Instead of selling or logging their land to pay medical bills as they age, could family forest owners trade carbon credits for health care?
A new pilot program in Columbia County is trying to find way for small forestland owners to pay for healthcare without cutting more trees. It's next in a series on innovative environmental ideas.
Collectively, small private landowners own a lot of the tree-covered turf in the U.S. But a lot of that forestland – an area the size of Idaho, according to the Pinchot Institute for Conservation – is at risk of being lost to development as owners age over the next 20 years.
The Pinchot Institute found 30 percent of forestland owners are likely to cut more trees to pay for medical bills. The conservation group is partnering with forestland owners in Oregon to see if there's a better way: Their Forest Health-Human Health Initiative would sell forest carbon offsets from growing trees and put the money onto an "A-Tree-M" card for landowners to use when they need health care.
The idea hinges on buy-in from the health care industry, which hasn't happened yet. But Scott Russell, who owns forestland near Scappoose, is sold on the idea. He's hoping it will help keep his forest in the family.
"New and different things are not easy to do, but I'm on board to see what we can do – to set it up in Columbia County and try it out," he said. "I'm just excited about the concept of keeping family forests going."
The Forest Health-Human Health Initiative is still in the early stages, according to Brian Kittler of the Pinchot Institute.
In theory, carbon buyers could choose an offset project for investment. The money would go on a card that could be used anywhere as long as the money is spent on health care.
Most of the offset money would go to landowners, but 10 percent would be directed to a community health care fund that could, for example, help local students become physicians that serve rural areas.
"Now we're in the pilot phase where it hopefully becomes real," said Kittler.
"We're still working on getting our first buyer and providing that first transaction."
Kittler is hoping the Carbon Disclosure Project, a voluntary initiative that commits companies to disclosing their carbon emissions, will spur health insurance and pharmaceutical companies to take a closer look at how they can offset their emissions. The health care sector produces an estimated 8 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., so there's plenty of impacts that could be offset through forestry.
But questions remain as to how forest carbon offsets would work for small forestland owners.
"A lot of them are going to want to see what is actually required of them before they buy in," said Kittler. "What does it actually take to develop the carbon credit on their land? What's the up-front investment on their end?"
In California, where a new cap and trade law is just kicking off this year, forest carbon offsets require a 100-year commitment to preserving trees. The Pinchot Institute is hoping for a more flexible arrangement.
"Most owners outside of conservation landowners aren't going to be able to enter that sort of deal and encumber their unborn children with those sorts of restrictions," he said. "We're trying to keep more carbon on the land. How do we do that? Putting land off limits is one way, but a different style of management, longer rotations, that's going to work better for family forestland owners like we have in Columbia County."
Russell isn't interested in signing up for a 100-year restriction on cutting trees on his forestland. His management plan relies on selectively cutting some trees on an ongoing basis – a practice known as thinning.
"We can cut a certain amount and keep it really healthy," he said. "I really don't do much clear-cutting. Usually it's thinning. Part of the idea is this place pays for itself, too. That's part of having the next generation interested in it."
Russell said adding a carbon component to forestland management that would also help pay for health care could ensure that his kids can take over his land one day and keep growing trees on it in the future.
"You're banking carbon for the good of the air and water and the planet, and you're also banking finances for health care, which is the scariest thing when you get old." -- Scott Russell"The reason for putting this whole program together is to keep forest farms as forest farms," said Russell. "You're banking carbon for the good of the air and water and the planet, and you're also banking finances for health care, which is the scariest thing when you get old. It gives us an immediate, tangible return and a reason for the next generation to say, 'This is pretty neat. I'm saving for retirement.'"
As it is now, he said, there are a lot of unforeseen expenses that can cause landowners to clearcut, sell pieces of the land or sell out altogether.
"In our county, I've seen a lot of cases where the farm has to be sold as a result of an older generation not being able to handle it or the next generation isn't interested in it," he said. "Anything that can be done to make that land more attractive or make it less of a burden is helping to sustain the land."
At 66, Russell said he and his family do all the forest management work: Planting and falling trees and cutting them to length at a sawmill. They started with 40 acres in 1974 and have added land over the years, converting one parcel back to forestland zoning and replanting land that had been clearcut by an industrial forestland owner.
"Age makes you appreciate what a piece of land can do," he said. "If you're really going to be effective at providing habitat for animals and doing a good job of taking care of streams or protecting air quality, it takes some size to do it."
Russell is hoping that the Pinchot Institute can find a buyer for forest carbon credits and that everything will work out as planned.
"A this point, we've helped give input into what's desirable and what are the deal-killers as far as contracts go, and we don't know exactly how it's going to work out," he said. "By doing this, health care companies would not only be sequestering carbon. They'd also be doing wonderful things for the health of communities and the health of the forest."