Protecting Land And Storing Carbon: Nature Conservancy Taps A New Market For Conservation Projects

Jul 12, 2018

A Nature Conservancy project in northern Vermont will store carbon to meet California’s greenhouse gas reduction goals. The group says proceeds from the sale of these “carbon credits” will pay for future land protection projects.

It’s no surprise that people who work for The Nature Conservancy would be very much into nature.

Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives for the Vermont chapter, was describing the new forest project on Burnt Mountain. But he kept interrupting himself each time he heard a new bird song.

“I can’t get away from my bird background; a black throated green [warbler] is singing up here,” said Shallow, who used to work for Vermont Audubon. “And there’s a white throated sparrow, the core of its breeding habitat is in the Atlantic northern forest.”  

The birds do provide an auditory example of a key goal for this project: It's an ecological reserve that will help sustain wildlife in the rest of the region.

"This forest is going to be that place where birds and other wildlife will have core habitat that will be resistant or resilient to the disturbances that will come along, because it's big enough." - Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives at the Vermont chapter of The Nature Conservancy

“This forest is going to be that place where birds and other wildlife will have core habitat that will be resistant or resilient to the disturbances that will come along, because it’s big enough,” he said.

And besides growing birds, this wild part of the northern Green Mountains grows trees. And trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and can store it in their wood for hundreds of years.

And that makes this parcel valuable in the emerging market for carbon offsets. Companies in California will be able to meet up to 8 percent of their CO2 reduction goals by buying carbon stored elsewhere. This parcel will be the largest carbon storage project in the state and the first in Vermont eligible for that carbon market. It’s expected to earn the Nature Conservancy about $2 million dollars over the first 10 years.

“And we’re going to be able to use that income to put into more land conservation,” Shallow said.

But first they’re actually cutting a few trees.

As part of the effort to maintain the land as forever wild, the Nature Conservancy is also restoring a stream called Calavale Brook, whose entire watershed is contained in the Burnt Mountain tract. And to improve stream habitat, first you have to drop some trees into the stream.

“What we’re doing is trying to restore that component that’s been removed from the system and that’s the large wood component,” said Shayne Jaquith, the watershed restoration manager for the conservancy in Vermont.

This stream has cold, clean water – perfect for native brook trout. But it lacks some of the elements that the fish need to really thrive. Jaquith explains that large logs in the water provide shade, structure, habitat, as well as organic matter for the insects that brook trout eat. Basically, they’re trying to replicate nature, just on an accelerated time frame. He said trees can form little dams that trap sediment and create better habitat for trout.  

“So these wood features are sort of steps in the stream,” he said. “As the flow plunges over these step features, it scours pools on downstream side, so it creates deeper pools.”

The conservancy is getting some technical advice on stream restoration from Jud Kratzer, a state fisheries biologist. He said the work starts with wading in the stream.

“I think of this as art work,” Kratzer said. “So when we’re normally doing this in the Northeast Kingdom, someone – often me – will just kind of walk the stream, and you look at the trees, and you look at the stream, and you just look for places you can drop a nice tree or a couple of trees and lock them in place.”

If brook trout are the keystone species in the stream, moose are probably the most charismatic animal roaming these woods.

"We're in a place right now where the economy of conservation is changing. Public funding has diminished over the last decade or so, and so new creative, innovative ways of funding conservation is critically important." - Heather Furnam, Vermont director, The Nature Conservancy

On the far side of Belvidere Pond a cow moose seems to be cooling off in the water.

The conservancy's Vermont director, Heather Furman, said she sees the moose as a symbol of both the fragility and resilience of the Vermont landscape. She noted the moose are threatened because of winter ticks that are booming because of climate change. She said projects like Burnt Mountain can help protect other areas for moose and wildlife.

“You know, we’re in a place right now where the economy of conservation is changing. Public funding has diminished over the last decade or so, and so new creative, innovative ways of funding conservation is critically important,” she said. “And the conservancy really believes in the power of the market to find new ways to fund conservation. And so that’s what we’re doing with this carbon project.”

And the land does not have to be kept forever wild in order to participate in the carbon market. The Nature Conservancy in Maine plans to sell carbon offsets from a large piece of working forest on the St. Johns River.