tree farm little by little and allowing the farm to grow.

How much real climate benefit?

A common criticism of carbon offsets is that they pay polluters but don’t necessarily cut emissions.

To become certified, a developer like Hood River County has to show that its project would store additional carbon than if it didn’t exist.

That’s in question in Hood River County because officials say they’ll keep logging the tree farm on a longer rotation with or without the offset project.

Hecksel, the county administrator, told commissioners on Aug. 21 the project would earn revenue “for doing something that you’re going to do anyway.”

Thiesies told Columbia Insight the plan would require county leadership to “commit to doing what we’re doing for 40 years.”

Proving carbon “additionality” would involve scientific study, complex modeling and a few assumptions. The county would use the American Carbon Registry’s standards, which are relatively strict, says Julius Pasay, executive director of The Climate Trust.

Thiesies says the project would save carbon.

His pitch hinges on the possibility that, absent the offset agreement, the county could ramp up logging in two hypothetical scenarios—if political winds elevate politicians to the county commission who may support more logging, or if county budget pressures are so great that there’s little choice but to cut down more trees.

David Ford, who develops and manages offset projects for L&C Carbon, says those are real possibilities. Ford has worked since the 1990s to develop standards for offsets and sustainable logging and is a member of the Dundee, Oregon, city council.

Swedeen agrees. Ford describes the project as a 40-year conservation easement to prevent future commissioners from “overharvesting” or selling the land.

However, Swedeen is skeptical that the plan would store additional carbon in a scientific sense. With offsets, she says, the devil is usually in the details.

“It’s a fine line,” she says.

Fire risk

For Hood River County to successfully store carbon on its tree farm, it’ll have to maintain the project for decades.

A major threat is wildfire, which would immediately release the carbon and could throw the project into jeopardy.

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Fires have skirted the tree farm in recent years, according to Thiesies.

In the case of an unplanned fire, the American Carbon Registry would release credits from an insurance pool to cover the cost of the carbon that was released.

The Climate Trust and the county may be required to “contribute a small deductible of credits” depending on the severity of the fire.

Wildfires have tanked other offset projects in the region, including part of Green Diamond’s massive restoration bid in southern Oregon, as reported by OPB, and one undertaken by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.