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Clearcutting and Climate Change
San Diego Union-Tribune, September 21, 2009

State forest restoration plan fights global warming
Polluters could offset effects with plantings

By Michael Gardner

SACRAMENTO — From planting seedlings to acquiring entire groves, forest restoration projects in state parks and on federal lands could soon spring from California's aggressive initiatives to reduce emissions linked to global warming.

At Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, for example, ConocoPhillips will invest $2.8 million to help restore more than 2,000 acres of fire-scarred hillsides as part of a broader legal settlement involving the energy giant's greenhouse gas emissions hundreds of miles away.

Under the state's landmark program, companies looking to offset their climate-change effects for the first time will be allowed to receive credits for financing plantings and restoration in state and federal forests.

The California Air Resources Board on Thursday is expected to endorse those new rules of voluntary participation for all parties: landowners, public agencies and industry.

“There's nowhere else in the world where this type of protocol has been established,” said Dave Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, a timber group.

The campaign to arrest climate change is increasingly enlisting forests, because trees soak up carbon dioxide, a predominant greenhouse gas emitted by factories and cars. The wood continues to store the carbon for decades after being milled into homes or desks.

Nationally, industry is under increasing pressure to reduce emissions blamed for climatic disruptions that have increased the risks of catastrophic wildfires and drought.

“That's what's so exciting about this,” said Deborah Gangloff, executive director of American Forests, a national nonprofit group working with ConocoPhillips and Cuyamaca park officials to fund the project east of San Diego.

“We have been advocating that forests get to play a role in countering excess carbon dioxide along with all the other right reasons to plant trees,” she said.

Until now, a modest 2007 forest plan excluded most of the 17 million acres of public lands — including parks, federal forests and watersheds — from participating.

The new proposal offers incentives to timber companies and small landowners to participate in the carbon market. In doing so, large greenhouse gas emitters, such as refineries and cement plants, could invest in forest improvement programs in return for credits toward reducing emissions.

Under the state's proposed terms, private timber companies and public land agencies must substantiate that the new projects will store more carbon dioxide than what would have been otherwise captured in the forest.

The goal is to encourage loggers pressured by the bottom line to be more selective before bringing out the chain saws. The extra income could also mean the difference when landowners are torn between saving trees for the next generation or selling out to builders to pay the bills.

Currently, the nonprofit Conservation Fund has two sites where it is managing the land for sustained timber yields and carbon storage. For about $10 per ton of carbon emitted, companies — and even carbon-conscious individuals — can buy credits that go into forest improvements to offset the effects of emissions. Its forests store 77,000 tons per year, the equivalent of taking 14,000 cars off the road, according to program director Chris Kelly.

Under the statewide plan, investments in exchange for credits can only be used to pay for forest improvements.

But some environmental groups, including Sierra Club California and the Center for Biological Diversity, have lodged protests. They are worried that the plan may have troubling side effects, such as encouraging logging beyond what normal market conditions would dictate.

“You're subsidizing their operations,” said Michael Endicott of Sierra Club California.

Nearly two years in the making, the plan has already been ratified by the Climate Action Reserve, the agency that administers emission-offset projects.

For now the program is voluntary, but it is expected to lay the foundation for prescriptive regulations likely to emerge after the air board adopts its most ambitious and controversial climate change directive: “cap-and-trade.”

Under cap-and-trade, still being crafted for a potential 2012 launch, greenhouse gas emissions will be sharply limited. Companies that exceed their cap could comply by securing credits for reducing emissions elsewhere.

It's uncertain how the cap-and-trade rules will treat credits companies accumulate by participating early in the forestry program.

With the state's final approval in sight, restoration of vast swaths of parkland in Cuyamaca will accelerate. Small amounts of the 17,000 acres of mixed conifers destroyed by the 2003 Cedar fire have been replanted through other grants. Eventually, 2,500 acres over 10 years will be replanted at the park.

ConocoPhillips put up $2.8 million for the Cuyamaca project as part of a larger $10 million settlement with Attorney General Jerry Brown two years ago to offset the additional greenhouse gas emissions generated by a refinery expansion in Contra Costa County.

But parks officials have been prevented from spending the money pledged by ConocoPhillips until the state clears the way for public lands to register in the voluntary carbon market.

The Cuyamaca forests, and others deeply scarred by wildfire, could have qualified under the older, more limited plan — but only after 10 years passed. The new plan eliminates the waiting period and expands the program to take in all forests, even those unscathed by blazes.

“We have a significant amount of land damaged by wildfire,” said Crawford Tuttle, chief deputy director of Cal Fire, the state agency that oversees many forestry programs. “If it were not for this change in the rules, we could not use the credits.”

Caryl Hart, a member of the state Parks and Recreation Commission, said the latest plan offers multiple benefits: public health, open-space protection and carbon sequestration.

“People need to make the connection between parks and public health. Now they make the connection to picnics,” she said.

Federal forests will also be eligible to participate, but it's unclear how aggressively the Obama administration will pursue the plan. U.S. Forest Service officials helped shape the plan but were unavailable for comment.

Timber interests, despite some reservations, are generally supportive after securing some concessions.

Companies needing emission credits have been approaching Sierra Pacific Industries about investing in carbon-capturing projects, said Mark Pawlicki, director of government affairs for the timber company.

“There are people around the country looking at this protocol,” he said.

© Copyright 2009 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton